Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Critical Thinking and Higher Education--an impossible marriage?

I found this article today and it expresses better than I my reflections on teaching critical thinking.  As is usual with these articles, the comments are equally thoughtful.

My thoughts:
1.  Critical thinking has a variety of meanings and definitions.
2.  One has to have something to think critically about.
3.  "Educated people" think they are already critical thinkers and tend not to question their own assumptions; that's why there is an orthodoxy in higher ed.
4.  Redesigning a course to emphasize critical thinking does take a lot of effort.
5.  Logical fallacies is a good place to start.
6.  Critical thinking is related to disciplinary ways of thinking and processing.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Plagiarism: The Elephant in the Academic Room

This semester I am the instructor of record on six sections or courses.  I have one online course in professional communication and the traditional version of the same; I have a First Year Experience Seminar with a theme of Liberal Arts Education and what it means for the student; a section of basic public speaking (which I have taught for 38 years); a capstone course for Interdisciplinary studies majors; and one student in an internship.  Needless to say, I am a bit overwhelmed by this, on top of being the department chair and having some other responsibilities.  Consequently I am exhausted, had to cancel a family reunion trip this weekend, and am getting a nuclear stress test in two weeks because of certain symptoms I am having.  Even now typing this I am feeling shortness of breath.

Stress is often an excuse used by students (and their professors) for why student plagiarize, which is the real subject of this blog post.  Having too much expected of them just sends students to the easy way out, borrowing inappropriately.  I am not sure if that is somehow meant to be a justification; I have long felt (without any corroboration) that profs who don't get too upset about plagiarism were guilty of it and good at it during their own careers.  Or else they just don't care, for whatever reason.

But . . . as person with closing on four decades of teaching experience, I do care about plagiarism.  I care about it by punishing it, by pointing it out, by finding it, and by teaching against it.

Not that my punishment is always that tough.  It's usually, "Do this right within the week or fail this assignment or possibly the class."  Many of us don't want to go through the processes or a student conduct committee--they are time consuming and don't always turn out like they should--so we decide to be judge and jury and the students, who may act dumb but usually know what they have done, are glad for the second chance.  Occasionally they just take the failing grade; occasionally they want a "second opinion" and will go to the next level.  I realize that not taking it to the higher level is bad policy, despite the annoyance.  The student is allowed to get away with it in another class because there is no record of it.  I also give them one chance; a second time and there is no hope.

I find plagiarism, largely, by using software that is now embedded in our institution's learning management system.  Is that fair? Yes.  It's not fool-proof, but it's good enough to catch the worst offenders and to see how the student is inappropriately using sources.  I usually ignore the colors until it flags 30% of more, because references pages are always flagged.  It will flag quotations that are used correctly, too.  The students can see it and make corrections before final submission of an assignment.

In terms of teaching against it, I am very clear and take nothing for granted.  I show examples.  It occurred to me this week, however, that I and most of us are doing something very wrong.  We tell students there are three ways to use sources:  verbatim quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing.  I typically show with my hands:  verbatim quoting and paraphrasing take this much (a foot apart) and creates this much (a foot apart), but summarizing takes this much (two feet apart) and your version is this much (six inches apart).  I have decided to teach students that paraphrasing should be avoided.  Why should they paraphrase, really?  Shouldn't they take the core of a source's argument and abstract it into their own words to make their argument, and if the source says something so delightfully that it bears repeating, just quote verbatim?

H.L. Mencken said that a Puritan was someone who would lie awake worrying that someone somewhere was having fun.  I always found that a stupid statement from an unbeliever; our view of the Puritans has come down through him and we don't appreciate their accomplishments.  However, I sometimes think I lie awake worrying about my students' understanding of plagiarism (as well as my subject matter in general) far more than they do.  I learned a long time that the only thing that really works is consequences.  Until we have strict polices on plagiarism that are uniformly followed, it will go on.  I find it especially common among athletes, but I blame that on the athletic culture that (a) rewards economy of effort to the detriment of the student and (b) pushes the students through academically as long as their athletic ability can be milked for all its worth.  These young people are largely exploited. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Education: Lighting a Fire

My Franklin Covey planner's quote for the day is "Education is not the filling of a pail.  It is the lighting of a fire."

I like the quote.  It looks good on a poster or a Franklin Covey planner.

Academics by nature don't accept things on face value, at least I was not trained to, so I am scrutinizing this.  It is by William Butler Yeats, a great poet (I used one of his in my first novel) but I don't know if he ever taught.  There's a big difference between making pronouncements about education and actually teaching day-in, day-out.

Paolo Freire took up this theme with the idea of the banking model of education, which I call the tea pitcher model (I live in the South, but it's not sweet tea).  We of course don't just pour knowledge into students' heads. They do construct some knowledge themselves, but not without access to what has come before, which, well, was poured in.

No model or quote or metaphor can encompass everything about learning and teaching.

Sometimes the only fire we light is one under the students to get serious about their studies or they won't pass the class! Sometimes it is a fire of self-awareness and self-efficacy--they are capable, but learning is hard work and not always fun but still worth the effort.  Sometimes we light a fire so they can see beyond their previous boundaries.  Sometimes we light a fire to destroy some of the old wrong ideas or prejudices or misinformation so that new knowledge can grow. 

Fire can be destructive or useful.    

Friday, August 5, 2016

The myth of nontraditional students in higher education

Hopefully this isn't behind a password, because it's the best thing I've read on higher education practice in a long time.


Today is the last Friday I am off due to our college's "no Friday in summer" policy.  I am glad for it, because it was a rough week. But I was doing some errands and went to the bank.  One of my former students (I have thousands of those) works there and came up while I was dealing with an account issue.  I recognized him and was trying to do my "Oh, let me remember you" game and I had to be reminded of his name, and it was only a year ago.

He is having a hard time getting the classes he needs to fit around his work schedule due to our college's behindness to online courses. I agreed with him.  Online classes are not the panacea for "nontraditionals" (or post-traditionals as the commenters suggest) but they do have advantages.  There are lots and lots of ways colleges can serve these folks better.  A person is only 18-22 for 4 years, but they are adults for 40 or more. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Learning Theory: Scaffolding and Novice Misinformation

I recommend this article for a basis for thinking about the novice-expert split in college teaching.

Whether communication, psychology, economics, or physical sciences, our students come in with having been taught (a) too simplistically in high school about certain concepts (b) having bought into pop culture misinformation about advanced concepts, or (c) constructing their own mistaken knowlege, somehow.  We come to all learning with a set of knowledge and as stated here, if the set of knowledge is incorrect or has significant gaps, the instructor may miss the total point of teaching because they all aren't on a common footing.  I like to start even my basic public speaking class with a sense of where they understand the subject.  


As someone who teaches adults in church, I see the same problem.  Biblical learning and theological knowledge can be very nuanced and complicated, so preachers have resorted to shorthand and those are embedded in our spiritual understandings.   Recognizing those, correcting those without being offensive and arrogant (very difficult to do even when we don't want to seem that way), and rebuilding a structure of understanding is a lot harder than realize. The problem is how much we "know" that isn't true.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Life Transitions

This is the last official week of my 19-month stint that was supposed to be 6 months in Academic Affairs at my college.  In the role of Assistant Vice President, I was stretched every day and loved every minute of it.  I will always consider it the high point of my career (and not just because of the salary increase).

My next role is as Chair of the Department of Communication, where I will supervise twelve other full-time faculty, about ten adjuncts, a bachelor's degree program, and two associate's.  These include core service classes in communication, theatre, music, foreign languages, and art.  We are also launching a new bachelor's program in communication.

The differences are great, and in some ways the new role will be a bigger challenge.  I also didn't know what I didn't know before; now I do know my gaps in knowledge and skills better.

I am working on a book about leadership principles as shown in the book of Daniel.  This will I believe help others and also prepare me for the job and for a class I will be teaching. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Diversity's role

Diversity in higher education is not an issue of an enhanced education for the white kids, but an issue of access and opportunity for qualified minorities.  Diversity is first about fairness.  If we make it about diversity as educational enhancement, we are missing the point and just perpetuating the entitlement of white students.     

Jedidah Isler, New York Times, December 17, 2015 writes:
 “Black students’ responsibility in the classroom is not to serve as ‘seasoning’ to the academic soup. They do not function primarily to enrich the learning experience of white students. Black students come to the physics classroom for the same reason white students do; they love physics and want to know more. Do we require that white students justify their presence in the classroom? Do we need them to bring something other than their interest?”

In 36 years of teaching I never thought of my black or Latino students as providing some service to the Caucasian ones.  I figured they were there to learn, and for the most point thankful for the opportunity, like the white students (there are always the non-motivated or just plain scared and “in-over-their-heads” students in all ethnicities.)  Yes, as a secondary benefit they did help an appreciation of diversity, especially since I require lots of collaboration.   But the white kids provide diversity to the black and Latino ones, too, by forced collaborative assignments, because we all tend to group with those who look like us (sorry, it’s just the truth--not to judge, it's just what we do). 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Spirituality and Being an Academic

Addendum:  I revisited this post on July 28, 2016, edited it, appalled by the number of typos.

Sometimes I wonder if having an academic career is detrimental to being a Spirit-led disciple of Jesus Christ.  I present, as an academic would (especially one who was a debate coach for several years), the arguments.
1.     In a career in academia, we must be merit mongers.  In order to achieve tenure and promotion, the only two big monetary awards outside of the move to administration, or to be eligible for grants and awards, one’s accomplishments in all things teaching, service, research, and professional development must be documented, recorded, and broadcast.  Volunteerism for the institution is not valuable for it own sake, but for expanding the CV, or at least, one starts to feel that way.  One begins to question one’s motives.  Of course, one could leave things off the CV, but . . . their absence may mean the difference in a promotion or award.
2.     Academics teach, which usually involves some level of lecturing and talking; therefore, we talk a lot, even the introverts.  Of course, 21st century pedagogy warns against lecture as the primary method of teaching, but most of us have not eschewed lecture totally if at all.  Silence is not golden in this paradigm, but listening can’t happen when one is talking. 
3.     We are experts; we know a lot, more than others.  Knowledge puffs up.  So we can become prideful; we define critical thinking idiosyncratically and egotistically and therefore are capable of rejecting ideas out of hand.  It goes like this, "Someone who disagrees with us cannot possibly have been a critical thinker about the issue, because I am a critical thinker and I am right."
4.     Knowing can get in the way of caring. Does academia attract emotionally stunted people or make them that way?
5.     We can become very annoyed by conventional wisdom or misconceptions that fly in the face of what we know to be true of our discipline, and that can come across as impatience and lack of concern. 
6.     We live in a world of text, ideas, and data.  We spend time away from people while engaged with these things. 
7.     Depending on our disciplinary training, we see and do not see certain parts of the whole picture.  For example, I study politics and social trends and am more conscious of the trends than the individuals.  But as a Christian I cannot minister to social trends, only to individuals, one at a time.  I saw this in a recent reflective string on single mothers (see below). 
8.     We can become very stressed over incredibly insignificant things; we can convince ourselves we are doing what is best for students when it is really just best for ourselves; we can believe we are protecting our discipline when we are excluding learners. 

On the other hand . . . How can academia help?:
1.     We should be slow to pass judgment, having been trained in data collection and the knowledge that there is always more data and evidence to be gathered.
2.     In light of the exponential growth of knowledge, we should doubt our own opinions and hold them lightly rather than graspingly.
3.     We should see God in the details.
4.     We should be able to read Scripture deeply, fully, informedly, and contextually.
5.     If we are social scientists, or natural scientists, or textual critics, we should be able to bring our unique perspective to the discussion, but humbly.
6.     We should get out of our nests of colleagues and be friends with all kinds of people, even if they initially bore us.   We should listen to others and realize that, as hard as we worked to earn the doctorate, God’s world is wide.  We should appreciate different points of view.
7.      Rejection is part of the discipleship life.  We work hard to be accepted as part of this community called the academy, which might make us compromise.  Compromise for the sake of being accepted is not an option.

In terms of reflection as a learning tool, I did this recently about single mothers.  I was getting annoyed by the “I am a single mother” routine that students use, as if it were the instructor’s fault or as if it meant they should get special treatment.  I realized how judgmental I was being, judging them for immorality, for doing something I didn’t, for using it as an excuse, for not putting their children first in going to school, and for symbolizing a societal problem.  All of these are off-base; some are divorced and dumped by husbands and some regret their pasts; but for the grace of God go most of us; well, maybe they do act like martyrs but some of that is from fear; they are trying to create a better world for their children (although a good father would probably help more); and they are individuals, not social problems.  Being an academic should make me have a big picture view and thus more understanding.

Three views on the future of higher education

I have neglected this blog for four months, and a recent trip to a higher education leadership conference got me writing again.  This is a repost of the other blog; I hope to do better here.  

After reading Chancellor Dirks view http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/01/29/the-true-value-of-higher-ed/ and trying to listen to Liz Coleman’s Ted Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/liz_coleman_s_call_to_reinvent_liberal_arts_education and attending a conference on higher educational leadership, I have been reflecting, or cogitating as I used to call it, on higher education’s purpose, problems, and future.  Actually, I was doing so before the last few days, but I find some time to write about it with a long weekend.  I do live in a better-than-average place to comment on these questions, since I have a doctorate, have taught in college for 36 years, and work as a college administrator.

It seems that there are three basic views: 
1.     Higher education should be responsive to the free market and the needs of potential students to be economically upwardly mobile, and as such continue its slow evolution toward this goal, one it has either intentionally or unintentionally been pursuing for quite some time.  This means greater access, emphasis on return on investment, innovation to cut costs through alternative delivery systems.
2.     Higher education should keep its traditional goals of educating the capable young people for leadership through an emphasis on the traditional liberal arts and sciences but update approaches to these subjects; higher education should cast a wary eye toward too many calls for short-term adaptation just to deal with any short-term problems in higher education we seem to have.  A long-term view (backward and forward) will provide the best foundation for educating those who will approach societal problems.
3.     Higher education should totally transform itself to solve societal problems of climate change, poverty, diversity and exclusion, and war.

#1 is what I have been most exposed to in recent conferences about reimagining college because of (a) rising costs, (b) questions about the monetary value of college, and (c) pressure from governments, accreditors, new learning methodologies and technologies, and the business world.  I recognize the value in it but find it short-sighted.

#2 is what I read in Chancellor Dirks’ essay, or at least my interpretation of it. As someone in the liberal arts, I lean toward this one, except it doesn’t seem to take into account economic realities of the huge sector of the population who want to pursue higher education to improve themselves economically and socially.  He at least gives space to the idea that faith, religion, and spirituality have “skin in the game” here.

(In the ‘70s, when cults were becoming more prevalent at least in the public perception, someone said that the appeal of these groups was partly due to the failure of parents to raise their children with strong spiritual foundations of their own, ones based in the long-held traditions of their faith.  There is also the view that the rise of “fundamentalism” of the radical kind may be due to secularization.  Elites can dismiss faith-based institutions, but to me that only shows their own egocentric arrogance, as seen in the last view).

#3 is essentially leftist utopianism.  The mandate to higher education is to redefine the curriculum so that students will be ready to address social problems—and I think this is important—in a way that we elites say they should be addressed.  In this case, then, any talk of critical thinking and creative problem-solving is moot, because the goal is to achieve that vision of government or state-run healthcare, education, and economic efforts, but not to find another vision. 

Needless to say, I found the Bennington President’s message abstract, somewhat incomprehensible, and to the extent I did grasp it, untenable.  Lots of commenters on the Ted Talk posted how overcome with emotion they were by the talk, which got me to thinking about my own propensity to be impressed with something an intellectual says before truly digging through it. 

Perhaps the value of higher education is its institutional diversity, even if that is largely stratified into the Carnegie classification system.  Bryan College is accredited by the same organization that accredits the University of Georgia, but they have little in common in any way, except that they are “post secondary,” “higher education” and as such the students can get Pell Grants and loans to study at both.