Professors: A Field Guide for students Part II

Now that you understand where Profs come from a little better, how can you use that knowledge to improve your undergraduate experience?

First, be sure to approach your choice of courses and your interactions with faculty strategically. The student grape-vine will give you a sense of the popular Profs - though beware that faculty aren't always popular for the right reasons. (I once knew a prof who was beloved primarily because he cancelled 50% of classes!).  Careful observation of a Prof's demeanor in class (especially) her/his interactions with students) can help you determine if he/she is the approachable type.  Make a point of going to see those ones during their office hours.  And when you do, ask them about their research.  This should be a happy place for them and will mark you as a serious student in their minds. 

This is a very important point.  Faculty love serious students.  As a general rule they were serious students (at least about their discipline) - even the super-cool and laid back, ones.  Taking their courses seriously shows that you take them seriously.  And since they take themselves seriously, it's good for you to follow suit.  How, you ask? Good attendance, no YouTubing in class, following directions, asking questions, working hard on assignments, discussing grades not with an eye to getting a better grade on that assignment but improving for next time, are all good starts.  This approach makes them feel good about themselves and about you.  Best case scenario they begin to see you as more than a 'face' in their class.  This can lead to all sorts of positive benefits, not least the chance to get a really strong letter of reference for graduate/professional school applications.  

Those of you at larger institutions should also take advantage of TAs.  These are usually grad-students, some of whom at least haven't entirely acclimated to the research-first mantra of the academy. This brand of TA can be counted on to take their teaching really seriously.  This will probably be clear on day one.  If the TA seems well prepared, has a game-plan, takes an interest in getting to know the students etc, you're in good hands.  If not....    Remember that even if they haven't had any formal training in teaching, TAs are generally quite accomplished in the work of the discipline they are teaching.  As a result they can be fonts of helpful advice/strategies/techniques.  Make use of them just as you would an approachable Prof.  Show your interest in the work they're supervising. Attend their office hours and ask for insight on skills as well as content.  Most office hours for TAs (and Profs) are desolate.  You'll almost always get a chance to sit down and have a proper talk.  This is a great way to build a relationship while you're getting bonus learning opportunities.  (As a bonus, they can also be great sources of information about graduate school (if you're considering that option).

In sum, pay attention to your Profs' and TAs' attitudes.  Make a point of approaching and connecting with the ones who seem invested in student success.  Show them how seriously you take the work of their courses.   Invest in relationships that can make or break your undergraduate experience.



Professors: a field guide for students, Part I

I don't know how many times I've heard peoplesay that professors just don't understand undergraduates - and most of these folks were college or university faculty!  Of course, it's a two-way street this matter of misapprehension.  Students, especially those in the early days of their post-secondary career, don't understand faculty either.  The depth of this divide was brought home to me a couple of years ago at a faculty retreat.  One of the speakers presented some really compelling data illustrating the profound differences between student and faculty perceptions.  These two solitudes disagreed on everything from how well high school prepared students for success at college, to how much homework was reasonable, to the purpose of education.

It struck me that this probably wasn't a good situation.  So I began to set aside time in the early days of courses (especially those heavy on Freshmen) to talk about how one became a professor and what that meant for my approach to teaching/learning and what I expected of them.  I think it helped their adjustment to higher-ed - at least a few of them told me it did.  Let me share a few of those insights with those of you heading off to college/university next fall, or indeed, those of you still trying to understand that strange tribe in charge of your academic fate.

The first point to keep in mind is that your professors aren't like your high-school teachers.   In fact, the vast majority have no professional training in teaching at all. [Education departments/colleges are the great exception.]  When your high-school teachers went off do their BEds and learn about curriculum, learning theory, assessment etc, your professors embarked on a 5-10 year journey of professional training in research.  Underline that word in your mind: RESEARCH.  That is the professional activity foremost in virtually all of your professors' minds.

What does this mean?  For starters, they've put themselves through an emotional, psychological, intellectual and often financial wringer to get where they are.  They've had to master a huge body of knowledge, become adept in the research methods and theoretical frameworks of their discipline, and make original contributions to that discipline, all in the face of cutthroat competition for funding and jobs.  Their success in these ventures got them their doctorate, their tenure-track job, tenure, promotion, raises etc.   Notice what I haven't mentioned.  At no point has their professional success depended on their interest in or ability toteach.  

The dirty secret of higher education is this: that with some glorious exceptions most professors view teaching, and especially undergraduate teaching, as a chore that keeps them from doing the work that they really love (and that will ensure their continued professional success).  The type of institution you attend makes some difference in this respect.  As a general rule, faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges and smaller, primarily teaching universities, are going to be more focused on undergraduate teaching and perhaps better at it than their colleagues at larger, research-focused institutions. Those folks' teaching energies are mostly channeled to the graduate students they are mentoring into professional status within their discipline.

So what does all this mean for you the eager undergraduate?  Well, it certainly shouldn't lead you to give up college/university as a bad deal.   Nor is it an excuse to go passive and slumber (Netflix?) through your degree program.  But you will have to accept that the highly structured support systems built into your high-school classes will be absent from many of your college/university courses.  Your Profs simply haven't been trained to approach teaching in that way (and sometimes the economic model of your institution makes it impossible anyway).  Nor will most have the inclination to do so given their career priorities. This means a lot more of the learning will be left up to you and Profs simply won't understand why you find that so difficult.  Their mantra will be some variation on: 'suck it up'.

By all means do so, but you don't need to stop there.  My next post will look at a few specific strategies you can use to bridge the expectation gulf and get the most out of your profs. 



How ten years in a liberal arts college schooled me

How ten years in a liberal arts college schooled me


As a doctoral student at a major Canadian research university I did an unusual amount of teaching: typically a double load.  Most of it was as a Teaching Assistant in small tutorials, though towards the end of me degree I got to be lead instructor in a couple of courses.  It felt like I had 'made it' in terms of teaching, in higher ed.   Finally, I was the guy on the stage.  The sage. The focus of all attention in the classroom (the academic attention anyway).  

Why did this feel like such a big deal?  The psychology of the individual aside, virtually all the signals emanating from the institution, from the Professoriate, from the culture of the Academy as I knew it, indicated that 'the lecture' was the crucial locus of teaching and learning within the Faculty of Arts.  The work I had done in tutorial settings, helping students work through a variety of sources, develop critical perspectives on texts and narratives, and  improve their written and oral communication skills, ranked a distant second in a two-horse race.

When I landed my tenure-track gig at a liberal arts college in Michigan, I harboured a smug assumption that such institutions were a sort of higher-ed lite.  In short, they would pale in comparison to the Canadian university system I knew from top to bottom.  

I couldn't have been more wrong. 

What I found was an institution focused on undergraduate education.  It was not a research institution in which teaching was (generally) viewed as a necessary distraction from the real work of faculty and therefore disproportionately left to adjuncts and graduate students.  No, it was mission No. 1.  Classes were small. In my department (History) the maximum size for a first year survey course was 30. This meant a much more intimate, personal, and interactive learning environment than virtually any I had encountered as a student. [Exceptional status granted to Dr. David Monod, WLU]. Faculty (the vast majority of whom are tenured or on the tenure track) did all the teaching and marking.  [In all but one of the courses I TAed as a grad student, the professor did not read a single paper or exam, much less mark one.]  Moreover, in the liberal arts environment many students are drawn into authentic research and creative projects within weeks of matriculation.  This remarkable degree of contact, attention, and opportunity continued for the full four yeas, giving our undergrads more consistent and meaningful interaction with faculty than most doctoral students enjoyed in my top-ranked graduate program.  Little wonder that our students tended to get into excellent graduate/professional programs and excel once they got there.

And that was really just the beginning of my higher education re-education.  The liberal arts ethos of breadth (in addition to depth) liberated me from the obsession with content knowledge that my university experiences had inculcated.   It showed me that there could be an intentional and productive balance among content, skills, and mindsets in the service of a higher project: i.e. the development of rational citizen-agents, who not only knew things, but had had the capacity, inclination, and skills required to learn new things and keep on learning throughout their lives and careers.  At our best we had not only given them fish; we had also taught them how to fish.  My previous experiences had focused on providing content [fish] and assumed that through consumption students would absorb the requisite competencies and outlooks [fishing skills] to acquire more.

This shift in perspective flipped my view of the teaching I had done as a grad student. The spotlight afforded by the lecture put the focus on me and on content, whereas the lowly tutorials had put the focus on the students and on building skills and critical mindsets they could put to use in other courses and indeed throughout their lives. In short, my priorities had been bassackwards.

This depth of this divide was driven home to me last year, when I again taught in a Canadian University.  Let me be clear, the faculty in that department (also History) are by and large wonderful, dedicated scholars who care about their students and work hard to overcome the structural obstacles to undergraduate learning.  Nevertheless, these obstacles shocked me.  Not only were introductory classes large (80-150), there were no tutorials, which is to say there were no opportunities for students to do the work of historians (synthesis, textual analysis, interpretation, argument, historiography etc). under expert tutelage; no opportunities to explore ideas and issues with their peers in low-stakes environments. 

 The impact on students of these structures was no less shocking.  A considerable majority acclimated to this culture so thoroughly that attempts to shunt them from the rails of passivity with participatory activities and exercises meet with resistance bordering on intransigence.  It's easy to condemn them as lazy, or incurious, or preoccupied with trivialities.   But are they really to blame if they have gotten the signals embedded in the institutional culture of higher education in Canada?

That most distinctive of American institutions, the liberal arts residential college, is not perfect.  And it is not cheap.  But it has a great deal to teach us about the aim and mechanics of high quality undergraduate education - if we can get past our smug superiority and embrace disruptive change within our system.   Some newer institutions [Quest] and some innovative programs within older ones [Trent's BAS], have taken important steps down this path.  I imagine that if more students (and parents) knew what they were missing, that almost empty path might start to look more like the 401 Express at rush hour.



Ph.Derp: the trouble with Higher Education in the digital age

A couple of weeks back, a friend posted a link to this article from the LA Review of Books. The title 'Neo-liberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities' says a lot. 'Neo-liberal' is clearly meant to sting.  And if 'political' doesn't set your 'polemic' bells-ringing, you aren't paying attention.  The piece doesn't disappoint in that regard. It's a full-on philippic against a putative nexus among university administrators, external funding bodies, and digital humanities evangelists. According to the authors this unholy alliance has elbowed aside "progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives."   

It's a useful perspective - if only to get us thinking critically about the sources and implications of the digital humanities' growing role in the Academy.  And from the look of the comments thread it did just that.  (As an aside, it's a wonderful thing to encounter a thread so full of challenge and yet so civil.  Humanists indeed!)  Reduced to a single word (of my choosing) the consensus among commentators was: 'bollocks'.   A multitude of issues popped up in the comments, but for me the real sticking point was something that barely figured there or in the article itself: teaching.

Now, you could make the argument that teaching has no place in a debate over the boundaries of scholarly disciplines, the nature of disciplinary knowledge, and the power-dynamics of academic discourses.  But to my eyes the short shrift given teaching in a discussion of forces changing the Academy highlights the sorry state of teaching and learning across great swathes of the higher education landscape.

The truth, as anyone who has been on the faculty of a research university knows, is that teaching really doesn't matter.  This is no slight to the hard-working folks in learning-support centres, or to the professors and TAs who spend time and energy on teaching out of all proportions to the rewards on offer. But that's just my point.  The system incentivizes research above everything else.  And it's not as if teaching funs a close second.  Teaching performance has negligible impact on raises, promotions, or prestige. 

Is it any wonder then that undergraduate teaching is often treated as a chore that keeps faculty from their real work?  No wonder so much teaching is left to graduate students and the underpaid, overstretched members of the precariate.  [Ironically these folks are often much more invested in teaching than the professoriate; but I give administrations no credit for designing this.  Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.]  Combine this (dis)incentive structure with the fact that only a tiny percentage of professors have even the most rudimentary training as teachers and an economic model that ensures large and passive learning environments through the first two or three years of undergraduate study, and what do you have? 

A recipe for disaster - to wit, the parlous state of teaching within the system entrusted with the higher education of tomorrow's citizens, leaders, artists, entrepreneurs etc. etc.  It is a scary prospect and one we shouldn't dismiss with blithe claims that it's worked so far.  

Rant complete.  

There are bright spots amid the dreary scene.  Though not perfect, Liberal Arts Colleges on the American model put much more emphasis on teaching and learning.  So do programs within major universities designed to replicate the residential college experience.  I think digital technologies offer another way forward. And contrary to what the authors of the 'Neoliberal Tools' piece suggest, they can do so without marginalizing the traditional skills and mindsets conveyed through humanistic studies.  In fact, they offer new and exciting ways to build such competencies among students in large, introductory classes. Nor is this a one way street; I would argue that the traditional benefits of a humanistic education (critical mindsets, the ability to find, synthesize, and analyze sources) are more important in this age of information overload than ever before.  But more of that another time.



On not being afraid to do too much – of the right thing.

A wise man I know lives by a simple mantra: ‘don’t be afraid to do too much’.    In his case it has been an unbridled success; decades of ridiculously hard work have left him ear-deep in antique cars and gigantic televisions, and in the enviable position of being able to spoil his grandchildren.  Being rather more indolent by nature, it would not be fair to claim that this motto has been my guiding light.  However, there is – or was early in my career - one great exception to this: teaching.  In respect of reading, one of the twin pillars of my discipline, I was not afraid to pile it on, to demand in essence that my students live by my father-in-law’s maxim. More was better.  Obvious, isn't it? Students would learn more from reading 80 or 100 pages or more per class than they would from reading 10 or 20.  I mean, even the meanest intellect would have to acknowledge the frankly Newtonian force of such logic.    

Callow fool.  

I’m not entirely sure where my ill-conceived certainty on this point originated.  I suppose it seemed like common sense.  More practice, more time on task, more exposure to content seemed to add up to more learning.  Such calculus had the added authority of reflecting much of my own training as an undergraduate and graduate student.   It gradually dawned on me (a little thick as well as indolent you see) that this might in fact be counter-intuitively counter-productive.  Students floundered amid a mass of material and I became increasingly frustrated with their mysterious - in my less charitable moments, I might have said feeble-minded - lack of progress. 

Ultimately I think the misguided belief that more was necessarily better arose as much from my unrealistic and somewhat self-centered expectations as from my ignorance of the science behind processes of learning and cognition.  Once I relinquished the naïve desire to get students to a level where our conversations would be more satisfying for me and focused instead on their needs, it became obvious that I needed to rethink the amount (and kind) of reading I assigned.  

Proceeding from the staggeringly banal insight that it is better for students to read carefully and critically a short document than to skim briefly a long, content-heavy document before inevitably giving up, I changed practically all of my reading assignments.  I reduced the daily volume of reading and worked harder to find engaging but still challenging material.  Counter-intuitively this seems (I have no quantitative data to substantiate any of this) to have enriched in-class discussions and more importantly, improved many students’ ability (and inclination) to deal with documents in a more reflective and critical fashion.   

Were I a vindictive person, and if my wise friend wasn't such a great guy, I'd be sure to use all this as the basis for a pointed and stinging rebuke at our very next encounter. Or I might be so inclined if not for the certainty that I and not the mantra was the source of the problem.  By conflating more exposure to content with more learning, I had students doing too much of the wrong thing.  And that's something to be afraid of.