students helping students.

As academics we know that the way that a class goes, how much students get out of a class, and their evaluation of the course or the material depends heavily on the students themselves. How much effort do they put in? Are they prepared to learn? Do they contribute to discussions and take the material and assignments seriously? What are their previous experiences and biases? Despite the student-centeredness of learning, most of us grossly neglect student insight. When we do ask for it, it takes the form of evaluations – of our classes and teaching, which can devolve into fashion critiques – where we (our teaching, our course) are the focus.

I wanted to briefly introduce two way that I turn the spotlight to the students themselves and then use student insight to improve my courses (and students’ experiences in them) without (necessarily) having to make a single change of my own.

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access to what?

As a result of the recession and the Republican takeover of the NC legislature, the UNC system has taken–and is expecting more–major cuts to its state appropriation. Unlike some other public flagships, notably Michigan and Virginia, UNC is very much a state school and we are very dependent on that state money to remain high quality, public, and accessible. UNC tuition remains very low compared to peers, but far from negligible. Continue reading “access to what?”

ask a scatterbrain: training grads in research ethics

One of the many wonderful sociologists I chatted with in Vegas was Iowa’s Mary Campbell, a loyal scatterplot reader. She asked me to pose a question to you (and I’m hoping in my post-Vegas/ASA/first-week-of-classes haze I remember its essence – if I don’t, I blame Andrew Perrin pushing appletinis at the bloggettogether):

Apparently the University of Iowa has asked departments to ensure that graduate students are trained in research ethics. We’re not just talking about IRB certification, but moving well beyond this. Are others schools requiring such?  How are others approaching the issue? Or, if you’re not, do you have ideas of how to best do this? Of course the ASA has a guide on such concerns* that could certainly be a place to start, but what else is out there? A quick search on Amazon brings up various options, but surely faithful blog readers can provide a more personal recommendation.

Continue reading “ask a scatterbrain: training grads in research ethics”

of grade reform and deliberation

On Friday, UNC’s faculty council approved legislation that will put into place a series of reforms aimed at increased transparency in grade reporting. I chaired the implementation committee, charged with the details of how last year’s resolution (see discussion here) would be implemented, and I presented the legislation at faculty council on Friday.

My first observation is that Faculty Council has become more deliberative–that is to say, less complacent–than it was when I was on it. Members asked good, probing, and challenging questions to several of the items on the agenda prior to mine. Then came mine… with more challenging questions! One member protested that we “hadn’t had enough time” to evaluate the proposal (this having been approved in concept a full year before, discussed several times before and during that period, and through countless small group discussions). Another member, from the School of Education, found fault with the proposal because “we want all our students to be above average” (I kid you not). Another member, from the School of Journalism, argued that we should be moving to a different system based on pass/fail/honors.

At the time, and immediately afterward, I was really irritated with all of this (and I still am, to some extent). After all, Faculty Council had passed a resolution a year ago making the policy official. Our committee was charged with implementing it, so concerns with whether or not the policy was a good idea are no longer relevant, right? There’s a built-in evaluation clause that allows us to revisit the policy, this time with some data, five years after implementation.

I was relieved that the policy passed, 21-13, and so will be implemented, and I’m looking forward to working with our truly wonderful registrar on the nitty-gritty. I think it’s really important, and will be really good for UNC and hopefully for higher education in general.

On reflection, I have also become much less bitter over the Council’s debate (and one of my colleagues’ “no” vote!). It was definitely frustrating to have to deal with the “two steps forward, one step back” feel of the discussion, but I guess that’s what deliberation is about.

Update: Coverage in Inside Higher Ed here.

teaching deviance by doing nothing


Below is a guest post from Nathan Palmer, creator of www.SociologySource.com a site focused on spreading ideas and resources for teaching sociology.

Want to teach your students about norms, deviance, and the social construction of reality in a way that they’ll never forget? Try Doing Nothing, literally. Have your students silently stand in a public place for 15 minutes with absolutely no expression on their face. If anyone approaches them they are to reply to any and all questions by saying, “I am doing nothing.”

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who are our customers?

It is becoming more and more common to hear about the “customers” of higher education. I will go on record, unsurprisingly, as saying that I do not like this language. However, since it is becoming so common, I think it’s worth reflecting too on who these customers are, and also what the product is that they’re purchasing. This is both philosophically important and practically so with respect to grade inflation, one of my ongoing concerns.

The presumption when this is raised is often that the customers are the students in the room. Hence we are to deliver a satisfactory product to those students who have registered for our classes. And, when it comes to grading, a “satisfactory product” often ends up meaning an A. This becomes all the more so when the syllabus is conceptualized as a contract between professor and student, such that adequate completion earns the full payment, the A. I far prefer adequacy to earn a B- or C, and exceeding adequacy to earn grades higher than that.

But I digress. Let me suggest that our customer is actually The Public — not its individual components, not the student body as a whole, not the alumni and donors, not the taxpayers, certainly not whichever students happened to register for a given course. For public and private universities alike, tuition dollars cover only a fraction of the cost of education, and sometimes (as at UNC) a very small fraction. But more importantly, virtually every university has a public mission and claims institutional, financial, and moral responsibility for that mission. So as we create, communicate, and disseminate knowledge, we should be thinking about the collective public as our customer, not about the students. In many cases we may serve our customer better by being more demanding and less accommodating to the students.

Finally, let me point out that even if you reject my case above, what we are supposed to be “selling” is education and knowledge — not grades or credentials. So serving the students appropriately often involves being less accommodating than we sometimes are!

killing the messenger

UNC football is in the middle of a scandal involving improper contact with athletic agents and potential academic violations. It turns out that one of the main ways the scandal broke was that players were bragging via Twitter about perks paid for by agents, e.g, drinks, entry to fancy parties, and so on. So this morning’s Daily Tar Heel says… wait for it…

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technical notes for co-authoring

I am writing up a set of instructions for my student co-authors on how to work together on a shared Word document. My own graduate education had abundant training in the word processing arts (owing to a 2nd job I had to take to make ends meet), but I find that not every graduate student has a deep knowledge of WordPerfect 5.1 MS Word. So far, I have these tips: Continue reading “technical notes for co-authoring”

ask a scatterbrain: blogging for class assignments

Look, two scatterbrain questions in 24 hours!

This fall I’ll be teaching my first-year seminar, “Citizenship and Society in the United States.” It’s great fun, and the basic framework stays the same each time. However last time around (Fall ’08) I added a blogging component where the students were to write weekly entries on a class blog. I’d say the results were OK, but not as exciting as I’d hoped. The students, too, commented that they found it more a chore than an intellectual stretch.

So… have you used blogging of any sort as an assignment in class? Other than the anonymity question which we’ve discussed before, what worked well? I want to insure that they take it seriously and work at it, and that the overall effort is similar to that of a final paper. But I also want it to be flexible enough that it doesn’t end up forced.

more on grading policy

I’ve written before about my work through EPC on grading policy. After a year’s worth of consideration, we are presenting a resolution tomorrow for UNC to report grade distributions on transcripts for each class, and to report grade patterns to faculty each semester.

Two colleagues wrote me a detailed and thoughtful message about the proposal, and while I do not agree with their position, I asked and they agreed to have me post it to scatterplot for further discussion. Their message is below the break; my response and further discussion is posted as the first responses to the post.

Continue reading “more on grading policy”

ask a scatterbrain: fluff in recommendation letters

This one comes from a friend involved in the admissions process:

What to do about recommendation letters? What is the ratio of useful to fluff and distraction? How much is actual information versus hidden codes and coy signals? Today’s example is two letters from one senior professor, writing for two different students from the same department, applying to  the same department. One student is described as “by far the most  intelligent and diligent student I have ever taught.” The other is “no doubt  THE best student among all the students whom I have taught so far.” It’s  not fair to punish the poor students subjected to this, but it is tempting to disqualify both letters.