exercising judgment in teaching about controversial issues

My department has run a number of workshops (organized by grad students) on “teaching about race.” They asked me to speak about what the rules are about what we can and cannot say in the classroom. I was pretty sure I knew the “rules” but asked our Provost for the official statement. Interestingly, there was none, but the question was referred to the Legal department. After a delay, Legal Affairs sent back an email citing Wisconsin state statutes and linking to some policy statements. I’ve pasted the original correspondence below.* First a student and I translated the legalese into English bullet points. Then I wrote an essay about how to think about the authority and ethical responsibility in teaching controversial topics. This was recirculated this fall and as I’ve gotten positive feedback about this, I decided to post it here, with a few more edits, in case it is helpful. There’s always more to say, and legitimate disagreement about how to handle some things. Feel free to use the comments to expand on these points. Continue reading “exercising judgment in teaching about controversial issues”

outsourcing grading

The New York Times links to a story from the Chronicle of Higher Ed about a professor of business law and ethics at the University of Houston who felt that her TAs were overburdened with essays to grade, and therefore decided to outsource grading to a firm called EduMetry.

EduMetry assessors in India, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries grade and give feedback on exams and including writing assignments.  According to the Chronicle article, “The company argues that professors freed from grading papers can spend more time teaching and doing research.”

Who can argue with more time for doing research … but isn’t grading integral to figuring out what students need in planning lectures and seminars?   I wonder if the undergraduates feel they’re getting value for their tuition with outsourced grading?  I can’t help but envision a slippery slope … outsourced faculty?

If anyone works or teaches at a school that outsources grades, I’m curious about the administrative process for approving outsourcing.  Was there a debate and what was it like?

title etiquette

I’m feeling awkward about names & titles today and thought I’d see what the scatterbrains think. In my department we train grad students to call us by first names, a custom I am very comfortable with, and I am part of a cultural group* in which children call adults by first names (although, of course, they call their teachers Mr/Ms X). When I was first teaching in the 1970s, I told my students to call me by my first name, but I stopped because the students would say things to me of the form “Hey Susie, can you tell me where Dr. X is?” All the men were Dr. X and I was the only first name. The disparity has died down, but you can still find formal documents like minutes of meetings in which women professors are referred to by first name and men professors by surnames. So I tend avoid telling undergrads what to call me and let them default to professor or doctor. As I get to know a student in a more personal way, I tend to encourage the switch to first name. Unfortunately, more and more young people have been raised like mine to assume first names, and I’ve heard that some orientation groups are actually telling incoming freshmen to call professors by first names. I realize this actually offends me. I’d rather offer the first name than have it assumed. Hmmm. Quite a bit of inconsistency there. I got caught off guard in the honors class the other day when a student asked me what he should call me, and I kind of mumbled and stumbled and ended up choosing professor. Although then I wondered later whether I should have picked first name, since this is a small class and I’ve invited students to my home for dinner.

So scatterbrains of various generations and cultural backgrounds: what do you think about all this name stuff? As you answer, it would be helpful to disclose your gender, approximate age and status as student or prof.

* I am very aware that people are reared differently on this point, that some parents rear their children to address all older people by title no matter what. That was actually how I was raised long ago – not allowed to call older people by first name, even if they suggested it, and I have met young people who are extremely uncomfortable using first names for older people. This is very much a class thing, I believe.

discussion overload

I’m teaching honors introduction for the first time ever. A great group of 23 students, a small class for this place. Most say it is the smallest class they have been in here!  They have a lot to say. Not just empty BS. A lot of worthwhile, thought out things to say. They all wanted to talk! This is great, I don’t want to kill it, but it’s going to be quite a ride to manage it. For one thing, they are pulling in different directions so it is hard to keep a common thread going, although they did do a good job of listening to each other and addressing issues the previous speaker had raised. They also raised hands and waited to be called on, but there’d be six to choose from at any given time. I do not want the evolutionary selection model in which the most aggressive dominate and the less aggressive get crowded out, but neither do I want to shut down all that enthusiasm. Do other people have strategies for coping?

The class is 2/3 male, by the way, a demographic shock in a university that is 55% female and a discipline that is overwhelmingly female.

In case you are wondering, as the course is titled “The Sociological Imagination,” I opened by describing my own background and experience and then invited each student to talk about his/hers. Idea being that we sould try to practice the intersection of biography and history in our own lives. This then led into a discussion of segregation patterns in schools. I took Jessica’s suggestion from some time ago to assign an old article by Karp about why students don’t participate, which also contributed to a good and serious discussion. So I promoted discussion by starting with topics relevant to their own lives. Then they kept going with Mills’s first chapter.

So, any, ideas for keeping the spark of interaction alive while riding herd on discussion and preventing too much verbal competition for the floor?

ask a scatterbrain

Here’s a question submitted for our “ask a scatterbrain” feature:

A friend  who is teaching this semester got an email from a student explaining that the student has a disability center visa which states, among other usual things like extra time, small room test taking, note takers, etc., that she gets to have “alternative testing,” which for her means not being able to take multiple choice tests. So my friend has to write a separate exam for this student, I gather.

My friend asked me what I thought about this for another reason, but I find myself stuck on that last requirement. On the one hand, I completely understand that people learn differently, and that it’s not our job to screw people who aren’t “mainstream learners” or whatever. On the other hand, my friend is a grad student lecturer, and writing and grading an extra exam constitutes a bunch of extra work. Also, there’s the fact that this situation, I would guess, is not exclusive to this one student. What if next semester we get one student who cannot take multiple choice tests, one student who cannot take essay exams, another who can’t do short-answers, etc. I’m starting to get worried about managing these expectations, making sure I’m helping the student succeed, and not getting increasingly buried under extra teaching demands.

So how are we supposed to deal with this?

ask a scatterbrain: teaching methods

I’m posting this for New Soc Prof who raised the question in her own blog. What suggestions or advice do you have about teaching research methods and, in particular, what texts do you like, and why?  Have you had good success with particular approaches or syllabi? Do you want to warn people off books or approaches that bombed? New Soc Prof is particularly interested in advice for interdisciplinary courses.

teaching about race (me too)

Belle just offered her great post on teaching about race posted both here at Scatterplot and on her own blog, responding to pitse1eh’s blog. Both got great comments and useful links. This made me want to dust off my own essay on the subject. The core of this is an article I originally published in Feminist Voices, a Madison newspaper, in January of 1998. I’ve revised this several times since, including some revisions for this blog forum.

It is something of a truism among sociologists that the hardest thing to teach our students is the idea of social structure. The US has an extremely individualist culture, and we tend to think of race problems as reducible to individual choices, either blaming poor people for poverty and the consequences of poverty, or blaming prejudiced people for not being accepting of difference. It is very hard to get past this, and understand why we are in structures that shape these behaviors and attitudes. Continue reading “teaching about race (me too)”

teaching question #1

How do you ask questions that guide a student discussion? I realize I’m a little old to be asking this question, but I’ve realized this is a teaching skill I don’t have. I know how to lecture and tell students what I want them to know. I know how to respond to student questions in interesting ways. I know how to run a class so students are comfortable talking and asking questions. I know how to facilitate and organize a discussion pulling together questions/comments initiated by students. I know how to ask good questions of someone who has just presented a paper in process. But I don’t know how to think about planning discussions in advance for a class session. I don’t know how to prepare to ask questions that elicit somewhat predictable answers that will help students “discover” the point you want them to learn or lead them to talk their way into a point you want them to get to, or that will encourage them to dig more deeply into a topic. I get the impression that some teachers do this. Is that right? I don’t think I learned this by watching when I was young because I did not go to that kind of schools. Can you recommend “how to teach” resources for this particular skill? Do you have tips or techniques?

advice for new assistant professors

As I’m in an advice-giving mood, I thought I’d post here something I wrote quite a few years ago.  This began as a lunch conversation with a departing grad student (who is now a dean) who asked me if I had any advice for her as she took her first job as an assistant professor.  I wrote it down later and it evolved over a few years.   I’ve gotten feedback from quite a few people that this was helpful, and some of you will doubtless recognize it.

1) Don’t take anything personally, especially not at first. People will probably treat you as insignificant, not because they think ill of you, but because they are socially inept. Most of us are comfortable with the people we already know, and are not good at being friendly to new people. The old timers ought to go out of their way to be friendly and inclusive to someone new (you) but they probably will not, and you should just chalk it up to poor social skills and nothing else.

2) Help integrate yourself. Even if you are normally more productive writing at home, work in the office a lot during the first year. Make a point of loitering in the hall when it is near lunch time, so people will notice you and think of asking you along to lunch. Continue reading “advice for new assistant professors”