College without pedagogy

9 July 2014 § Leave a Comment

I once worried about the importance of student evaluations of my teaching for my job prospects in academia. How could students evaluate the effectivness of their instructors? Isn’t it the instructor who evaluates the effectiveness of his or her teaching, at least in part, by the performance of students on graded work? At present, everyone takes a nuanced view. The evaluations are at best a measure of a student’s satisfaction with the course, which is distinguished from teaching effectiveness. Unfortunately, we have escaped the frying pan only to land in the fire. The student evaluations by themselves no longer pose a direct threat to the integrity of college pedagogy—but the institution as a whole appears to be trading its integrity away by adopting the student evaluation as a model for describing success. Towards understanding the state of the institution of college at present, I share a few observations from personal experience.

  1. Colleges are under threat in several quarters. The already absurd cost of college is increasing. Students and their parents view college as probably necessary for securing a white-collar job, but would gladly avoid it altogether if there were an alternative that offered better dollar return on investment.
  2. There is a specter haunting higher education—the specter of the Internet. No one can quite see how it will happen, but everyone feels anxiety and excitement about the prospect of free online courses that can be substituted for college credit, or, what is worse from the college’s point of view, certification obviating college courses altogether. That these concerns are so strong reflects essential aspects of the environment. College is understood primarily as a means to economic security and advancement.
  3. “Online course” has slipped into our vocabulary, although there are few courses online. Mostly, there are materials for courses, such as lecture notes, taped presentations by an instructor, problem sets, essay questions, and course texts. A college course, unless “course” is simply to be redefined, requires a group of students who interact, whether in person or online, and an instructor, who is a leader and facilitator. The success of a course depends on more than acquisition of information or skills. A class is a social entity. Success requires direct engagement with others taking the class at the same time. The “content” for these “courses” is in general created by college faculty, although college faculty are not needed to “teach” them.
  4. Because there are so many colleges, and because so many of them can barely be distinguished from any of the others, colleges compete intensely for the limited pool of students. Tuition funds the college. There is no way of demonstrating that a college provides better pedagogy than others, so this has largely ceased to figure into relative assessment of one college over another. Faculty are encouraged to attend conferences about pedagogy and publish articles in journals about teaching in their discipline as a way of creating evidence that teaching is valued at the college.
  5. As a result of the intense competition, colleges have invested in the students’ quality of life and experience. This does not include pedagogy. Improvements such as new dorms, athletic facilities, better cafeteria food, and new technology are more easily recognized by potential students and their parents. Successful athletic teams, and their mascots, also differentiate colleges from one another.
  6. There is significant investment in advertising (“branding”) and Internet presence. Slogans, mottoes, and the college’s emblem are refined and widely distributed. The college’s image is the subject of retreats, town hall meetings, and committees, guided by a professional public relations firm. The college’s image need not be tied to its history or previous mission; indeed, any such connections are a part of the college’s image itself. If it is not seen as essential to the attracting students, a college will not promote its culture of teaching and faculty-student relationships.
  7. Student success is measured in part by how many of its students win academic awards or publish and present research or creative works. The success of faculty is judged by how many of their students succeed by these measures. Events such as an undergraduate research day are created so that students are guaranteed a venue for presenting their work.
  8. Much like in primary and secondary schools, new regimes of quantitative assessment are being put in place. “Learning goals” are articulated, and students are rated by how well they have met the standards. This is so that academic departments and deans can claim that the students are being taught effectively. Courses are designed for the purpose of satisfying the learning goals and meeting the standards for success. The goals and standards are created internally and are not subject to external review. None of the measures are validated as legitimate measures of student abilities; data are not audited for quality; and data sets are not evaluated by statistical measures of robustness, significance, or reliability.
  9. Because pedagogy is effectively invisible, there is no incentive to invest in pedagogically useful resources for faculty and students. Class sizes are as large as possible so that enrollment can be maximized. There is no reason to promote faculty members’ careers as teachers or scholars. Adjuncts teach courses when the number of course sections is too large to be covered by full-time faculty. Teaching loads are heavy.

Grand rounds for teachers

29 August 2010 § Leave a Comment

Teachers at all levels might benefit from adopting a practice used by physicians: grand rounds. Grand rounds are regular meetings of physician staff members at which another physician or researcher gives a talk on his or her research, or presents a case study. For instance, the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins holds grand rounds regularly on Thursdays at 9 am. The neurology presentations scheduled for September 2010 include “Stroke is Treatable:  Advances in Endovascular Therapy” (16 September) and “Epilepsy Care and Research in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Road Less Traveled” (30 September). These talks will be presented by speakers from other institutions. The neurosurgery grand rounds for August 2010 were all presented by Hopkins neurosurgery faculty.

In contrast with the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department’s grand rounds, which address general issues concerning a particular topic, or present research, the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department grand rounds follow a more traditional pattern: a case presentation.

Grand Rounds in the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences began in 1913. Their original format included the presentation of a patient’s case history and an examination of the patient. That format is continued today. A resident begins the Rounds by presenting the case. The patient who has volunteered to participate in the Rounds is typically from one of the inpatient services, outpatient clinics, or is a private patient of a faculty member. The patient is then interviewed by Dr. DePaulo. Then a faculty member gives a lecture related to the case under consideration. Dr. DePaulo leads the discussion afterwards, which is open to all members of the audience. [link]

This format is particularly intriguing because it is structured to give a multi-faceted perspective on the case: a resident, a patient, the department chair (Dr. DePaulo) and a faculty member all address the audience. As well as sharing information, each presenter gains understanding of his or her own role and relationships to others. What is particularly intriguing is that the patient plays an active role.

I interrupt this blog posting to shamelessly promote my own work. I believe that examples are especially important teaching tools. I elaborate on this in the context of teaching evolution in “Evolution by Example,” available free online at Evolution: Education and Outreach, and linked to on the web site; scroll down to mid page. (Directing traffic to elsewhere on my own web site is a particularly aggressive act of self-promotion. For a direct download, visit Now returning to the rest of the blog posting…

Teaching faculty at all levels would benefit from a similar practice. Regularly, perhaps every week or every other week, a member of the teaching or administrative staff makes a brief presentation, perhaps 20 to 30 minutes long. This is followed by a presentation, say 10 minutes long, by a student on the same topic. The remainder of the hour is given over to a discussion directed by the principal, a vice-principal, or a department chair. The student remains to answer and ask questions. Topics might include the results of research, a controversial or especially important news item, a new policy or law, and of course, a case study.

Teaching grand rounds ought to take heed of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department’s model: the case study ought to be of special importance. Teachers might share one particular aspect of their practice that they would like to discuss with others. For instance, a teacher might share particularly successful exam questions or essay topics; how he or she integrates the Internet or other technologies in classroom practice; promotes interaction among students; applies a rubric in grading; addresses skills and subjects required under a testing regime in a way that, so much as is possible, the integrity of the broader goals of teaching are not too badly impugned. The student might comment on how his or her classmates view the element of teaching practice under discussion—whether they feel it benefits them; whether it was enjoyable or interesting; or whether it gave them a chance to get to know their classmates better, for instance. In this way, each audience member will gain a broader perspective on some essential element of teaching practice, perhaps integrating some of the methods or adopting some of the attitudes expressed in the meeting by others.

Because the broad group is so broad, the atmosphere should be collegial and professional. The purpose of the meeting is not to criticize or position one’s self politically; it is to exchange ideas, promote discussion, and build unity and familiarity among colleagues and students. Ideally, hierarchy and authority would take a back seat to open discussion and free exchange of ideas. Friendliness and respect should guarantee that each person be able to take away some new idea, or change his or her thinking or practice. There can be no room for self-congratulatory affirmation at the expense of reflection.

The notion that Teaching Grand Rounds be integrated into the teaching profession as a widespread practice probably will be met with resistance on the grounds that teachers are already strained to the maximum with the amount of grading and preparation they must do, particularly in the present climate of quantitative, exam-based evaluation of schools. Teaching Grand Rounds might be seen as a part of a broader shift in the teaching profession. Just as physicians are expected to meet a high standard for skill and knowledge, and so are regarded as professionals of great importance, reaching a similarly high standard might be expected of teachers. Rather than be seen as  “merely” civil servants working at the local level, each teaching professional might be seen, in his or her own right, as a valued source of knowledge and a master of the subtle and demanding art of teaching.

Another model here is the librarian at a public library branch. A librarian must meet demanding requirements established by a profession whose roots stretch back to invention of writing itself. Knowledge and creativity are especially highly valued. To test this claim, engage an otherwise apparently unassuming librarian in the children’s department. He or she brings to bear, on the task of recommending a book, deep experience, command of digital research tools, and knowledge of the community . Genres, characters, authors, and many other distinctions invisible to the reader begin to take shape in the way a bolt of lightning divides the night sky. These skills are practiced against the backdrop of serious ethical commitments concerning the freedom of information, privacy of community members, and demands, which might conflict with the former two, of the community.

The mentor’s role in improving students’ scientific writing

25 January 2010 § Leave a Comment

Some of my friends on twitter have been talking about how to become a better scientific writer, that is, how to write about their research for publication in professional outlets such as peer-reviewed journals and grant proposals. @scientistlady directed me to a page at the Bio Careers site entitled “Skills To Help You Become A Better Scientific Editor.” The posting is written by Chris Gunter, also known as @girlscientist. Chris is an excellent source of information on this topic, having served in a variety of leadership positions in research institutions and scientific publications including Science and Nature.

Chris’ advice is eminently sound: read lots, join a journal club, summarize papers about new research and keep a file of the summaries. Like most good advice about how to improve one’s writing, this advice is sensible and easy to follow, and doing so will take time and effort. There is one bit of advice, however, which I think requires attention: “Ask your mentor to let you help review grant applications or manuscripts.”

Chances are, your PI receives referee requests, All. The. Time. It’s also likely they could use some help. Journal editors are generally just fine with students or postdocs assisting with (let’s be honest, this often means writing) reviews of papers, as long as the editor is notified that you have assisted, and you agree to keep the paper completely confidential. Many journals also mail back the anonymized referee reports after the decision has been made, so you can see how your report stacked up against the others.

Some of the best mentors I have known have conducted mini-study sections for their labs, gathering the graduate students together and parsing out a number of grants among them, then reconvening for detailed summaries. Again, confidentiality is crucial, but this is another great way to learn.

I agree that graduate students should offer their mentors help reading and refereeing papers and grant proposals, and I would think (and hope!) that most mentors would give their students a chance to help in this way. Nonetheless, I think that mentors should approach this as a teaching task that’s taken seriously. The mentor should read the paper or proposal as well, think about what he or she would say in a review, and take the opportunity to have a tutorial session about the proposal or manuscript with the student. Reviewing a paper or proposal takes a significant amount of subject-area knowledge and understanding of the field which most students are not likely to have. The aim of a reviewer is not just to evaluate the methods and conclusions in the paper or proposal, but to evaluate the work’s value as a contribution to advancing the field. Only someone with experience and insight greater in a discipline than what someone just starting out can be expected to have is in a position to evaluate work from this perspective. If mentor and student work on the review together, taking the time to improve the prose style as well as refine its argumentative strategy, the student will benefit enormously. At the same time, the mentor’s direct supervision assures that the review meets a high standard for quality and relevance.

My comments come from a few years’ experience as an editor at Evolution: Education & Outreach, during which time I have come to appreciate the importance of reviews which are able to position the work for review in relation to the central questions of the discipline in which they are intended to make a contribution.

If a PI or mentor were to take my advice, offering students the chance to help with reviews will most likely result in more work for him- or her-self, not less. Nonetheless, the quality of the student’s work will improve in the short and long term, and the quality of his or her reviews will, as well. From a purely self-interested point of view, this will benefit the mentor. He or she who will come to be known as someone who can be trusted to generate insight and to train graduate students who can do so.

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