(On tech & teaching) Early adopting faculty, late adopting institutions

This coming Winter I will be teaching my first fully online course. To prepare, I decided to attend some of the Moodle workshops during Fall in-service at my university. While my initial purpose was narrowly drawn to learning how to get my course up and running, this orientation also introduced me to a parallel digital institution which I had only vaguely been aware of before.

Ironically, I think my lack of awareness is not due to a lack of interest in or resistance to online communication and social media, but because, relatively at least, I have been an early user of such tools for my classes. I have, for over a decade now, been trying out, and putting into practice, a variety of resources on the public web, from my server space at the university to blogging services and sites like Pinterest, in support of my courses. I haven’t needed prompting or significant investments in support and infrastructure from my university to engage with students digitally.

After the introductory workshop I attended I immediately began thinking about whether I should be making use of my university’s official digital spaces. I did, immediately, fill out my online profile pages, which, too, I did not know about. For whatever reason and to whatever effect, administrators at Western have encouraged faculty to go online, and have slowly built an architecture that makes it relatively easy to do so, but use of these resources has largely been left to individual faculty, or faculties, to decide. Not surprisingly, this has clearly resulted in an unevenness to what, notably, students will find from professors when directed to sanctioned spaces online.

Beyond populating my profile pages with information, I have, for the moment, decided that, I will use the formal online infrastructure primarily to direct students to my more public presences, and not in place of those resources.

I would be lying if I claimed that inertia and my sunk investment in my existing workflow had no role in this decision, but I have more substantive reasons for this choice as well.

As I’ve already implied, “WOU Online” and the university “Portal” system are both variations on walled gardens, with the former being more open than the latter, but still fundamentally designed to be accessed by those with WOU ids. There’s a philosophical aspect to this, I prefer not to treat my teaching materials as proprietary, even in a de facto way, but also a practical dimension.

One of the tools in Moodle I’ve thought most seriously about trying to use right away is its functionality for assignments and grades, which can allow for an essentially seamless process of submission, assessment and feedback, and posting of grades. After giving this some thought, I decided that my current system for electronic submission, which involves students sending me their work via e-mail attachment and me uploading assignments into Google Drive, had at least the advantage of not requiring students to login to Moodle before submitting their work.

This would not be an issue if my course resources were all being collected and distributed via WOU Online, but they are not, and that’s where the walled garden concern matters. I don’t want my syllabi and other materials behind a wall and I can’t see sending my students behind the wall to perform certain operations when everything else we do is located somewhere else on the public web. Some of my students have a hard enough time tracking the online syllabus and the class blog. I can’t see asking them to also go to this other, largely disconnected, space, too. More broadly, it is now easy for students who are inclined to do so to find me and my courses online, and equally so for those already at Western and those thinking of attending, not to mention having my materials accessible by others more generally. It is a small matter, but right now my course resources also serve a public service function that would be largely lost by moving my materials into the more “secure” spaces at my university.

I don’t want to give up the resources I’ve cultivated on my own, not only because of their open and public natures, but also because I have more control over the look and feel, content, and structure of what I currently use online than I would if I were to shift to places like WOU Online for communicating and interacting with students. This is most true for my faculty website, which I built from the ground up with the help of Anne-Marie, but even services like Pinterest and Vimeo are more “design rich” than are the institutional alternatives.

I know that Moodle is more flexible than the basic set up available in WOU Online and that if I wanted to I could dig deep into how to customize, but I also think that, ultimately, I would still have to work in an institutional frame and that there are inherent limitations to using a set of tools envisioned specifically for “course management” and not more broadly for communicative purposes.

A very small minority of students the past few years have assumed my courses would be “in Moodle” and some have been critical of my not being there. Now I have course shells set up to reach those students, as well as an active profile in WOU Online. It may be that at some point I will be compelled by student expectation to move more of my course resources into Moodle – the leader of the orientation I attended told another attendee that he thought that students would soon expect to be able to track their grades online via Moodle – but until I know more about what I might be able to do in these kinds of institutionally managed spaces, and am persuaded by their advantages, I am inclined to keep communicating via the public web. I can see where Portal and WOU Online would appeal to faculty who have been reluctant to move their course resources online, at base, all you have to do is fill out forms to use these tools, but for someone like me, these UIs compel compromises that I’m not prepared to make until I can see clearer advantages to doing so, both for myself and my students.

Some perspective on undergraduate majors and employment

Some perspective on undergraduate majors and employment

Here is a re-presentation of a discussion I initiated on Twitter about choosing an undergraduate major sparked by the first hour of the Diane Rehm Show today (http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2013-08-29/derek-bok-higher-education-america).

  1. One of the most frustrating aspects of the higher ed discussion: persistent, and false, assumption that undergrad majors are tied to jobs.
  2. Having a “marketable” major doesn’t guarantee a job in that field anymore than having an “unmarketable” major guarantees unemployment.
  3. @ShaunHuston A “marketable” major means you have to compete w/ everyone else in that market.
  4. @ShaunHuston Why not major in what make you shine differently than the others who are crowded into marketable majors. Be unique. Be you.
  5. @l1brar1an yes; and you will lose in that market to people who have more native skill and passion for the field than you do.
  6. There is no one-to-one relationship between one’s major and one’s post-graduate employment.
  7. @ShaunHuston & it ignores the “real world” our grads must navigate- choosing a career & staying in it forever w/o change is not the norm
  8. @ShaunHuston that’s pretty much limited to those who get post Bachelors degrees & is a privilege sign. But ignoring that allows us to 1/2
  9. @ShaunHuston blame students for choosing the wrong major when they don’t meet the success metrics of those who had opportunities they don’t
  10. @amlibrarian yes. Part of this discussion is about denying structural and contextual factors in (un)employment. Blame the individual.
  11. Many factors will play a role in where, and whether, you get a job after graduation. Some in your control, some not.
  12. @ShaunHuston I’ve been trying to write career advice for some young friends, and I keep stalling. It’s much harder than when I graduated.
  13. @sultryglebe i think you can honestly tell your friends that their undergraduate major most likely won’t be a barrier to finding a job.
  14. @sultryglebe getting employment and trying to work in a specific field are not the same. No, there aren’t many jobs in philosophy, but …
  15. @sultryglebe … plenty of philosophy majors have good jobs (and I’m using philosophy as one example of a major that gets derided).
  16. @sultryglebe students are still better off majoring in a field they care about, then majoring in something solely for job-reasons.
  17. @sultryglebe for most people, in most cases, the undergraduate degree is more important than the major.
  18. @ShaunHuston It’s just knowing that when I double-majored in Romance Languages and History, college cost less and job market was better.
  19. @ShaunHuston I wouldn’t change my schooling, but we need to go back to that same (or a better) level of opportunity for after.
  20. @sultryglebe yes. but those are questions about issues beyond the control of any individual.
  21. In many cases, your major will be one of the least important factors.
  22. Students: don’t major in something solely because you think it will lead to a job. That will diminish the value of your education.
  23. @ShaunHuston related maxim – Don’t feel you have to major in something just because it comes easy to you (if it doesn’t also excite you)
  24. @amlibrarian yes. choosing to challenge yourself could be another way to distinguish yourself to employers cc: @l1brar1an.
  25. @ShaunHuston @amlibrarian Or in my case choosing not to take another year in French means you graduate with w/ Sociology instead of English
  26. Major in something meaningful to you. Most people get jobs because of a wide range of qualities.
  27. What everyone pressuring you to major in something “practical” won’t tell you is that most people don’t end up working in “their field”.
  28. Major in dance. Major in lit. Major in sociology. Major in geography. Major in religion. Major in whatever moves you.
  29. Your education is more than your major. Your major is a small part of what you can offer employers. A job is only one aspect of your life.
  30. @ShaunHuston uJourney helps students choose wisely. However, there’s only 1 job for every 2 college grads, so even good majors struggle.
  31. Here’s the thing: in the U.S., the tendency is to want to make everything a matter of individual choice.
  32. Don’t have a job after college? It’s your fault for choosing an “unmarketable” major.
  33. This line of thinking masks the underlying dynamics of the economy.
  34. If we blame 20 yos majoring in theater for their own unemployment, we don’t have to confront how power is exercised in a capitalist culture.
  35. That string of tweets was sparked by the first of hour of @drshow today, particularly listening to callers, not so much Derek Bok.

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Two thoughts on Oregon’s Pay It Forward tuition experiment

I am not entirely sure what I think about the Pay It Forward approach to tuition for public higher education in the U.S., but I do think that the Oregon legislature passing a bill to study the idea is a a welcome spark of creativity in the ongoing debate about costs and affordability.

At first look, I am drawn to the idea for its apparent progressiveness, but it is hard to say how well, or how progressively, Pay It Forward, as proposed here, would actually work in practice. If the proposed study is well crafted and executed, and a solid pilot is recommended and launched, there should be answers to these questions in the next couple of years and perhaps some meaningful action on at least college affordability as a result, whether in the form of Pay It Forward or some other approach that might emerge from the discussion being started here in Oregon.

However, I do have two more specific thoughts on the early debate over the idea.

First, I am singularly unpersuaded by one of the central arguments being made against the concept of Pay It Forward, namely, that the approach is either unfair to or a disincentive for students intending to, and who do, enter high-paying jobs or professions after college.

Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, sums up this argument in a Time Business article by Martha C. White, “‘It’s a real moral hazard problem,’ she says. ‘If you have no intention of doing anything other than staying home with your kids, this is great for you. If you think you’re going to be an investment banker, you’re going to think really hard,’ and might decide not to participate with ‘Pay It Forward’ or attend a state school.” At The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann, calls this the, “engineer problem.”

Baum’s invocation of “moral hazard”, suggests that, on one level, this is an argument about the ethics and politics of “redistributive” social policies. Where one stands on this question depends on one’s political commitments and vision of a just society. Some people will insist on seeing Pay It Forward as a system that punishes the rich, who are, implicitly, hardworking, and rewards the poor, who are, implicitly, lazy. Comparing a stay-at-home spouse to an investment banker is a framing that seems deliberately designed to make this point.

Writing as a professor, I’m thrilled by the prospect of the odd student who is not fixated on what job they’ll get after graduation. Presumably, that individual is seeking a college degree to be a more fulfilled human being, citizen and member of society and not just because they’ve been told, repeatedly, that higher education is necessary to securing, “a good job.” If it takes a few investment bankers – or a few more university professors – to subsidize that person, fine by me, and, on balance, better for my classes.

More realistically, there are very few individuals who choose to go to college without some job or career intentions, and in that case, where everyone has a job and everyone is paying back into the system, identifying “takers” and “makers” becomes less clear. I think you have to look at his issue from a particularly abstract perspective to see much of a problem with Baum’s investment banker paying more, over time and in absolute terms, than, say, a teacher or home healthcare worker.

And if you do consider the principle here in abstraction, I think that you then also have to consider the broader question of value in relationship to different educational and employment choices, and not just how much someone ends up paying back to their college or university. Does Baum really think that the well-educated stay-at-home parent contributes less to society than the investment banker? (I’m not even asking for consideration to be given to the damage that actual investment bankers have done to other people’s livelihoods when using their educations solely for their own enrichment. Imagine an ethical banker, if you want).

The other side to this argument, Weissmann’s “engineer problem”, is not so much that Pay It Forward sets up a moral hazard, but rather that individuals with high-income aspirations simply won’t like the idea of ultimately paying more than those whose job goals or prospects are less lucrative. These feelings of unfairness or resentment will lead the engineers of the world to avoid Pay It Forward schools, leaving those institutions with a revenue problem.

Unlike the moral hazard question, the “engineer problem” is an empirical matter and until there is an actual trial of Pay It Forward no one will know if this problem is, in fact, a problem. That being said, I do think that arguments like these are rhetorically powerful for many Americans, but that, in practice, most people don’t actually base many of their important life decisions, like where to go to college, solely on calculations of whether their choices will result in them coming out economically “ahead” or “behind” other people.

Studies of the effect of tax rates on both households and businesses largely suggest that these play little to no role in individual choices regarding where to live or do business. That isn’t to say that there aren’t those who will decide to move, whether themselves or their business, because of perceptions of being unfairly taxed, but as Matthew Yglesias has noted recently, even in contexts where you might expect individuals to act as rational profit-maximizers, they often don’t, choosing instead to give greater weight to other values or outcomes.

While the ability to choose a college for reasons other than cost and affordability is substantially tied to class in the U.S., this is also an intensely personal choice for many students. Closeness to, or distance from, home, where one’s friends are, or are not, going, family ties to an institution, sports and geographic allegiances, quality of academic programs, appeal of campus life and activities, are some of the more obvious factors that can and do influence where an individual might go to college in addition to cost and how to pay. In other words, and by way of example, it is hard for me to imagine an aspiring engineer from a long line of engineers, all of whom attended Oregon State, turning their back on the family legacy simply because Pay It Forward leaves a bad taste in their mouth, which is how I understand the essence of the argument articulated by Baum and Weissmann.

I first learned about the Pay It Forward proposal in the Oregon legislature from Think out Loud on OPB and on that broadcast one of the arguments in favor turns the “engineer problem” on its head. The position here is that the status quo causes students to value earning potential over other considerations when choosing a program of study and looking at options for employment after college. The result is that many individuals end up majoring in fields about which they care little and entering into jobs that might pay well, but are not very fulfilling. More particularly, individuals are dissuaded from choosing jobs and professions in socially valuable, but lower paying, fields such as teaching and social work or, even, less remunerative specialities in otherwise higher paying areas like law and medicine.

In the absence of evidence one way or another, it is difficult to say whether the status quo’s “teacher problem” is greater than Pay It Forward’s “engineer problem”, but I do think it should be noted that the proposal under consideration is not classically progressive in that the tax that would be levied on post-college income will be flat, working out to 3% annually for individuals who finish their degrees in four years. This is clearly intended to make the system appear “fair” and to garner support across party and ideological lines, but it does make Pay It Forward less progressive than it could be if there were different tax rates for different income levels. I also think that this decision has implications for my second thought.

Pay It Forward is clearly aimed at addressing the problems of student debt and college affordability, but, in regards to U.S. public higher education at least, those issues are not isolated, but are the consequences of declining funding. Simply put, rising tuition and fees, and therefore student debt, are responses to state legislators cutting support to public institutions of higher education.

My sense here is that following a Pay It Forward model for tuition is probably an excellent idea where there is an adequate baseline of funding for services and the physical plant, but that where tuition dollars are being counted on to provide that baseline, the model turns risky. This sense is reflected in the recurring question of how to pay for the first generation of students, if and when Pay It Forward is adopted. In effect, state voters or legislators will have to be willing to provide funding to the public system at a level much higher than they have been willing in order to implement Pay It Forward. The question then becomes one of how serious everyone is about the potential for the model to bring down debt and make college more affordable. Maybe the Oregon study will reframe the funding issue in a way that gets the relevant individuals thinking about funding in a realistic and productive way or maybe members of the legislature who voted for the proposal are hoping that somehow the study will provide a magic key for solving all of OUS’ financial problems. It won’t, obviously.

Even if at the end of the study process in Oregon there is a consensus that Pay It Forward would reduce student debt and make college more affordable for more people it still seems likely that no one will have the will to address the problem of funding. In that case, the real shame won’t be the failure to implement Pay It Forward, but the confirmation that platitudes, and studies, are about as far as most people in positions of political and economic power are willing to go in support of higher education.

Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.

The trials of Spring quarter

I have not been attending to this blog as much as I would like lately, but I am confident I know why: the start of Spring term.

The Oregon University System is on quarters, and Spring, for me and, I gather, many of my colleagues, is the toughest.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I think that the most important is the fast turnaround from Winter. Yes, we have a break, but unlike between Spring and Fall where you have, essentially, three months off in between classes, or between Fall and Winter, where you have, typically, three to four weeks, the transition between Winter and Spring is only a week. Even if you can snag time at the end of Winter to begin prepping for Spring, it is still a challenge to find time both for a breather and getting ready for a new round of classes. I suspect that many faculty at my institution choose to either be ready for the start of the term or to take time off and turn the beginning of the term into a scramble to get set up.

In any case, Spring always ends up feeling like a grind. I know that right now, for example, I am reading two books as I teach that I would have finished and annotated in advance for either of the other two quarters.

At the same time, while I likely would support a move to semesters in OUS, there are aspects of the quarters system that I like. Having three terms with an option for a fourth to deliver courses every year makes it easy for a small department such as ours to carry a respectable major. If we had to reduce the number of courses we could offer each year, we would have to make some tough decisions about what to leave aside, and that’s in a context where I think we already have notable gaps. Our cartography offerings, for example, are the barest of bones.

And while it means more preps each year, I do like the variety of courses I get to teach. As an undergrad at Lewis & Clark College, that was also something I enjoyed about being on quarters (LC is now on semesters).

The quarters system at LC had a few quirks to it that I am sure helped to make it easier to manage than the one we have in OUS right now. Fall term started early in September, which set the beginning of Winter break at Thanksgiving, a luxury that still affects me when having to head back to classes the Monday after that holiday. The standard class was five credits, which meant that students rarely took more than three at a time, and, in retrospect, I am sure helped to keep teaching loads reasonable.

What I don’t remember is if there was one or two weeks at Spring break. But I often think that having a two-week Spring break would solve most of the problems I have with that term right now.

In the bigger picture, though, there are other compelling reasons for moving OUS to semesters. Most of the academic world in the U.S. is ordered around the semester, from standardized texts to conference schedules. One of the added stresses this particular Spring is my having chosen to go to the Association of American Geographers meeting in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. While people from semester schools also had to leave classes behind, they did not do so in the third week of a ten week term. I had to schedule my trip to be back for a film class I teach one day a week. When missing a class means missing a whole week, and I only have ten to begin with, I find it impossible to bring myself to cancel, regardless of just about any circumstance (this problem was compounded by a delayed train in Seattle which put me back on campus just thirty minutes before my class, when I had planned on having two to three hours; slim margins, which is my whole point).

These kinds of problems are why I try to avoid travel while classes are in session. There’s no question that a semester offers more “flex” for professional activity outside of teaching than does a quarter. Not to mention for semi-professional activities like maintaining a blog such as this one.

I still hope to get to some of the topics I’ve wanted to write about the last few weeks, including a reflection on the AAG, but I’m not sure what I’ll be able to get to before the time to discuss has passed.

Meaningful assessment & avoiding black holes

Working off of a couple of other blog posts, notably this one by Historiann, Dr. Crazy argues for a view of assessment in higher education that gets out from under the usual pitched battles between those who see a need for “accountability” and those who want faculty to retain/reclaim control over curriculum. Both sides agree that students are not learning as well as they should be, but disagree over the nature of the problem and the role that external constituencies should have in shaping the direction of higher education and how you assess or determine whether learning is happening or not. For the former group, appeasing external constituencies, boards, legislators, accreditors, taxpayers is paramount, and for the latter, it is an unwanted interference, at least at the level of determining what students should be learning.

Historiann counters in the first comment to Crazy’s piece that assessment in many places is already happening, but that the data is generally ignored, especially when it is inconvenient, i.e., when it suggests that students would be better served by additional faculty hires, smaller class sizes, etc., or when the only function it serves is to show external constituencies that an institution is “serious” about holding faculty accountable. In that case, all you really need is a file cabinet, in an office or on a server, that you can point to when someone starts asking questions. With so many institutions understaffed, and looking at increasing enrollments, there are more serious things to worry about than “accountability” and “assessment”.

While I admire Dr. Crazy’s will to find ways to make assessment work for faculty, and most importantly, students, I am more in agreement with Historiann, at least in the sense that I think that, in too many cases, the whole process has been corrupted by having been associated with satisfying external constituencies, and from a faculty perspective, administrative imperatives tied to those constituencies, and not with actually improving student learning.

That point, that assessment needs to be about students, both in the sense of seeing them as active agents in their own learning and in making their learning the point of the process, is Dr. Crazy’s strongest argument for faculty taking a constructive role in crafting assessment regimes, and not just chafing under the pressure to take part so that administrators can look shiny for boards, accreditors, legislators, and the public.

As far as I can tell, in situations where faculty have initiated programs to assess study learning within their courses, majors, and minors, there is value for students in terms of curriculum reforms that help to address deficiencies and student needs in relationship to what faculty think students should be learning in their fields. I’ve seen this on my own campus where certain departments, for whatever reason, were out in front of the current mania for assessment.

The problem is that for other departments the assessment discussion has been started not as a faculty-student issue, but as a administration to faculty matter. What you end up with in terms of instruments, ends, and what counts as data looks very different when the conversation begins that way. Even more problematic are those circumstances where a faculty have tools for assessment in place, but is dismissed because it doesn’t fit into the right kinds of boxes for administrative review. In our last round of accreditation, every department in Social Science, even those with theses and senior capstones, and where faculty could document how those experiences had been used to improve curriculum for students, was told that they lacked adequate mechanisms for assessing student learning.

This is where Historiann is right: many faculty already do assessments of student learning. Where assessment becomes “makework” is where we have to turn that into some kind of report or document that serves administrative goals related to “accountability”. I have my own experiences with the Black Hole of Information, sometimes never even getting to the point of reporting the results of an assessment activity, but simply submitting the instrument used without ever being asked for the data.

(And one side issue here is how the terms of assessment are constantly changing. I can look at my syllabi and track the shift from “objectives” to “outcomes” and now accreditors in our region want every institution to have “core themes”, and have changed both the accrediting standards and the schedule for visits. As a consequence, as faculty, we get an ever evolving, and not entirely rational, set of requests from our Dean for this or that kind of assessment using this or that kind of form, most frequently, with great desperation near the end Spring term.

Which just goes to Crazy’s point that this should be about students, and it isn’t).

I was thinking the other day how my class blogs, especially the one I have for my intro classes, are treasure troves for assessment of student learning. I mine a lot of information out of those discussions regarding what my students are and are not getting out of the course, what is working for them and what is not, and combined with in-class assessment I do on a weekly basis, I am continually generating notes on how to change or improve the course.

To the best of my knowledge, though, I cannot satisfy administrative requests for data by pointing them to the blogs. And I don’t have the time or energy to digest the useful stuff for others, let alone in some kind of format or medium that is bureaucratically useful. Does my university have a person or department who could or would do that kind of work? Of course not.

What we do have is a software service that will pull together all manner of standardized and quantitative data for interested constituencies to peer at. The extent to which assessment has become an industry also plays a role in the corruption that has infected this issue, perhaps irreparably, at least when it comes to getting us to where Crazy would like everyone to be.

One of the other commenters at Reassigned Time 2.0, Susan, remarks that one area where formalized assessment activities of the kind currently required of faculty has been useful is in thinking about curriculum in a programmatic way – what do we want our students to be learning and what role do different courses play in achieving those outcomes? That’s a useful conversation to have.

But I also agree with Earnest English that, while statements of learning outcomes, the usual first step towards assessment in the current parlance, is useful on a macro level for programs, and for individual courses, on a day-to-day, student-to-student basis, I don’t know how much this process matters, or the extent to which it obscures more than it reveals. As this commenter notes, what any individual “gets” out of a class is going to be highly variable, maybe it corresponds neatly with the predetermined outcome and maybe it does not. What I do know is that I rarely think about these outcomes after I’ve finished writing a syallbus, and am in the thick of actually teaching actual students.

Of course, I can always take what happens in the course of actual teaching and make it conform to statements of outcomes if I want or need to. I can make this easier by seeding my assignments and class materials with keywords taken from the outcomes, but, at a basic level, what does that provide evidence of except my ability to manipulate language? I think what Earnest English is getting at is that it is very difficult to account for what kinds of knowledge students will take and make from their classes, and, however useful it might be to set a few marks to meet as far as what we think our students ought to be learning, it would be a mistake to treat learning as a simple matter of hitting those marks. More to the point, it is a mistake for faculty to give into a system of assessment that rests on holding faculty “accountable” to the kinds of simple statements of outcomes with which we litter our catalogs and syllabi.

In the spirit of Dr. Crazy’s appeal to get out of the morass of faculty vs. admin vs. everyone else, to me the only helpful thing would be for a time out on all official demands for assessment so that faculty, who need to catch up to bureaucratic curve, can do so in a way where we get to think about students first and admin and everyone else second, or even as afterthoughts. And then admin and everyone else can come up with the means by which that work is translated into something that meets their needs.

My university is in the same situation as Historiann’s right now. We have skyrocketing enrollment, but with a tenure track faculty that hasn’t grown significantly in a decade or more. In my division, at least, adjunct hires have contracted over time, even to replace faculty on sabbatical or with course releases. We have administrators scrutinizing registration for low enrolling upper division courses to cancel so that faculty can be reassigned to teach higher enrolling lower division offerings. This is how we are trying to deal with our increased enrollments instead of hiring new faculty, a solution that undercuts one of the university’s other goals, which is to have students complete their degrees in four years.

That software service I mentioned costs money. Doing all of the “makework” to fulfill system and accreditor demands for data costs money or faculty time that, as above, we don’t have. Like Historiann, I think that most faculty have more to worry about than doing assessment in the properly bureaucratic manner, or to generate data and instruments that simply disappear into a black hole in the Dean’s office.

Recommended daily reading – 7 December (finals week edition)

A few notes as I await the deluge of papers:

On Reassigned Time 2.0, Dr. Crazy has a personal view on why she is not interested in moving from faculty to administration. I can only say, “yes”, to what she writes, but I also appreciate how she manages to explain her own thoughts and feelings without tearing down those who are interested in becoming department chairs, or even moving higher up in the hierarchy. I should add that I have to be department chair in geography every six years or so, but the kind of position Crazy is writing about is more akin to what are “division chairs” at Western. Department chair is not a ‘real’ administrative position at my school, and like most faculty, in geography we just rotate every two years and everyone takes a turn. There are certain pieces of paper we have to sign, we are often the first contact for potential majors and minors, etc., but we are mostly interlocuters for the actual administrators than we are administrators ourselves.

Following up on my last Recommended daily reading post, I notice that the current focus on the humanities as a place to cut back on higher education budgets is continuing to get push back, which is heartening. Inside Higher Ed notes a campaign in Ireland to see the humanities as a tool for economic growth, while at Crooked Timber is an announcement of Dutch-government funded initiatives in inter- and multi-disciplinary programs in the humanities.

On Robot 6 is a discussion of Creative Commons and comic book characters. I am encouraged to see comic book creators thinking about these issues. Given the economics of comics, and how readily the medium lends itself to digital, it probably isn’t a surprise that writers and artists in the field would be out in front on thinking about copyright in nuanced ways.

And last, two drawings from Renee French, a nervous looking rodent and a sort of Cthulu-like character.