On (not) accounting for “intensities” in student learning

Like most liberal arts and sciences faculty at most American colleges and universities right now, I am asked, seemingly constantly, to justify and account for what I do in languages and metrics acceptable to administrators and, indirectly, to external constituencies like state legislators and members of governing boards. Typically, the preferred measurements are quantitative and extensive: number of students enrolled at the university, number of students enrolled in course sections, number of students enrolled in a major. Assessment of student learning is sometimes more nuanced than that, but still revolves around collective measurements and on drawing out generalizations regarding what is happening in the classroom (not to mention keyed to pre-determined priorities which may or may not have been articulated by teaching faculty).

As someone who works in the qualitative and interpretive areas of the social sciences, I am troubled by the biases in how my “success” or “failure”, or my field’s worth to the university, is most commonly measured. In one sense I am frustrated because by these measures, I often end up lacking, and this, of course, fosters anxiety about my position at the university. Most terms I have at least one upper division course that falls short of enrollment targets and I then have to spend time and energy justifying the offering. Similarly, while, historically, the geography faculty teach a significant number of students as part of the general education curriculum and play an important service function for a number of other programs, we tend not to attract a large number of majors, and there are very few students who would report that they decide to attend Western specifically for the geography department. So, yes, on one level, I have a material interest in how and what the university defines what matters and what doesn’t.

On the other hand, I am troubled by the nature of these choices because I think that there are crucial aspects of the college experience for students, in particular, that are missed by the focus on numbers and generalization.

To provide on example, I have a student this term from my introductory cultural geography course who clearly found our discussion of the body, sex, and gender to be revelatory, maybe even life-changing. I base this judgment on what I’ve seen from this individual in their writing and in their responses to routine learning assessments in class.

Maybe this student will take this experience to mean that they should major in geography or, at least, that they should take more geography courses. As much as I would love for either of these eventualities to come true, my experience tells me that the former is highly unlikely and the latter, while more likely, will largely depend on what the student’s program of study ends up being rather than on what they find natively interesting. The salient point here is that this student’s experience is unlikely to be captured by two of the most commonly referenced measures of success or worth at my university, namely, number of majors and course enrollments.

Furthermore, this student’s experience in my class may, from an institutional perspective, actually benefit programs other than my own. Maybe they become a gender studies minor or choose to focus their studies in their major on the body. Maybe they connect what they learned in my class to a class in some other department and for whatever reason choose that field as their major. Maybe this student defines their future education, job and career paths around these kinds of topics. Or maybe this experience simply enriches their understanding of who they are what they do in the world. I’d be happy with any of these outcomes, but the way success and worth are counted at my university, faculty are actually given an interest to compete with each other over students like this rather than encouraging the student to pursue their interests and passions in ways that make the most sense or appeal to them.

There is a chance that some part of this student’s experience could be captured by assessment of departmental learning outcomes, but as chance would have it, we were looking at an outcome this year that prompted me to pick a different area of the course for my contribution. In any case, even if that had not been the case, what I am writing about here is not whether or what students learn, but what’s meaningful about that learning. This student doesn’t stand out for how well they learned what I intended, but for the intensity of their response to the material.

Students are affected in different ways by what they do in their classes. Because so many enroll in my courses without really understanding what they are going to be learning, I frequently have students who report some kind of transformative experience as a result of having taken a course. Sometimes this stops at, “Wow, I had no idea that this is what geographers do,” but in other cases, more rare, but still notable, the response is more profound. I also often have students leave my courses having discovered a love of comics or a new appreciation of film. Needless to say, our departmental learning outcomes aren’t designed to anticipate these kinds of individual responses to material.

More to the point, no one in university administration is asking me or my colleagues to try to gauge these kinds of intensities, or to “count” these qualitative aspects of student learning when demonstrating what we do and why we matter. Fill slots. Acquire majors. Demonstrate what students, in aggregate, are learning. These, and especially the first two, are what drives decisions about faculty lines and non-tenure track hires. I’m not going to suggest that this will be true for everyone, but I would not be surprised if, for many students at schools like mine (smaller state schools with an undergraduate teaching focus and, nominally at least, a liberal arts mission), the most significant course or courses they take, over the course of their lifetimes, are just as likely to be from the general education offerings they took as from the more specialized coursework in their majors. Service like that to the university is seemingly discounted by every measure that matters in terms of material resource allocation.

Fundamentally, students are no longer being treated as students, but as tuition checks, and higher education has been reduced to a product. Departmental faculty are valued according to how much product they produce in the form of degrees conferred. Any other reason or value for what a university does is treated as frippery by just about anyone with immediate power to shape the institution.

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(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.

“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.

Tension in the classroom

This week in learning assessments, there seem to be some odd tensions roiling under the surface of one of my classes, with students expressing frustration with:

  • Students who don’t show up to class.
  • Students who don’t contribute to class.
  • Students who contribute too much in class.
  • Students who show up not having done the reading.

In the case of the third point, at least one student noted my efforts to elicit participation from others as something they found helpful.

In the past, I have opened discussion of these kinds of issues on the class blog, but I think that the second week is too early for that. For now, I’ll wait-and-see how the culture of the class develops. These frustrations do suggest that I have a number students who feel invested in the course, and that is a good thing, but these kinds of expressions also seem to represent feelings that could turn toxic if not managed well.

Distanced

One thing I do in my classes on a regular basis is administer short “learning assessments”, which sometimes focus on content, along the lines of a “one-minute essay”, and at other times on process.

I routinely get fascinating data from this question from Stephen Brookfield’s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (pdf):

“At what moment in class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?”

Students admit to all kinds of things in answering this question, from not having gotten enough to sleep to not having done the reading or being distracted by their phones. One intent of a question like this is to encourage students to reflect on how they learn and to make adjustments that would, for example, lead to feeling less distanced in class.

This past week in reading over some of my assessments something clicked that I had been puzzled by before, which is the way in which students will often write that they felt most distanced when we talked about something that they found to be alien or uncomfortable or that they don’t like talking about.

Previously, for some reason, maybe in response to how students articulate their answers to this question, or maybe from being unable to get out of my own frames of reference, I thought that students who wrote about feeling distanced by discomfiting or unfamiliar material were just being incurious or were unsure about the question.

As I thought about one of the assessments I got back this week, I realized that most of the students who gave that kind of answer were likely addressing the question directly and understood it quite well.

From my perspective, one of the points of getting an education, of going to college, is to encounter the unfamiliar and to be made uncomfortable by what I don’t know or understand or have not yet experienced. This would (and did) make me feel less distanced as a student.

Of course, and I have known this for awhile, many of the students I have in my classes don’t look at their educations that way. If one wants an education to be credentialed or to affirm ideas and choices already made or already learned, then it makes sense, now at least, that unfamiliar or uncanny material would lead one to feel distanced by what was happening in the classroom.

Here’s thing I am left with: this looks like it should be an opportunity, not a barrier to learning. It seems unlikely that students who express feelings of being distanced in this way aren’t also learning at the same time (and, in fact, that could be part of why they feel distanced; if they were simply resistant, then whatever was bothering them about class would be just as likely to be deflected or written off as nonsense as to be getting under their skin).

However, I’m not sure how to turn this kind of data to my advantage. I should, maybe, start keeping track of what students say makes them feel distanced and see if I can notice any clusters around certain topics or activities. Or maybe I am seeing how some students natively process new or unfamiliar material or ways of learning, and I should re-interpret some of these answers as positive indications of what’s happening in class and not as problems to be solved.

In any case, it’s gratifying when these exercises seem to produce actual insight or meaningful results (as opposed to, say, our institutional evaluations. Ha! I kid because I care).

On managing my small classes

I have two very small, five to seven students each, upper division classes this term. By itself this is not that strange. As a department, geography contributes more in service to other programs than it does in majors. As a result, we usually have one or two sections of upper division courses that enroll slow or low, which administrators tend to measure as below ten or below twelve depending on context and what kinds of pressures are being applied from above. My areas, political and cultural geography, tend to be the least popular among our majors (and minors), meaning that it isn’t unusual for me to have smaller classes than my colleagues at the 300 and 400 level.

What is unusual is just how low my enrollments are this term (also that they have been allowed to run despite their sizes, but that is side topic which I will skip here). To be honest, in one case, a course on U.S. and Canadian geopolitics, I am not that surprised at the small number. I can track a clear downward trajectory from the first time I offered it to now. In the other case, a course on nature and the American West, I am surprised. That course is part of a “suite” of three that I offer on the West, and all have been generally popular, not for any mysterious reason, but because they fulfill requirements in a number of programs across campus and also address issues that are real to many of our students.

I will have to give some more thought to the “why” of my numbers this term for when I next offer these courses, or related ones, but in the meantime I needed to come up with a strategy for teaching them at their current sizes.

That small classes are “good” is taken as a given almost in higher education, but I don’t think I am alone in finding that there is such a thing as a class that is “too small”.

From my perspective, a class is too small when you need almost 100% attendance to have a chance at a viable session, or, put another way, a class is too small if its absolute size is effectively equal to its relative size. What I mean by that is in most classes you’ll end up with a critical mass of engaged students who make the course work. Ideally, in my experience, that should be at least a third of total enrollment, but you can get by with fewer. As you slide down that scale, though, the harder it is to have a good meeting if you have absences. If the critical mass of engaged students is too small, the wrong absences can kill a session. The smaller the class, the smaller your margin for having a good meeting. Essentially, if you need to count on everyone in attendance to be fully present and making contributions, productive class meetings are going to be nearly impossible to hold.

To manage this problem with my classes this term I made the decision to run them as tutorials or readings courses. The syllabus is structured around a reading list, which I have broken into weekly assignments. Students stay in touch with me through writing on each and every reading each week, to which I provide follow-up questions that students have to answer and submit with the following week’s reading and writing. Unusually for me, I decided to have a traditional mid-term, final structure, too, as a way to prompt students to do some synthetic work with the material. Each class also has an additional small assignment that uses the class blog.

The blogs are one way I give students an opportunity to communicate with me about material. I am also available in my office, and on IM, during scheduled class hours. However, students need to make their own decisions about when to come talk to me and take advantage of my availability.

It’s early in the term, but I have some initial thoughts on how this arrangement is working.

To begin, I have been gratified at how many students have, in fact, consulted with me about the material. I have rarely, if ever, had students at this university contact me as individuals to talk about readings. I doubt very much that this would be happening if we were having regular meetings. In this context, students are forced to think about the material on their own, and that has, so far, prompted some interesting dialogue.

The way that reading assignments are working I am also giving more intensive individualized feedback and follow-through than I normally do when I am otherwise preparing for class meetings. In fact, it seems likely that the time I am devoting to dealing with students one-on-one this term will be equal to or in excess of the time I would normally devote to class prep, especially with established courses like these.

I am concerned about the students I have not, and probably will not, hear from during the term. Where I am getting good written work, I guess that is less of a concern, but students who are turning in work that I have doubts about are ones I worry about. The follow-up question assignment gives me one way to address this concern, but that only goes so far.

During the early add/drop period I picked up a few additional students in the American West class and was tempted to call everybody back to the ranch so I could start holding regular meetings. That course, and its companions, as well as similar offerings I have taught in the past, have to led to some really interesting classes and I do feel that I am missing something by having a structure built around individual study. The U.S. and Canada course I am more at ease with in terms of teaching it this way. Even though it is at the upper division, there is a lot of basic material I need to cover in order to make up for how little my students tend to know about Canada. If anything, teaching it the way I am is forcing students to address those deficits in an active way.

In a couple of weeks, I will be meeting with both groups to talk about the mid-term. It will be interesting for students to see each other, and for me to review with them to get another sense of how well they are learning.

Why my intro class has been so good this term

Before Fall started I posted on changes I have made to the syllabus for my introductory cultural geography course in the hopes of improving the experience of the class for both myself and my students.

So far so good.

I have an enrollment of about forty and on any given day twenty-five to thirty show up, which, historically, is very respectable for this course. More importantly, I have a critical mass of students who act fully engaged, who do the reading, and who ask questions and are interested in what we are talking about and learning. That is not a luxury I often have at this level. I think that there are a few reasons for why this class is working so well, at least thus far.

My new main text, Jon Anderson‘s Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces (Routledge, 2009), is a selection I was optimistic, but wary about at the beginning of the term. It is more sophisticated than the average basic text for cultural geography. One reason for that is that it was written with British college students as the models, and, for the most part, those students are further along in their geographic educations by the time they reach college than are their American counterparts. So, I was also concerned that some of the language and many of the examples would be alienating to my students.

Not only has neither issue been a problem, but students seem to be enjoying the book. Certainly, on the whole, they seem more intrigued by it than I have seen from any other standard text I have used. I am gauging this from what happens in class, from assessment tools I employ weekly, and from comments to the class blog.

What accounts for this I think is that Anderson uses a consistent, accessible, but still robust theoretical framework, the ‘places and traces’ of the subtitle, throughout the book. I think that this is more effective for intro level students than is the traditional survey approach where you spend a few paragraphs on a lot of ideas. Regardless of what additional topics Anderson brings in, he always pulls it back to people, animals, things, and forces making places by making/leaving traces through their actions and relationships (where ‘action’ includes doing, thinking, sensing, and feeling). I think that this consistency gives students a clear sense of building a body of knowledge.

Anderson’s framework is also easy to translate into activities that students can do, and I have designed a series of ‘field exercises’ for the class to apply what they’re learning from each chapter. This helps me show how relevant cultural geography can be, and makes it easy to mix up my teaching for students with different styles of learning. I have not had a chance to see any completed exercise yet, those come next week, but the initial experience appears to have been nothing but positive.

It may also be the case that I simply have an exceptional group of students this term. I am teaching at 8:00 am, and based on past experience, many students who choose early classes are often more serious about being present, in an attention sense, than are those who opt for more comfortable start times. But there’s clearly more going on here than just that, maybe something that won’t be replicable.

On the other hand, Western students have been getting ‘better’ over recent years. Admission standards have been raised (still in the sub 3.0 gpa range), and there’s more of an effort to exclude from admission those students who show little promise for succeeding in college. The unversity has also been expanding its recruitment well beyond the local region which, if nothing else, means that you get a more diverse mix of students in terms of their high school experiences and preparation for higher education.

So, maybe this will be a good year and not just a good term. For now, I am enjoying having an intro class that I don’t see as a chore.