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Category: Teaching

Preparing students to change the world

A former student of mine was accepted into the Peace Corps last fall, and she recently wrote a nice blog post explaining why she made the decision to give over these years of her life to such a demanding and unconventional job.  I link to it not only because she says some nice things about me but also because it raised an issue I’ve been thinking about on and off since the Kony episode early last year.  I think we college teachers often don’t do a very good of encouraging people to try to make positive change in the world because we want to highlight the complexities that are our expertise.

I wrote about this at length a few months ago.  The point I want to add in this post relates to finding materials that are accessible to students but that do not necessarily meet the highest academic standards.  If you read Alecia’s post you’ll see that my recommendation to her of Nicholas Kristof’s book “Half the Sky” was a pivotal point in her transition from a conventional college career toward thinking about a life of public service.  Alecia is better off for having reading Kristof, and the world is better off for Alecia having read Kristof.  However, if you keep up with the international relations / comparative politics blogosphere, you know that Kristof gets only slightly less haterade dumped on him than Tom Friedman.  Kristof is frequently held up as the one of the worst examples of the White Savior’s Industrial Complex, presenting complex problems as overly simple and proposing solutions that take agency away from local activists and instead point to rich white people parachuting in and solving them by just caring enough.  I have the impression that many of these critics think that Kristof’s reporting is unredeemable and that the subjects of Kristof’s essays would be better off if he had never written about them.

So Kristof is simplistic and patronizing, but he also gets people interested and energized about issues of global justice.  What should we make of this?  On the one hand, many of these critics are world-class development experts and I believe them when they point out the shortcomings of Kristof’s proposed solutions to justice problems.*  On the other hand, Kristof makes these issues more engaging than we social scientists usually can, and he does a much better job of inviting non-experts to think of themselves as participants in global justice issues.  This latter point is key because I think it is the area where college educators most frequently lose students that might otherwise take an interest in issues of human rights and/or global development.

I see two issues here.  The first is that our theories of the world privilege large impersonal forces, like structure, institutions and culture that we individuals don’t have much influence over, and one of the main reasons for this is simply that individuals are hard to observe.  In a student’s mind, however, this can turn into an absence-evidence-is-evidence-of-absence thing where they think individuals genuinely don’t matter.

The second, and more relevant to this post, is that the attitude toward students (and citizens and even policymakers) too often seems to be that they are simply too likely to screw up and that therefore we should try to stop them from taking any action on human rights or poverty issues.  At the very least this is what comes across when a student excitedly says they just read or heard something by Kristof or Jeffrey Sachs or even Bono and now they want to do something.  I know the criticisms of these populizers like the back of my hand because I see them so often in the twitter/blogosphere, but I almost never see a productive discussion of how these newly energized students (and there are few people more energized than intellectually stimulated 20 year olds) can direct their energies into effective activism.

At its worst, I wonder if part of the reason for this is merely an attempt by some experts to preserve their status as experts.  The failure of the human rights and development communities to identify a scaffolded process to bring the interested public into their work  only supports this.

The upshot is that we can use these populizers for what they are good at, and then, as in Alecia’s case, leverage this enthusiasm by supporting it with some of the stronger academic and policy work on achieving international justice.  In order to do this more effectively, the human rights and development communities ought to spend more time figuring out ways to say more than “don’t do _x_” and be able to identify productive things that people can do when they interested in “our” issues.

Oh, and remember Alecia’s name.  She’s very smart, hard-working and passionate – she’s going to do things.

* I am going to avoid dropping any names in this post in an attempt to avoid unnecessary trouble



A few thoughts on technology and future of higher education

Those who know me know that I have a slight obsession with the possibilities for technology to revolutionize higher education, so I lapped up this weekend’s bounty of articles about the topic from the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Monthly.  What I learned is to not expect the revolution to come soon.  By all appearances the people with the resources to lead the shift – venture capital in Silicon Valley – don’t understand what they are doing, and that leaves us waiting for the universities and publishers to take action, which might be awhile coming because their interests are more for evolution than revolution.

The problem is that, at least according to the Washington Monthly article, Silicon Valley is imagining online higher education being something like Facebook or Ebay.  The idea is for the tech companies to create “platforms” and then users will generate free content that other users will then want to view, and the techies then monetize with advertising or user fees.  Anyone in academia can tell you there is a huge problem with this business model: the people with the expertise to make the content (courses) lack the capital to make a quality product.  Let me explain.

If you are an expert in some area of study within higher education you are probably employed as a professor at a college somewhere.  The criteria by which you are measured is 1) the number and quality of research publications you produce, 2) the number and quality of courses you teach, and 3) the service you provide to your department and the college community more generally.  At the more prestigious universities the requirement for research far outweighs the other two, at liberal arts colleges there is more balance.  Particularly as a young professor trying to make tenure, you should put the preponderance of your energy into conducting your own research.  Publish or perish is not just a saying. at an R1 it really doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are – if you don’t have a distinguished publication record you get fired.  I have even heard stories that at some top tier programs untenured profs are actively discouraged from putting effort into teaching, or even denied tenure, because it is taken as evidence they don’t take their research seriously enough.

(Why is this? At least part of it is because the ratings system gives so much weight to reputation and reputation is won through research)

The incentives for an academic are therefore to put his/her energies into research and skimp on teaching.  If untenured profs have little incentive to put work into the classes they are teaching to live students, why would they put any effort into creating online courses on spec to hypothetical future students?  It would just be a distraction that would divert them from the real task at hand and could result in them being denied raises or promotions in the future.

But that’s not the end of it.  There are some people are just interested enough in online teaching that they are willing to put together courses even taking account of these risks.  But if you have looked at any online courses on Coursera or other sources, you’ll see that they just are not very good.  The reason is that college professors have a narrow set of skills that don’t encapsulate everything you would need to have a quality online higher ed experience.  Professors are experts in their subject matter, but they are usually not experts in pedagogy, and they are almost never experts in online pedagogy, not to mention design, remote assessment, gamification, animation, documentary film-making, intellectual property law, and just general web production that would be necessary to make online courses truly revolutionary.

Based on this, I anticipate that we’ll be much more likely to see the revolution in higher ed led by either the universities or the publishing houses.  These groups have a better sense of academic incentives and are less likely to fall into this false premise of the ‘platform’ model that ‘if you build it they will come.’  To get a quality product, some entity is going to have to provide professors with capital up front to produce it, both in terms of monetary resources and in terms of access to teams of other experts to help with all those aspects of course design that any one individual probably does not have.

Sorry for the sloppy writing. This was written very quickly because, as an academic, I really have to get back to my research.

Alternatives to lecturing in college classrooms

[Note: This post was originally written for the UNL political science grad student blog]

Tomorrow I will be presenting to the UNL grad students on teaching skills and I thought I would put a few things on the blog to serve as a reference or as a starting point for those who want to look more deeply into a few of the points I will raise.

The big point I want to make is that lecturing is often not a good way to facilitate learning, particularly when used as the sole instructional strategy.  Lecturing is comforting to instructors because it gives us complete control over the classroom.  It can create the illusion of more successful teaching because we think we are better able to prevent digressions or misunderstandings.   And students tend to be comfortable with it because they don’t have to do any work.  But it’s also the case that students don’t usually learn much in a lecture unless application tasks are mixed in with the more basic information transmission.

Let me start with an anecdote.  A few months back the political science blog Duck of Minerva linked to a study in the biomedical literature on modulations in cognitive effort over time. In essence, the study hooked a college student up to a device that measured how much his/her brain was working at any time and watched the pattern over the course of a week. It turned out that this student used less brain power while sitting in lectures than s/he did while asleep!

An interesting thing about this finding is how astounding this is to us when we consider it as  teachers, and how obvious this is when we consider it as current students.  One thing about being grad students is that we are not that removed from undergraduate lectures and we can perhaps more easily remember the experience of sitting in large lecture halls, taking a required intro class, and vaguely listening to someone read their notes to us.  Even though being grad students we tend to be a motivated sample of the student population, I bet almost all of us can relate to the saying that “Lecturing is a way of passing the information in the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notebook without passing through the head of either.”

So what exactly is the problem here?  The problem is that learning does not come about solely from listening.  Consider any skill or body of knowledge in which you can consider yourself proficient.  How did you get that way?  I guarantee it was not from simply listening to someone talk about it.  Whether it’s cooking or golf or running regressions or analyzing Supreme Court opinions, the only way to become proficient in anything is to actually do it.  A lecture, at least on its own, does not require students to do anything.  If you place too much weight on lecture as a pedagogical strategy you should not expect your students to be any more competent at thinking about politics than you would expect of a painter that never put a brush to canvas.

One of the major voices in “active learning” is Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur.  Here is a nice piece describing Mazur’s work on interactive learning and the “flipped classroom.”  The idea of the flipped classroom is that information transmission (getting facts and concepts into students’ heads) occurs outside the classroom via readings, videos, etc., and application is done in class.  In other words, students do the sorts of things we traditionally think of as homework in class, and take in info (as we traditionally conducted lecture) outside the classroom on their own time.

Here is Mazur explaining these ideas:


This approach obviously requires students to do their reading outside class – something that most students simply do not do.  In a future post I will talk about strategies for getting students to read, particularly motivating through the use of puzzles, and the use of Just in Time Teaching (JiTT) questions.