Category Archives: Alex's Teaching Tidbits

Learning Frowns and Teaching Moments

It’s something of a pattern in your life as a teacher, though not one with high frequency. Once a  semester, maybe? Hard to tell. Though it’s a striking occurrence, the overall emotional impact is stronger than the situation’s specifics. You remember some of the most recent cases and you think a lot about them when they happen. But it’s not something constantly on your mind. It’s parallel to your core experience as a teacher, not the main thing you do.

Though it happens on occasion, it’s not something you can accurately predict. It’s neither surprising nor predictable.

You’d get some frowns during class. That part is common enough and you’ve learnt to interpret these frowns as moments of puzzlement, which lead to learning. They’re directed at you, the teacher. “How dare you challenge what we know?” So far, a pretty common case. Happens every week, probably. In William Perry’s classic description, you might guess this marks the transition from one position to another. The usual stuff of teaching.

But then, there’s this one student whose frowns become more insistent. Often a young woman (but you mostly teach young women anyway). Chances are that she comes from outside your field and took your class for quite specific a reason. Not the all-too-typical “trying to get an A in this class”. It’s not about raising a GPA. But she could be saying “I’m an A student” (to which you reply “well, you’re A student”). Or maybe it’s a completely different situation, having little to do with grades or signs of academic success. This dimension isn’t a necessary part of the pattern. Especially since the sample size is so small.

As her frowns get more frequent, other reactions might come up. Including vocal ones, possibly in a confrontational tone, demanding straight answers to what appears to her to be straight questions. Frowns have escalated into frustration. Your empathy might make you feel this student’s pain, but these comments aren’t a problem. They express something important.

What may be worrisome, to you, based on experience, is when this student tries to get others on “her side”. If she succeeds, it can be toxic for the classroom dynamic. But it can also be part of the peer-learning process.

Then, one day, you receive an email. A strongly worded email. Maybe the student is making demands. Maybe she’s more conciliatory. Those things vary quite a bit. But, still from experience, you recognise this email as a step in an important process. Your temptation might be to reply on the spot but you realise that a realtime interaction is more appropriate and you try to make an appointment with this student. Best possible use of your office hours.

If there’s a bit of time elapsing between receiving this email and getting the student’s visit, you might feel a bit of tension during classroom interactions, though you’re quite confident that something good will come out of all this. Of course, the tension was already there, what with all those frowns. But now things could be getting trickier. Or not. With experience, you’ve learnt to take these situations for what they are. Learning experiences.

By the time this learner comes to see you in your office, you have a fairly good grasp of how her semester has been going. But you still need more insight into the situation, so you start by asking a broad question.

And something clicks.

At this point, it’s clear to both people involved that you’re trying to help and the learner’s ready to learn. Even if you might be a tad bit defensive about some of the comments made, it’s quickly shifting into a teaching moment.

In some cases, it could also be an informal advising session. At other times, it might be closer to a discussion of pedagogical principles. But it’s clearly not anything like a griping session, though the frowns might continue throughout the whole interaction.

There’s a phase in which you learn the specifics of this particular learner’s case. Sometimes it might be quite personal, including family background, cultural identity (you teach in quite diverse a context), or “hopes and dreams”. Sometimes it’s restricted to the learner’s academic projects. But you come to understand this one pattern, this one thing which can help this one learner find the key to unlock her learning experience. Even if it plucks at your empathetic strings, you get to focus on the learning experience.

Obviously, you take the time it takes. This is one reason it’d be strange to think of your teaching work as being paid by the hour. This might be the most valuable part of your work and the most rewarding. But you don’t get paid extra if you do it well and you don’t get paid less if you don’t do it. It’s the teaching equivalent of bedside manners and it probably requires experience more than pointed advice. You may write about this type of thing to help other teachers. You might use some examples from these experiences if you act as a pedagogical advisor. But there’s no guarantee that others can learn directly from your experiences.

It’s on a case-by-case basis.

 

Playful Gamification?

In part because of this EdTechTeam badge (and because we’ve been working on badges), I’m encouraged to write something about my involvement in using “game principals” to motivate learners positively. This despite the fact that I’ve been quite critical (on the record, on more than one occasion) about gamification, especially in education. (In this context, “Serious Games” are a separate issue.)

So here’s what I did last night, which does relate to game mechanics, in some ways, and did sound like it was quite motivating…

Prepping for the final exam, students in Cyberspace Sociology course http://learn.enkerli.com/category/coursenotes–2/cyberspace-sociology/ had to create lists of threads and themes from the semester. Nothing gamified about this, though (as with every activity in this class) learners were posting their lists to a peer-rated forum.

Made a scattered map out of all of these items, to serve as a master list of sorts. As per my own policy, exam questions may only come from these items.
SOCI221 Threads and Themes

So… here’s the playful and game-like part: I allowed students to take off some items, but they had to team up and select only two items per team, for elimination.

After teams debated list items for a while, we went through all the teams and tallied the “votes” for those items which should be avoided on the exam. One item had the largest number of team votes, so I deleted it right away (after discussing it). Three items had the same number of team votes so we did a quick raised hand poll and noticed that one of the terms could stay (only a few hands went up to eliminate it). Chatting with the class, we eventually decided to eliminate both of the two remaining terms.

Here are the other terms which had at least one team vote:

  • Cyberasociality
  • Algorithm
  • Centrality
  • Cyborg
  • Recursive Public
  • Intersectionality
  • Onground

How does this qualifying as using game mechanics, if individual students didn’t receive extrinsic motivators, individually? That’s where it becomes somewhat subtle. I did use a type of “Carrot & Stick” approach, in that they had to go through the classroom activity or get stuck with things they didn’t want to have on the exam. But the real effect of the activity is that students were discussing most of the items in the list, explaining things to one another. Sneakily getting students to do a bit of peer instruction isn’t something I’m ashamed of.

One effect of the activity was similar to gamification effects. Members of a team who had been the only one to vote for “centrality” to be eliminated were experiencing the small frustration of having “lost”. Given my empathy levels, it didn’t feel extremely good at first. But after a quick explanation of the concept, the teammates sounded relieved.

The major effect, in my observation, was that the atmosphere became remarkably playful. To me, playfulness in the classroom brings a lot to the rapport established between people involved. As with rapport, it has to do with mutual respect. And I really care about playful living.

To me, playfulness (open play) is the mirror image to gamification (game mechanics). I’d go as far as to say that gamification is “gaming without playfulness”.

After that very informal “team vote” activity, students had to discuss items which still weren’t clear, identifying some things which were obscure to everyone in their team. We then discussed those items with the whole class, getting people to provide explanations.

Something to note about that “team vote” activity is that in no way does it ensure appropriate representation of diverse voices. In other words, it wasn’t really meant to be “democratic”. But it did allow for diverse forms of participation. Some learners involved did a lot more peer-teaching than they had ever done during the semester. The extrinsic motivation (to show off, to get a good grade…) is already there, so I didn’t need to add much of an incentive.

The resulting list is the basis of a collaborative study guide, to which students are contributing in diverse ways. And it helps me prepare an exam which many might consider fair.

ATT8: Alternatives to Textbooks

[It’s potentially dangerous for me to blog about this since I have many ideas on the topic. But thinking about teaching is something I enjoy so these “tidbits” are almost a release…]

I use textbooks in two of my courses: introductory sociology and introductory cultural anthropology. More accurately, I still use textbooks. But I do want to switch away from textbooks in these courses.

In some contexts, such as a discussion of the usefulness of textbooks in anthropology, I’m almost defensive in my description of the role textbooks play in my teaching. It’s a sign of ambivalence, of course. But the fact that I still use textbooks shows that something weighs in their favour, Despite being problematic, textbooks still seem useful to me and I have yet to find an alternative.

But I think a solution is finally on the horizon. It’s a bit difficult to explain and may seem farfetched or even crazy, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. So it may be the right time to put it in writing.

A few words about how I use and choose textbooks…

I perceive textbooks as shared resources, rallying points, conversation starters. study guides, “lecture notes”, and sources for examples. Textbooks aren’t ideal for any of this, but they’re rather unique in fulfilling all of these functions.

Textbooks are also expected to be part of at least some courses. The two main introductory courses I teach are of that type. If I were not to use textbooks at all, I’d have to propose something else.

Which leads me to thinking about existing alternatives to textbooks…

A relatively uncommon practice, but one I’ve experienced as a student, is for instructors to teach from extensive coursenotes, without making use of shared texts. In such a case, the “content” is “delivered” in the classroom. Without being common practice, it wasn’t unknown at Université de Montréal, where I did my B.Sc. in anthro (back in the early 1990s). I suspect that this approach was somewhat common in French-speaking contexts a while before that. It avoids all problems associated with textbooks, but it has none of the advantages textbooks have. In fact, because it puts so much emphasis on the “sage on the stage” model, it’s incompatible with my teaching philosophy.

Apart from my main “intros”, all of my courses are built on “coursepacks”. A coursepack is a custom package of primary texts which weren’t originally connected to one another. I like this approach in any course and have been thinking about ways to shift my intros to something of a coursepack model.

The traditional coursepack model is to send a bunch of texts to a third-party service which will make all the necessary enquiries to ensure copyright compliance and then print coursepacks to be sold at the bookstore. At Concordia, the university bookstore currently handles the whole process. Eastman Systems used to do it. In both cases, the process requires a lot of lead time. It’s thus more flexible than the textbook model but remains quite constraining. As I do most of my reading online, it’s actually far from ideal. But it’s an interesting alternative to publishers’ textbooks.

I have yet to find a way to use coursepacks in my main “intros”. I know some colleagues do it and I could invest time in such a solution. But the convenience of traditional textbooks still seems to me to outweigh the costs of the textbook model. (Yes, this is where I get defensive.)

In some contexts, I was able to use a model which was an alternative to traditional coursepacks, using online reserve instead. In those situations, I could select texts during the semester and have them on online reserve quickly after that. It was close to an ideal model, especially paired with the collaborative syllabus. But it requires three things which I don’t currently have: reasonable copyright laws, access to a service dealing with copyright compliance, and efficient electronic reserve. I can get somewhat close to this approach at Concordia, but some pieces are still missing.

It’s also possible to use “readers”, which are midway between coursepacks and textbooks since they contain primary texts but those are edited together and published like textbooks. I haven’t used readers. To me, they have some of the advantages coursepacks have (multiple voices, intellectual depth) but also most of the disadvantages of textbooks, including a lack of flexibility and all the issues associated with commercial publishing.

Of course, there are people who simply post files online without worrying about legal implications. This is obviously a non-solution, as failure to comply with copyright laws, however arcane these laws may be, can have dire consequences on learning institutions.

Which leads me to the first key issue I identify with textbooks: “the content industry”. As I said two years ago:

If your only business is “content,” now might be a good time to think about diversifying.

(My approach to “content” has long been the basis for diverse discussions, including one which got me cited by tycho garen in such august company as John Gruber and Merlin Mann. Incidentally, I’ve been listening to a number of 5by5 podcasts, including those by Mann and Gruber. Textbooks have been a topic of discussion in those podcasts and part of my thinking may have shifted because of them.)

Got lots to say about content, which is part of the reason why I was worried this post may become overwhelming. But I’ll summarize the situation as much as I can.

For the past ten to fifteen years, an increasing number of people have been made aware of problems with “content-based models”, especially in terms of “publishing”. The context for this increased awareness is the expansion of the Internet. But the process started much earlier, with the transformation of information into “content”, consolidation in diverse industries, and what scholars have long been calling “postmodernism”. As you might notice, I’m specifically not saying that one of these things caused any of the others. But I see connections between all of them. They “go together well”.

The first well-known case of a “content industry” having some difficulty is the one involving music labels, the so-called “Music Industry”. At the very end of the 20th Century, the “Napster Revolution” associated with trading of audio files was a turning point for music labels and the business model on which they relied. Some might say that it was quickly over. And there are many points of continuity in the “political economy of music”. But the current state of music-related business is clearly in a “post-” phase: it’s significantly different from what it was twenty years ago. I wrote extensively about this on a blog which is currently offline. I happen to think that this turning point in the way musical “content” is distributed is the early model of turning points happening elsewhere.

Subsequent “content industries” going through major transformations include films, video games, journalism, and books (possibly in that order, with significant overlap). In each of these cases (including music), “intellectual property” has been used as a core concept in discussions surrounding the “content shift”. I’ve had (and still have) a lot of things to say about any of these. But I’m focusing on textbooks which, I’d argue, are just now going through a major shift.

Most of the problems associated with textbooks have to do with the content model. What textbook publishers do is quite elaborate and rather complex (from dealing with authors and editing texts to obtaining media usage rights and coaxing people into “adopting” textbooks). But their main business model is based on selling access to content. That model isn’t obsolete and some publishers can survive for a little while longer. But it’s clearly not forward looking.

Access to content can take many forms, many of which incur no cost to the person accessing such content. Typically, “content access” and the business model behind the creation of this content are disconnected.

Borrowing books from a public library is a key form of “content access”, and it’s typically paid by taxes. Watching television advertisement can be described as access to content, paid by advertisers. Even glancing at someone’s “freesheet” in the métro is “accessing content”, and it’s also paid by advertisers. Open Access journals, YouTube, WordPress/Moodle/Joomla/Sakai/Drupal, CraigslistKhan Academy, Wikipedia, and iTunes U all focus on “access to content” but their business models clearly separate production costs from access costs (with the result that access to content is often “free as in beer”). Even a café conversation can be conceived as “content access” and it’s associated with no direct cost in money. (Interestingly, the UnivCafé model does involve some financial costs, which are covered partly by Concordia University’s School of Extended Learning, and partly by donations. I’ve been on the record about my interest in this model.)

The “elephant in the room” is “online piracy”, which contains in its name the notion that it’s illicit or illegitimate access to content. Those who pirate content online typically don’t pay directly for that same content (though, according to some peer-sharing enthusiasts, these same users may be more likely than others to spend money online, including for “content”).

Of course, all of these things are much more than “content access” and reducing all of them to the same model should eventually show the absurdity of said models to those who aren’t in the “content industry”. “Access to content” isn’t really a business model. Were publishers able to get past the “content access” model, we may finally get an improvement over textbooks.

Call me naïve, but I think the shift is finally happening.

Part of it is through the slow transition from physical textbooks for electronic ones.

Which makes this blogpost into a followup to a post I wrote just before Apple’s iBooks Author announcement. In that previous post, I tried to talk about “learning content” in as general a way as possible, making as explicit as possible the notion that “content” is but a small part of learning. It encapsulated something about which I’ve been adamant: those of us who are interested in learning and teaching should not focus so much on content.

But I’ve been so “obsessed” with this issue that I haven’t been heeding my own advice. I keep talking about content despite the fact that I care a whole lot more about learning.

And my focus on content is part of what prevented me from thinking further than textbooks. As I kept going back to those problems with textbooks which are associated with content (cost, medium, distribution, usage rights, rigidity…), I was missing a core point  about textbooks: they intrude on, encroach upon, interfere with, and disrupt the relationships between learners and teachers. Their existence is a form of «ingérence».

See, my teaching philosophy is based on constructivism. Though I still lecture, I’m looking at alternative teaching models, which may put me at odds with some colleagues. I eventually found a way to use textbooks which makes sense to me. Point is, I care more about “building a context in which learning happens” than about “transmission of content”.

My class meetings now have the following structure…

Students come prepared, having worked with some textual material and, in the case of introductory sociology, taken a reading quiz about the class material (teamwork exercises serve part of the same role in my introductory anthropology). So, at the beginning of the class period, we go through a kind of collective Q&A session during which the class comes up with both questions and (partial) answers. Though I often end up providing extended answers to some questions, I try to engage the whole class in the process. In the two sections of introductory sociology with which I work, this semester, many questions are the outcome of reading quizzes. Taking those quizzes, students often find out that they may not have fully understood some core concept or aren’t yet able to apply a given perspective. That Q&A section of each class meeting often takes more than half of the classroom time. As it’s the one part which most directly depends on face-to-face interactions with the whole class, it makes a lot of sense that it’d be the core part of classroom interaction.

Another proportion of class time is devoted to “tangents” which connect the material with diverse issues. These discussions are especially useful for learners who reached the “upper” positions in “William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development”. At the same time, they might be less appropriate for students who (still) focus on “what’s the right answer that I need to remember for the exam”. In prior semesters, these tangents took a very significant portion of the class time. The shift from these discussions to Q&A is probably the most significant change in my teaching, this semester. Perhaps due to this shift, online forums in this course have become much more active than they ever were in the past. Parenthetical discussions work quite well online and I’m convinced that they do accomplish a lot in terms of the “higher domains” in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

During the last (and often shortest) portion of each class meeting, I go on “lecturing mode” to prepare students for the material which is coming up. In other words, I spend twenty minutes to half an hour at the end of each class period trying to get students started with a new topic. While my lectures are relatively “classic” in format (in fact, I feel the need to work on this structure, as I often end up running against the clock, at that point), they are mostly oriented toward giving learners their first exposure to some ideas, concepts, and issues. As a compulsive outliners, I base my “lecture mode” on slides with bullet points. But what I may say in relation to these bullet points varies quite a bit. At times, I will teach students concept definitions which are meant to help them understand the material (these are relatively rare and almost choreographed, with artificial pauses)  During “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” moments, I even hint at potentially tricky quiz questions. Otherwise, much of the lecture section is a restructuring of the material in a way which makes sense to me. This is where my outlining is probably the most obvious.

As you might notice, my class meetings devote little time to summary of textbook content. Even those short sections when I restructure that content, emphasis is on the connections between ideas, not with the “content”.

Having used several different textbooks in my teaching, I have a lot of “content” in my mind. In fact, some of the “bullet points” I present in class are carried over from prior teaching experiences which may have relatively little to do with the material for this one course. While I’ll never go to the “text-less teacher-driven content delivery model” I described about my UdeM past, I often muse about teaching without textbooks.

As a partial step in that direction, I started using a Wikibook in introductory sociology, a few years ago. It’s somewhat fragmentary as a textbook so I also use a printed textbook (recently switched from OUP’s “critical” Knuttila to Pearon’s “contested” Hale). However, were I to expand the Wikibook, I may be able to teach without a traditional textbook. If I succeed in doing so and colleagues start following suit, textbook publishers may run into deeper problems than they currently imagine. And it has very little to do with “piracy”, as the “content” used in my courses would be completely legitimate and licit, licensed through Creative Commons or taken from the Public Domain.

What’s more, I could easily complement the “textual content” with all sorts of things, including “interactive material”, collaborative activities, and open discussions. Almost any website could allow for this and I have most of the infrastructure in place to make it doable.

The only thing I’m missing is a bit of “content”. Not much, as the Wikibook is fairly extensive. But enough to make this experience of learning in this environment a clear improvement over textbooks. With just a bit of grant- or fellowship-style funding to devote some person-hours on such a project, it’d be easy to produce most of that content, including a large part of the job which is usually done by publishers.

There are many projects like this, going on. In my mind, it’s only a question of time before publishers are required to pivot their business model.

What I’ve been thinking about is, obviously, a shift away from the “content access” model. I kept thinking that publishers should transform into a service bringing together people who use the same content. Instead of “selling access to textbooks as content” (and offering some services as a way to force people into “adopting” their textbooks), publishers could be paid for services which are truly added value over that content. If access to content were free of charge, a lot could be done around that content. During a recent crisis with journalism, a lot of things have been said about curation and advertising. While advertising models are antithetical to the learning models most of us have in mind, something close to curation makes a lot of sense in learning and teaching. What I have in mind has less to do with “recommendation engines” than with “localization”. The idea, here, is closer to “citizen journalism” than to HuffPo. The added twist is that some people would be paid to adapt the “content” (including “ancillary material”) to specific contexts.

And this is where the hard work and added value can be found. It’s not that difficult to “produce content”, especially if we think about what we do as lecturers or the “content” created by students. As some of my students just created an elaborate study guide to prepare for my midterm (and claimed that it was easy to do), I have a neat example of how effortlessly that may happen.

What takes more effort, though, is creating appropriate material, such as exam questions related out of a classroom discussion, moderating a forum, or editing a text to make it understandable by outsiders. It would make sense to pay people to do some of these things. In some cases, the amounts paid for all sorts of learning-related services could be as much, if not more, as what is currently paid by students for textbooks. Sure, it requires some creativity to make the business model work. But that’s the reason people like Clay Christensen and Horace Dediu are around. True disruption in the market doesn’t happen by merely extending the current business models.

Most of this has been on my mind for quite a while. And though I spent some time explaining it, I still went rather quickly about it.

What has just hit me is the part about learner-teacher relationships. With all the talk about “student engagement”, we may forget the “intermediation effect” textbooks (and standardized examinations!) have had on the relationship between students and teachers. By moving away from textbooks, we can “disintermediate education”.

I had a sort of epiphany while reviewing a textbook manuscript. A significant part of the problem I had with that manuscript is that it was a “voice from nowhere, talking to ‘my’ students”. Not that I’m protecting of my students. But I was imagining a situation in which we were using this text as “content” for a course. As I imagined this, I grew increasingly concerned about the effect such a text could have on the most interesting things happening in my classes. My guess is that a large number of teachers have had an experience of “battling with a text” (because it’s confusing, misleading, inaccurate, inappropriate, outdated, boring, or flat out offensive). Beyond the frustration of being unable to modify the text to be more appropriate is the broader issue that teaching shouldn’t be about transmitting somebody else’s dogma. Especially not university teaching.

Fortunately, I can now choose which textbook I adopt. And I might soon elect not to use any textbook.

 

ATT7: Prewrite

I have this simple policy: you submit something at least one week in advance in one of my courses, I give you feedback so that you can improve this assignment and submit it again by the due time.

Here’s how I’m stating it in my syllabi, this semester:

Extra credit will not be given in this class. However, if you submit a written assignment at least one week in advance of its due date, I will be able to provide you with feedback on your assignment and allow you to rewrite it based on this feedback. Rewriting an assignment does not guarantee a better grade but should enhance your learning process and might allow you to improve your grade.

In class, I often do contextualize it in the “no extra credit” frame. And I spend some time explaining how it works in my teaching philosophy, including the comparison with my approach to marking and grading.

The feedback I give on “prewrites” is usually very elaborate. One reason I’m posting this is that I sent feedback on a few prewrites. In the case of one 3000 word assignment, my feedback was 1700 words. (This blogpost contains 654 words.) In the case of some short assignment submission (say, 300 words or less), I’m sure I’ve sent feedback which was actually longer than the assignment itself.

I call it a “prewrite” because, in my head at least, it seems to conjure appropriate connotations. It’s fairly idiosyncratic a policy, at least the way I spell it out, but I know colleagues do very similar things.

One peculiarity of my “prewrite” policy is that it’s very dissimilar to the way I grade assignments.

Because, when I grade assignments for a course, I actually give very short feedback. For several reasons, I don’t annotate every page. I basically summarize my comments in a “holistic” fashion (after all, I’m an ethnographer). That “holistic feedback” tends to be mostly positive. I emphasize the high points of the assignment. [dramatic-rendition]”Oh, I see that you emphasized this one point from the material. That’s a good start as it can lead you to talk about these other things we’ve been discussing…”[/dramatic-rendition]. My actual comments are frequently more subtle and they’re not passive-aggressive (at least, not in the way I intend or perceive them), but they seem to have the intended effect: let students know what was appropriate and help them find ways to improve, either in the next assignment, in the rest of their academic careers, or even during the rest of their lives.

I do the same thing for any kind of grade apart from that given on exam answers. It can be on a final paper, on a self-assessed grade for contributions (yes, I do grade contributions), on a project plan, etc. I even use the abbreviated marks described previously on open answers to exam questions, but without this more “textual” feedback.

To a limited extent, I might scale up this feedback on assignments when I perceive some extra effort may have been made or when I feel that my evaluation requires some justification. But, overall, the type of feedback I give on an assignment which wasn’t a prewrite will might be around three or four sentences. Of course, I’m always ready to provide more feedback. Still, from what I’ve seen, extended feedback is rarely request. Even when students ask for additional comments, sometimes in a rather confrontational manner, the extra feedback I give them isn’t necessarily appreciated or even understood in the most appropriate frame of mind. Which might give you some idea why my “normal” feedback is so limited. (Additional reasons provided upon request.. 😉 )

But this blogpost wasn’t meant to be about “normal” feedback. It’s about prewrites and what they can do.

Simply put, I love it when I get to give feedback on a prewrite. To me, it means that the student is taking an actual interest in the learning process. Sure, the prospect of potentially increasing her/his grade is likely the main motivation. Sure, in some cases, students get “more than they bargained for.” They thought it was a way to get their grade raised automatically by virtue of submitting the assignment ahead of time. (These students probably have a rather big surprise when they receive my feedback, especially since I can then be brutally honest as to what could have been done. Not that implementing changes based on my feedback is likely to take a lot of time. But those students who seem to misunderstand my prewrite policy as an easy way to increase their grades are also those who make no change whatsoever to their assignments.)

Still, most students who submit prewrites are actually looking for feedback and are taking an active part in the learning process.

Whatever reasons a student has in mind submitting a prewrite, the effect is the same. Whether it’s based on a misinterpretation or on a genuine desire to enhance her/his learning experience, as long as the student reads my feedback, s/he ends up focusing on the work instead of on getting the highest grade in the most effortless manner (or on ensuring s/he gets the grade s/he thinks s/he deserve as an “entitled” student). Even if it were just for this, I’d be happy to get these prewrites.

But there’s more. Not only “a lot more” but something qualitatively more significant.

The feedback I give clearly has an impact on the work being done. It’s all good and well to get students to take an active part in the learning process. Some would even take this for granted. But there’s something about providing “extended feedback which is likely to be taken into consideration” which is worth more than any amount of time I’m able to spend on it.

See, by providing this kind of effect, I’m often able to help students achieve something special. It’s not about me, but it relates to my work. And there’s little more satisfying than this kind of work. “Teaching moments” in the classroom come close or even reach the same level of satisfaction. But that’s because the same basic idea is at stake: in the classroom as on paper (or online), you’re helping create something. And this something is often more than students thought they were able to create.

This is one of the situations in which I perceive myself as a sherpa. And I specifically think about Tenzing Norgay.

(As an anthropologist, I take solace in the fact that Norgay is credited, along with Hillary, as being one of the two human beings who first set foot at the top of Mount Everest. Given the structure of the world in the mid-twentieth Century, I wouldn’t expect Norgay to have received praises. In fact, mountaineering is specifically a domain in which credit may be given to people in a rather arbitrary way. But, at least if the version of the story I’ve heard about is accurate, the fact that Tenzing Norgay can be celebrated means a lot to me. It also makes me think of those cinematographers who accompany people during great feats. The fact that they get to those same spots carrying a lot of equipment often makes me wonder if they’re not the real heroes. But I digress especially far since I don’t want this to be about heroism..)

Of course, I don’t compare myself to Tenzing Norgay. But I find inspiration in what he accomplished. He not only accomplished a great feat himself (something I don’t see myself capable of) but he enabled somebody else’s great feat (something I perceive very highly).

With students who are “at the top of their game,” serving as a sherpa can be very satisfying because the results can reveal intellectual prowess. But, even though it means “improving something which was already good,” it’s relatively easy to do because these students have stimulation, motivation, and possibly drive, not to mention mad sk1||z.

The situation at the other extreme can be as satisfying but it’s also more “touching” and less impressive. You get a student whose “game,” for whatever reason, isn’t at the very top. Someone who probably wouldn’t get a very high grade in the course if it weren’t for your help. And, despite your help, this student may not achieve the type of proficiency that your grading scheme puts at the top. Yet this student improves her/his work through concerted effort with you. In other words, you’re not helping Hillary climb Mount Everest. But it’s a bit as if you were helping a paralympian climb the Matterhorn. Sure, other people have been there. In fact, some people set records on doing it quickly. In my mind, though, at least in terms of “overcoming some preconceived notions of what can be done,” what you’re helping someone do is more significant than setting a new world record.

As is often the case when I think about teaching, I get to reminisce about my father’s career as a high school teacher for students with learning disabilities. On numerous occasions, my father was able to help students get over significant hurdles. One occasion I remember quite vividly is when he helped a well-motivated student complete three years in one. Part of the reason I remember this is that I was present during some study sessions my father did with that student. I vaguely remember her, but I can say that this is an occasion for me to be proud of my father. And it surely had a large impact on my perception of teaching.

But what probably had a deeper impact and is more impressive in so many ways is something I rarely discuss: my mother’s career. For most of her working life, including while she was working on the more administrative side of things, my mother was an occupational therapist helping adults and children suffering from MR. [Having a hard time with the English term. The French «déficience intellectuelle» seems to me more appropriate..]

Many of the people with whom my mother worked had Down Syndrome. Probably more than the physical handicap to which I alluded, in the “paralympian climing the Matterhorn” idea, Down Syndrome sets a very strict limit to what the person can or cannot do. While we’ve all heard cases of “physical disabilities” being overcome to the extent that the person may accomplish feats a “normally able” person is unlikely to accomplish, Down Syndrome may prevent some rather normal tasks from ever being undertaken. This description of Down Syndrome may be wholly inaccurate, as I’m not an expert in the field (unlike my mother who has been spending the past few weeks among Swiss mountains, including the Matterhorn). And I certainly don’t want to understate the challenges facing those with physical disabilities. But my limited experience with Down Syndrome adults and children left in me a lasting impression. Close to helplessness. Making rather mundane tasks into monumental achievements.

It takes more than courage and determination to overcome significant hurdles such as a mental or physical handicap. Whatever the case may be, the inspiration to not take for granted some of the simplest things in life runs deep.

Of course, the students who take my courses in a university setting are as far as you could get from suffering from MR. Though there have been differences in terms of specific accomplishments, it doesn’t escape me that people who go to universities represent but a fraction of society as a whole and that, in a certain sense, the distinction implied bears some relationship to possessing intelligence which is often ranked much higher than average. [My perspective on intelligence isn’t one which puts people on a linear scale, so I’m hard-pressed to find a way to express this which makes sense in my mind and addresses some common perceptions about university students.]

The part of my mother’s career which most directly inspires my teaching, with the sherpa analogy in mind, is precisely that ability isn’t a given and that there isn’t a direct correlation between assumed ability and potential achievement.

It might be one reason behind my rather strong negative reactions to the infamous “sense of entitlement” perceived on some campuses (“campi” is allegedly frowned upon). Comparing a university student’s achievements to those of someone with Down Syndrome may seem exceedingly strange (and even, given social stigma on MR, very insulting). Using extreme examples about mental abilities to show the importance of intellectual humility and intellectual honesty is very tricky. But if it helps people become more thoughtful about the specificity of university work, the risk is worth it.

I’ve already been on long tangents and I should probably cut this up in two or more posts. But I need to go.

RERO!

ATT6: Marking Scheme

Been thinking about my “scheme” for marking assignments. It’s something I’ve designed based on some comments I was frequently making on those assignments.  Basically, all of these comments are positive but they’re set in a hierarchical structure, with “insight” at the top and concision at the bottom.

  • IF: Insightful
  • OC: Original and Creative
  • HP: Honest and Personal
  • TR: Thoughtful and Reflexive
  • EX: Appropriate Examples
  • ED: Elaborate and Detailed
  • CSF: Concise and Straightforward

In some ways, “TR” is the baseline. A “TR” paper is one which shows that the student has “done the work.” Nothing more, nothihng less.

The three marks above TR are “added value.” Not only has the student given back what was expected, but s/he put her-/himself in the work, did something unique, or even reached a high level of insight.

The three marks below “TR” are a way to emphasise the positive while pointing out some potential problems. An assignment with appropriate examples is useful, but it may not reach the expected level of understanding. Long papers filled with lots of details require some effort, but may miss the point of the assignment. And some very short but clear assignments at least show an ability to be concise, even if they don’t do much more.

These “marks” are usually combined in some way and student work can be “TR and ED” or “CSF and TR.” Order counts, with the first mark being the most important. Outstanding work will usually have “IF” as the first mark and often has two other comments. Suboptimal work is often “CSF and EX.”

Obviously, I also provide some more elaborate comments about some key points in the assignments. These range from “interesting emphasis on concept X but bear in mind that this was about concepts X and Y” to “you’ve clearly understood the issues and you’ve really managed to do something unique with this paper.” Even in those fleshed out comments, I might end up reusing the same comment, if similar issues happened in assignments by diverse students. Generic work may get generic comments and outstanding work often gets very specific comments.

As I assess an assignment, I have something close to “sliders” in mind, with something resembling VU meters. (Not literally, but the image works.) The balance between the abbreviated qualities may shift as I work with the text: “It seems to be mostly TR but maybe there’s a nugget of creativity, somewhere” or “It starts out in a very unique way but let’s check if this originality carries through.” When something reaches a high level of insight (relative to the context, of course), it can “peak out the master” and, unless the rest of the text causes a radical drop in quality, the “IF” level will remain as part of the overall assessment.

The correspondance between the abbreviated marks and points/grades isn’t linear. I typically mark all assignments before I add the actual grades, so I get a good idea about the range in quality. I usually don’t work by direct comparison, but I also won’t grade down papers just because they’re not “publishing quality.”

In fact, as may be obvious from these marks, there are many things which don’t usually matter, to me, in an assignment. For instance, the only elements of form which do matter have to do with getting the message across and displaying a thorough understanding of the material. My assignments are about insight, not about production value. More specifically, I typically don’t “grade language,” though I could do so and have done so on occasion. In most cases, I’d rather not have students too self-conscious about their mastery of normative language.

I realize how idiosyncratic my “scheme” may be, but it’s worked quite well in several of my courses. For one thing, it helps bring home the point that I’m looking for insight. And it can help me explain that length matters very little.

ATT4: Sociology’s Major Theoretical Perspectives

This one is a post I sent to students in an online course to help them understand a key matter in introductory sociology: the distinction between some core theoretical perspectives. As an anthropologist, I’m often struck, while teaching introductory sociology, how consistently these perspectives come up. This specific course is based very directly on Richard T. Schaefer’s Sociology: A Brief Introduction. So a few points are specific to that book (and the exam students will take is based on that textbook). But I’ve seen a number of other textbooks in introductory sociology, using some as inspiration for questions in other exams or as required rteadings in other courses: the very same perspectives come up all the time.
Not that other disciplines don’t have this. But I really don’t see anything similar in cultural anthropology even though introductory courses in anthropology, like introductory sociology, is very standardized in terms of chapter headings.
The reason I post here as a tidbit, apart from the fact that I happen to think it could be useful for other people, is that there’s a teaching angle to this.
This is a course which is really based on content. It’s a “GenEd” course for nurses at a school of health professions associated with a health system with five hospitals in Texas. What I’m doing here, in terms of “instruction,” is very different from my usual teaching strategies in that it’s very directly related to an exam. I usually wait until my last interactions with students before I build the exam, so that I don’t “teach the exam.” In this case, though, these theoretical perspectives are so fundamental that it’s very far from telling them about things they should memorize. Besides, it’s easy enough to do a copy-paste like this and it might encourage me to post more tidbits (something which has been on my mind, recently).
Making Sense of Major Theoretical Perspectives (MTPs)
Class,
As I’ve said so many times, these perspectives are really key to introductory sociology. And they’re really not that hard to spot, once you get the differences. So I’ll give you a few tricks. This isn’t a thorough analysis of their differences but kind of a “cheat sheet.” Of course, you can’t use cheat sheets (or any documentation) on exams. But if you understand what it’s about, at this point, you won’t need a cheat sheet.
So, the Major Theoretical Perspectives.

WMD

To summarize:

  • Functionalism
  • Conflict Theory
  • Interactionism

With these three, you can understand a lot of what’s going on in sociology. Because they’re associated with Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, I tend to call them the “WMDs.” (DMW would also work, and it vaguely sounds like a car manufacturer, but “WMD” makes the point more strongly.)
You could argue that feminism is the fourth one and I’ll talk about it But the first three are what can guide you.
One thing to notice is that the order I listed them is pretty much the order in which they appear in most places. Not that they’re really in chronological order. But there’s a notion that conflict theory was a response to functionalism and that interactionism contextualizes the other two.
So…

Recognizing Functionalism

  • As I hinted in another post, any mention of “stability” should give you a clue that it’s probably functionalism. Functionalism is about seeing society as a funcitoning system: stable, balanced, durable. A well-oiled machine (the mechanical metaphor) or a living organism (the organic metaphor). In a functionalist’s view, everything in society has a purpose and the overall purpose is the functioning of the society as a whole.
  • You recognize the early signs of functionalism in Auguste Comte (the guy who coined the term «sociologie» which is the origin of “sociology”) but Émile Durkheim was pretty much the founder of modern, functionalist sociology. In the US, Talcott Parsons and his “equilibrium theory” are the most obvious examples of sociological functionalism. In a way, the 1950s were the heyday of functionalism in North American social sciences.
  • Functionalists make models which are very “scientistic.” In some forms of functionalism, you even perceived society as a “lab.”

Recognizing Conflict

  • People perceive “conflict theory” as a critique of functionalism. Conflict theory is all about inequalities. You see some comment about problems associated with inequality, exploitation, poverty, classes, chances are it has to do with conflict theory. For conflict theorists, social life is a constant struggle between haves and have-nots, those who are given access to resources and those who are unlikely to ever get much resources. This goes for any kind of inequality: class inequality, inequality based on gender, inequality based on race, global inequality…
  • The “struggle of classes” angle makes it clear that many of these have to do with Karl Marx. Because other people have used ideas from Marx, it’s not uncommon to call the conflict theory “Marxian” to distinguish it from Marxism in the political domain. Schaefer tends to use “Marxist” for both, which can get quite confusing (for one thing, many conflict theorists are against governments).
  • In some ways, conflict theory became mainstream with the human rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Unsurprisingly, some of the most vocal activists in sociology can be heard using concepts from conflict theory.

Recognizing Interaction

  • While functionalists and conflict theorists debate one another, there are sociologists on the sidelines who focus on social behaviors, relationships, and meanings. Interactionism (or “symbolic interactionism,” as it’s often called) is recognized as a micro-level analysis and it’s one which may not be that interested in direct causal links of the big machine or big struggle types. It’s more about what happens between individuals and how things can make sense.
  • Interactionism is very recognizable in labeling theory or in the dramaturgical approach. But some people (including Schaefer) associate it with Max Weber. Weber also did work which was closer to macro-level analysis (including what he’s written about the Protestant Work Ethic, or PWE). But interactionists do turn to Weber as more of an inspiration than Durkheim or Marx.
  • Interactionism is very obvious in the work of many contemporary sociologists but it’d be difficult to say that it’s ever become dominant, in sociology.
  • Interactionists often do things which are close to ethnography, including participant-observation.

The Feminist Angle

Occasionally, people will propose feminism as a fourth member of the MTP group. Schaefer doesn’t really do it like that. In fact, sociological feminism is pretty much a reply to the WMDs. It’s much more clearly influenced by conflict theory, to the extent that some might think of feminism in sociology as a part of conflict theory. In fact, some early feminists in sociology saw women as suffering from gender inequality in pretty much the same terms as class inequality. But feminists also criticized conflict theory as exhibiting machismo at many phases in its development. Overall, feminism has been among the most important changes in the history of sociology during the 20th Century. As the notion that women and men should have equal rights, feminism is very strong throughout the discipline.

Potential Pitfalls

Now, this is all a very simplistic model. But I do think it helps, if you don’t get stuck in it. Which is probably why most introductory textbooks (including Schaefer’s) present some version of it. But you may still run into problems if you follow it blindly.
Here are a few things to be aware of:

  • Nowadays, sociologists mix and match ideas from these MTPs and it’s rare to find a “pure” functionalist, a die-hard conflict theorist, or an exclusive interactionist. Feminists are even more active in terms of using tools and concepts from diverse perspectives.
  • Because functionalism and conflict theory are both working at the macro-level, they often have more in common than one might think.
  • Though functionalism mostly talks about stability, they also talk about transition and adaptation. Going from one stable system to another causes some social problems, which may make them sound like conflict theorists.
  • Similarly, the notion of a “dysfunction” may sound like a conflict theory idea, since it has to do with social problems and even with inequality. But the perspective is still that societies “work.”
  • Many broad sociological concepts are carried across all MTPs. For instance, sociologists in general care about social roles. But the way people handle roles will depend on their major theoretical orientation. For instance, an interactionist will see how people “play” their roles in society, what it means to them. A conflict theorist might emphasize that roles are related to statuses and that statuses are often ascribed. Unsurprisingly, a feminist cares a lot about gender roles and might talk about the fact that these roles can be quite diverse, so that there are many ways to be a woman or to be a man. Finally, a funcitonalist is likely to see the set of roles played by different people in society as complementary to one another: society “needs” criminals, CEOs, students, sick people, homemakers, cousins, nurses…
  • Just so you know, there’s no such thing as a “global perspective” in Schaefer’s book. Sure, sociologists talk about globalization and about global inequalities. Immanuel Wallerstein proposed the World System Analysis. But none of the perspectives discussed by Schaefer is labeled as the “global perspective.”

(For the most astute observers among you, it may be obvious that I’m giving you a bunch of hints about the exam. Some clues were subtler than others, but I think they can all be useful.)