Day: January 17, 2014

Automatic Reply

Dear colleague on sabbatical,

I hope you are enjoying the time with some relief from teaching. For many of us with small kids or working spouses, traveling for extended periods of time is not an option. But even an at-home sabbatical is more than welcome, as it helps us catch up on all the papers that have long been awaiting submission, and maybe we even try to learn something new. So with all my heart I wish that you make the best of your sabbatical.

What I don’t understand is the need for your automatic reply email message. Every time I send you a  new email, I get the autoreply that your response may be delayed because you are on sabbatical. Then of course I get the actual response from you pretty soon thereafter. We have some projects together so we email each other a lot, which means I have received this automatic “on sabbatical” message hundreds of times since September. It’s really  REALLY getting old. I don’t understand the need for this message in the first place — it’s not like you are somewhere without electricity or *gasp!* broadband internet — you are down the hall, doing work pretty much the same as always, responding to email as promptly as ever. The only difference is that you do a little less teaching and perhaps a teensy bit more travel.

So please, for the love of IMAP, don’t contribute to the endless stream of spam that clutters our mailboxes 24/7 and turn off the completely unnecessary goddamn autoreply. Otherwise, I will have to resort to walking to your office every time I need to talk to you, and we’ll see how you like that.



Flippping the Bird Classroom

The powers that be have recently started “encouraging” us to adopt “novel paradigm-shifting teaching strategies” (doesn’t the bullshit syntagma make your skin crawl?),  specifically the flipped classroom. While I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea, the zeal with which the concept is being pushed is making me want to dig my heels in, in protest, and never change anything.

The (presumably right-side-up) traditional classroom involves a teacher who lectures to the class, then the students go home and do the homework. The upside-down, flipped classroom implies that students first view prerecorded lectures and perhaps do some quizzes before coming to class, and class time is used for activities. Thoreau has a number of nice posts discussing the flipped classroom.

Whether it makes sense to flip a classroom really depends on the discipline, the type of class that is being taught, the class size and level (e.g. undergrad freshmen class is different than a grad level one). In many STEM fields, undergraduate courses have discussion sections in which a TA helps the students with the homework problems. To me, honestly, the great administrative love for flipped classrooms seems a little too much like another creative way to cut costs: get rid of TA’s and have the professor do the TA/tutoring job. Interestingly, nobody is mentioning any tuition reduction.

Look, there is no doubt that I am a priori uncomfortable with the prospect of a drastic change in teaching largely because it is a change. Perhaps the change is necessary because things are broken, somewhere, somehow, or could simply be improved. But I don’t I really see a reason to change things just to change something. I am an experienced teacher and have practices that work well and keep the students engaged and learning, so I am unconvinced that a “paradigm shift” is entirely necessary. Students are not failing, they are doing reasonably well. They could do better, which means we should probably think about slight rather than paradigmatic shifts in how we educate them. 

The point is, in STEM, someone needs to explain the concepts to you or you need to read the book (or ideally both) and then you need to work on problem sets. Nothing really can replace the deliberate practice that a student gets through doing the homework problems. We can make the problems more fun or whatever, but if we are serious about teaching, then students have to do the work. Perhaps by flipping the classroom we are somehow trying to make this work seamless or painless, because it’s not done at home but rather in class, with the instructor. I am not sure that’s possible; as the saying goes, no pain no gain. Moreover, homework problem sets in STEM fields often take considerable time to do, more than the 150-min per week that a typical 3-credit course would allot for the homework-in-class activity; students would still need to work at home. 

With a flipped classroom, considerable work that needs to be put in by the instructor ahead of time in order to record all the lectures. I talk fast, so I am sure many students would appreciate being able to go back and rewind my lectures; this point is not lost on me. However, I am really uncomfortable with the prospect of my lectures being recorded for posterity; I make silly jokes and generally goof around with students to add a bit of levity to class, but I am not sure I would be crazy about my performance being freely shared on the web.  (The ability to view myself teaching over and over again would also yield boundless fodder for obsessive self-deprecation.) Moreveor, I really like the ephemeral aspect of teaching; the lecture is a fleeting performance, always unique. I don’t think I have ever taught things in the exact same way twice — with different kids in class, the pace is different, they ask different questions, there can never be the exact same situation. I really love that aspect of giving a lecture.

Thoreau makes a good point that our society has issues with experts in general. Anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism are pervasive, and many college students, ironically, actually respond poorly to the “sage on stage”, lecture-style class because the lecturing is enforcing the expert, elite status of the teacher.

For many students, more and closer interaction with the instructor is key; that’s why MOOCs will never be a substitute for the college experience (although I think they can supplement it). Such  people learn well from others and really benefit from enhanced interaction. But it’s many students, not all of them. When you, as a teacher, ask a question in a lecture, usually a handful of students respond. The number increases as the course progresses and as you actively try to include other students. Still, there will always be students who don’t want to engage. Some are just not interested. Some are not following; these students would likely need additional help. And some are interested and following just fine, even doing great in the course,  they are just not the engaging types. I believe that too much interaction in the classroom can actually be quite torturous and perhaps even counterproductive for introverted types. When I was a student, I always appreciated a good lecture and a good lecturer. For me, the lecture was the first prompt, the efficient first introduction to the material,  and the chance to hear concepts laid out with a clear emphasis on what’s important. During the lecture I would listen, take it all in, and then process everything on my own. I personally don’t think I would have liked at all constantly having to interact with the teacher, or peers for that matter. And can we say ‘bias’? I am not sure that women and minorities in fields where they are underrepresented necessarily benefit from increased exposure to both the teacher (who grades them!) or other classmates while being in the trying-to-get-things, working-on-homework state. Imagine all the added opportunities to be told how “girls can’t do math”!

There is something I don’t doubt, though: frequent assignments and frequent refreshers, such as quizzes,  do wonders to keep the students working continuously and overall aid the retention of the course material. There are great ways to use technology to create online assignments and quizzes that help achieve this goal. Also, I think the students should be given ample opportunities to interact with the instructor, and then take it or leave it. For instance, the instructor can help by holding multiple office hours, perhaps in a classroom if the office is too small. I had 6-7 people in my office hours at any given time last semester; if you are approachable and available, they will come find you if they need you.  

So instead of upright traditional or flipped classrooms, I would advocate for a “buffet classroom”: offer the students a number of options for interaction (lectures, frequent office hours, discussion with TA, email, forums) and let the students take what they will. Top off with carefully crafted assignments and tests (paper and online), and finish with a dollop good, old-fashioned caring.