Thoughts on Teaching – The Weed-Out Class – 2/14/2022
I had a thought while reading Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto about the purpose of teaching. It led me to make a connection to my own undergraduate experience that I had really never made before.
In Chapter 2 of the book, titled “The Things We Tell Our Students,” Gannon discusses the weed-out classes — those classes with the reputation of thinning out students and being a gateway to higher-level courses in the major. This passage really spoke to me:
Think about a particular course at your institution that has the reputation as a “weed-out” class for a particular major. Perhaps the instructor has a first-day tradition of dramatically conveying to students what the class’s purpose is. Turn to your left, now turn to your right, they intone; judging by historical averages, one of the three of you will not make it through this semester. Students who survived this gateway course talk about the demands of upper-level work in the particular program of which it’s a part. All-nighters, brutal exams, impossible group projects—there might even be an institutional lore surrounding the program, and an almost perverse pride from some of its members in being the most rigorous or demanding or intense major out there. Now ask what this type of culture is really saying to students. What’s really valued here: learning, or endurance? If students major in this program, will they embark on an intellectual journey, or a gauntlet of academic hazing? Are students being told what really matters is their readiness to submit to all sorts of draconian requirements inflicted in the name of “rigor,” rather than the specific knowledge and habits of mind needed by practitioners of this discipline? (33)
Kevin M. Gannon. Radical Hope : A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press, 2020.
I remember back to my own undergraduate days at Rice University. I did not personally take this class. In fact, I actively avoided it because of its reputation. The class was PHYS 101, the introductory physics class. As a history major, I had to choose some math and science to take. The two choices presented to me were to take one each of MATH 101, CHEM 101, and PHYS 101, or to take two classes of two of those. I chose to take MATH 101 and 102 and CHEM 101 and 102 just so I could avoid the physics class. And, everything I heard from those in the math/science/engineering pathway that took physics justified my choice.
The class was brutal, according to them, with class averages on the exams in the 40s and 50s. Yet, those who made it through the course felt proud that they had survived and could now go on to the field they had chosen. That seemed normal at the time. What Gannon talked about was in full presentation with physics at Rice in the mid-1990s. But looking back now, I have a completely different opinion on it, especially after reading this section from Gannon’s book.
At that time, the fault for not succeeding in the class was fully on the student. If they can’t handle this class, then they will never succeed in future classes. But, thinking about it, that is so perverse. They have created a course that is so difficult that many do not pass. Here’s the thing — if you create a class where the class average on exams is in the 40s and 50s, then the problem is not with the students but with the teaching. If you can’t teach the material well enough to where students have a chance to not only pass but to succeed on assessments, then you are doing a poor job of teaching. If your students cannot pass the exams you have put together, despite having done the homework and attended your lectures, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. The whole design of the class is set up to make each student work as hard as possible (and this was Rice, which was already a challenging school) for the chance that they might pass. Instead of assessments being a point where students can show what they have learned and apply that learning, the assessments were designed to highlight how little the students can actually do, despite the instruction given to them.
Now, I am guessing on much of that, as I did not take the class myself. However, I had a number of friends who struggled through it, and my memory of things they said has stuck with me. I do remember two classes I took that worked in a similar way.
- I thought I might be interested in Psychology, and so I took PSYC 101. The class ended up being in a large lecture hall with an old white male professor droning on at the front. I remember almost nothing from what he said, and I learned pretty quickly that what he said was not what was important. Instead, what was important was the textbook. We had three exams as our only grades in the class, and they were essentially over anything that you could find in the book. We had little guidance as to what to study, and were faced with long multiple-choice exams (I seem to remember about 100 questions, but that was a long time ago). I did not do great on them, but I didn’t do terrible either ending up in the mid- to upper- B range. Then, on top of that, the class was then put on a curve, which could either move you up or down. In my case, it went down, leading to an ultimate B- in the class. There was little to inspire me to be interested in anything to do with Psychology out of this class, and I the class and assessments were more like a chore to get through than any sort of inspiration to go on to further study. And, I didn’t, as I never took another Psychology class.
- I am still not sure to this day why I took an Economics class my freshman year. I did generally do well in Economics in high school, but it had never been a real interest. However, somewhere along the way, I decided to take Macro-Economics. It was hands down the worst class I had at Rice. I have talked about it many times with my family, with colleagues, even with my current classes that I teach. The way I characterize it is this: There were three aspects to the class — lecture, homework, and exams. None of those three had anything to do with the other. Attending lecture did not help with homework or exams. Doing the homework did not help with the exams. In fact, each seemed to exist completely separate from the other. Not only did I learn nothing, but I actively avoided anything to do with economics for more than a decade afterwards. Only as I have come to realize that an understanding of economics is key to teaching history have I gone back and tried to learn what I should have at the time. I ended up making my only C at Rice in this class, and those of us who survived the class had a ritual book burning of the book at the end of the semester.
What is my point in all of this. I teach differently. Not because of these things necessarily, but those lessons resonate with my own approach. I teach now with the aim of working with my students, engaging with them, teaching and learning with them. My class is demanding, but it is demanding because I ask the students to be active participants in their learning. They are not just told the history, but they work with it, question it, challenge it, make links, and apply the history to their lives today. As I say to my students every semester, my goal is to have my students succeed. I will do everything I can to help them succeed. They just have to meet me halfway – by doing the work. If they can do that, we will all learn together, and I promise them a much more engaging and interesting history class than they have often found in the past.
Posted every semester in my class is a short biography of me that includes my teaching history, my teaching philosophy, and a section I call “My Goals for the Class.” I am going to paste that part in full here, because I think it reflects exactly what I am saying here while also attempting to not be what those courses above were to me as an undergraduate:
My Goals for this Class
My goal for you and this class is to help you succeed. This does not mean that my goal is to guarantee you an A or a passing grade. Instead, my goal is to provide you with all of the material and guidance that you need to achieve what you want to in the class. For this, I promise you these things:
- I will do my best to be open, fair, and available to you throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will provide a working classroom that contains all of the information that you need to succeed.
- I will be an active participant both online and in person throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will hold all office hours that I can and notify you when I will not be around.
- I will answer emails and Canvas messages as soon as I can, but no longer than 24 hours after you have submitted them to me.
- I will do my best to complete all grading within a week from when the assignment closes. However, I will notify you of my progress throughout my grading and will let you know if it will take longer than a week.
- I will communicate with you regularly through Announcements.
- I will grade your work fairly and will give you the grade that you deserve based upon your effort and skill.
Beyond my specific goals for the class, I hope to help each of you develop skills that can help you succeed in your future college classes. I aim to develop three basic skills that will help you in future classes. These are critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing. Again, the hybrid class is more aimed at these skills than the online class, but I am working on developing the online class more in that direction. I am also available for academic advising and counseling to all of my students, so if you want to discuss college planning, scheduling, majors, transfer, degrees, programs of study, life issues, or anything else, please come by my office at any point where I am there. You can also contact me via email or Canvas messaging at any point.
I hope you can see from that what I try to bring to my classes. I am interested in any feedback or thoughts on this.
Thoughts about Teaching – Teaching about Race – Starting the Conversation – 6/27/2020
I am going to talk about teaching about race as a relevant topic in today’s world. Teaching about race has been a primary part of my own American history classes and of both my undergraduate and graduate studies.
I was first introduced to discussions of race in American history during my time studying history at Rice University. The courses taught by Dr. Edward Cox there opened my eyes to a whole new sense of the world that I simply did not have from my K-12 experience. Although I went to diverse schools overall in K-12, being in the honors/gifted program meant being primarily around whites. I had never even thought of why that was or what might be wrong with that model until my undergraduate studies.
Courses in the history department at Rice in the African American experience, in Caribbean and Latin American history, and in the history of the Civil Rights Movement all served to provide me with a broader understanding of the history of race. History put me on that path to understanding, and it is a path that I am still on today.
While Dr. Cox was certainly not the only one at Rice from whom I learned about the history of race and racial issues, his courses were so crucial to my growing understanding that I still look back fondly on him and his classes today (over 2 decades later). I took every class that he offered while at Rice and only wish I could relive some of those classes now, knowing what I do, as I think I could get even more out of them in the current era.
In graduate school at Penn State, I did not have as much exposure directly to African American history or the history of race overall, but I still was able to read a diverse set of materials in my classes, and the Civil War focus of a number of my graduate courses did give me a good background in the ideas of slavery and emancipation.
While I had many strong history professors as a graduate student at Penn State, the one who still sticks out to me is Dr. Thavolia Glymph, who is now at Duke University. Her Slavery and Emancipation class was transformative for me. It was certainly one of the most difficult classes I had at Penn State, with a reading load that was astoundingly high on a weekly basis (think between 600-800 pages a week with over 1000 pages a week a couple of times). It was also a strange class, as there were five of us in the class, all white men from the South and West, who were taking a class on slavery from a black woman. I admire her patience and understanding with us, and I still remember the class today as a key one in my education. The amount of information in the class was so high, that I do wish that I could go back and take the same class a second time, this time without the time pressure and cramped setting of a full graduate semester, just so that I could delve deeper and understand the concepts, theories, and ideas with more time for consideration.
I did not set out to be a historian of African American history (although I strongly considered that as a focus while an undergraduate), and I still am learning all the time about issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. I feel moderately educated in African American history, and I have often regretted not going into that as a specialty going into graduate school, as it has become more and more of a field of strong interest for me. I am still woefully undereducated in many other fields of the history of race, have taken almost no courses on Mexican-American or even broader Latin American and South American history. I also never once took a course on Native American history or many other specific ethnic groups in the American history experience. So, for much of what we might consider the history of non-white American history, I am still very much a beginner.
I wish I knew more, but I bring what I do to my courses and to my life. In the context of a national conversation about race, I do my part by staying current and applying the lessons of history to what is going on around us today. I hope to show some of these things about how I think about and teach race in American history as I move forward in this series.
Thoughts on Education – 3/28/2012 – Thinking about the future of education
I haven’t done any article reviews in a while, so I thought I’d sit down and hit my Evernote box a bit here. So, here we go.
The first article comes from the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. As with so many others, the intent here is to look at way the future of the university system will be, and while I teach at a community college, and not a university, the ideas are still relevant. I also, of course, like the origin of this one, since it came out of a conference at my alma mater, Rice University. It starts off this way: “I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future? What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studio? a reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?” Certainly, my classrooms are set up that way, even my “other” classroom, the two-way video one, still has all of the emphasis on me. The article also noted: “With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.” I have posted up articles that talk about both of those things before, but this information from this conference really narrows it all down well. At its heart, what the article notes from the conference is that it is time to update the model to the Digital Age from our older Industrial Age. That we have adopted the multiple-choice exam and the emphasis on paying attention in class from this old Industrial model, where creating a standardized and regulated labor force was key. In the Digital Age, it will be important to “ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.” Throughout the conference, apparently, the emphasis was on “hacking” education, overturning our assumptions, and trying something new. While the solutions are general in nature, I found this summary of the conference to be right up my alley, and certainly a part of my own thinking as I redesign. I wish I had known about the conference, as I would have loved to have attended.
Looking at the question from the opposite end is this article from The Choice blog at The New York Times. The blog post was in response to the UnCollege movement, that says that college is not a place where real learning occurs and that students would be better off not going to college and just going out and pursuing their own dreams and desires without the burden of a college education. What is presented here is some of the responses to that idea. A number of people wrote in talking about what the value of college is, so this gives some good baseline information on what college is seen as valuable for. Here are some of them:
- “a college degree is economically valuable”
- “college is a fertile environment for developing critical reasoning skills”
- several noted that you can get a self-directed, practical college education if you want it
- “opting out is generally not realistic or responsible, given the market value of a degree”
- “the true value of college is ineffable and ‘deeply personal,’ not fully measurable in quantifiable ways like test scores and salaries”
That’s just some of the responses, specifically the positive ones, as that’s what I’m looking at here. It is interesting to see the mix of practical things and more esoteric ideas. I think that both are hopefully a part of college education and that both are part of what we deliver. I would like to think that’s what my students are getting out of college in general, and I hope that the redesign that I am going for will help foster that even more. I especially hope to bring more of the second and fifth comments into what I am doing, as that is the side that I think a college history class can help with.
Then there is this rather disturbing article, again from The Chronicle of Higher Ed. It discusses the rising push for more and more online courses, especially at the community college level. As the article notes, that is often at the center of the debate over how to grant a higher level of access to the education experience for more and more people. But, with more emphasis being put on the graduation or completion end and less on the how many are enrolled end, this could end up putting community colleges at an even higher disadvantage. As one recent study put it, “‘Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.'” So, we are actually putting our students into more online classes that make them less likely to finish overall. In fact, they are not only less likely to finish, but they are less likely to succeed at that specific class or come back for later classes. As well, a different study pointed out similar problems for online students: “‘While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.'” This is disturbing to me, as this is exactly what I teach at least half of my schedule each semester in – the online environment exclusively. I know that success in an online class is difficult, although I have actually been slowly improving the success rate over time in my online sections. I think I’ve finally hit a good sweet spot with the online classes right now, and I’m less in need of fixing them at the moment. I do, however, agree with the very end of the article that says that what is often missing from the online courses is the “personal touch.” That is the only part of the class that I would like to change, as I need a way for me to be more active in the class right now. I can direct from the point of putting in Announcements and the like, but I do feel that I get lost in whatever the day to day activities are. I need to design some part of the class that has me participating more directly rather than leaving it up to the students. Otherwise, I do think I’m doing pretty well in this part of my teaching career.
OK. I think I’m going to call it a night here. Any reactions?