Week 6: Ethics of University Rankings

After reading the resources about citation methods and tools in this weeks module, I started looking for some recent news articles about citation issues in academia. What ended up catching my interest was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about university rankings. The article was specifically in response to the recent rankings publication in QS which can be found here. I thought that it brought up some interesting points and I wanted to share my thoughts.

I remember during my senior year of high school looking at the US news rankings of colleges and universities when I was trying to decide where to apply. I had honestly not really thought much about college before this point and having some resource to guide me was a really helpful starting point. At this time in my life I was not yet aware of how subjective these rankings were. As I have continued my education and especially as a graduate student, I have come to realize how subjective and often flawed these rankings are. In my specific case, other factors dictated where I actually ended up applying and attending.

In the article the author brings up some of the specific issues with QS and the methods that they use to create their rankings. I think that one of the most concerning issues that the author brought up was the commercial aspect of the rankings and how a university can essentially pay for a higher rank. The quote below is from the article in the Chronicle:

“QS offers paid consulting services to improve a university’s ranking, as well as paid “guidance” for university leaders. Indeed, the enterprise is so brazen that it effectively sells rating approval for a price.”

-Brian Leiter, Academic Ethics: To Rank or Not to Rank?

It seems obvious that this is an ethical issue for the organization that produces rankings. As a student I would not trust a ranking that was subject to these serious questions related to the ethics of their methods. The real problem, however, is that before becoming a graduate student and exploring the issues related to higher education, I would have never realized that this was something I needed to be aware of.

The other really important aspect of rankings that I never considered before reading the article, but can personally relate to, is how international students rely on university rankings. Leiter writes:

“Millions of students in Asia, Africa, and South America seek advanced education; in many cases, their home countries will fund some or all of their graduate studies. These students have little way of gauging what is on offer abroad; hence the incentive for the global rankers. The university-rankings industry preys on the least-informed students and on the universities desperate for their tuition revenue”

-Brian Leiter, Academic Ethics: To Rank or Not to Rank?

As a high school student I relied on university rankings to give me an idea of universities and so I can relate to the international students who are also using the rankings to find universities. This made me realize that although I disagree with the overall philosophy of rankings, there is a need for students to be able to compare different schools and the programs that they offer. I think that the real solution to this problem is getting away from numerical raking systems that are based on subjective measures and often do not accurately represent student experiences. If instead students were given qualitative comparisons and were encouraged to explore specific programs that are offered, I believe students would be much happier and more successful. It is much more important to attend a university at which a student feels valued, has a culture that they fit in with and curriculum that aligns with their goals as opposed to attending a university simply due to a high website ranking.

Week 5: Academic Fraud and Collegiate Sports

The following post is written in response to the following articles:

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

 New York Times: N.C.A.A.: North Carolina Will Not Be Punished for Academic Scandal

There was an interesting decision announced by the NCAA last month to not impose any punishments against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) for the academic fraud that was committed in a decades long practice of offering courses that were not commensurate with the academic standards of university coursework. These  courses were known as “paper classes” and the courses had no attendance stipulations and,  “required only a single research paper, which she [Deborah Crowder] graded without much regard to their quality” (Bauer-Wolf). This clearly is not the academic standards that are expected from a well known and accredited university. I felt like this example was a demonstration of why not only having, but also enforcing an honor system is crucial. Clearly there was a breakdown in the system in terms of having some verification/validation of courses, assuming that the university administration was not involved in the scandal directly.

The NCAA became involved in the scandal because there were claims that the courses were specifically marketed to athletes to boost their GPAs and help them maintain NCAA eligibility. The following quote from the article by Bauer-Wolf summarizes the NCAA concerns:

At its core, the NCAA was examining whether UNC had violated the association’s restrictions on “extra benefits,” which refers to certain advantages, such as financial payments or academic assistance, that are offered to athletes but not the wider student body.

A law firm’s 2014 report commissioned by the university did find that nonathletes also benefited from the classes. That report, which cited a “woeful lack of oversight” and a culture that confused academic freedom with lack of accountability, concluded that more than 3,100 UNC students enrolled in the courses. About half of those in the 188 faux classes were athletes. Investigators concluded that university employees were aware of the fraud and actively steered athletes and other struggling students to those courses.

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

It is clear that the university violated standards of academic integrity. What is less clear is how the university should be punished for these violations. The decision by the NCAA, however, seems to show that they do not think they are the organization that should be creating or enforcing the punishments. I think that it is certainly an issue that is much broader than just the NCAA, but I think in this case they should have stepped up and punished UNC for their obvious violations. It seems clear to me that the systems were created to intentionally assist students in satisfing the NCAA eligibility rules.

I think that it is important to consider how universities should be punished for these violations. The first thing that comes to my mind is the university accreditation. This is relevant in this case as reported in Inside Higher Ed:

Instead, the NCAA will forward its decision to the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges [SACSCOC], which can address academic inconsistencies. Previously, the body had placed the university on a yearlong probation in 2015, ending in 2016, for violating seven accreditation standards, one of them being academic integrity. It was the strongest punishment the accreditor could deliver besides revoking accreditation entirely.

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

I do agree that involving SACSCOC is important in this case, however it brings up some complex issues. Accreditation is university wide and affects students from the undergraduate level all the way up through full professors. I’m not arguing that SACSCOC should not be involved, however, should all of the students have to face consequences and a diminished reputation because of the behavior of those who contributed to this scandal? I think this is where the NCAA was in a unique position, they could have really punished the university and helped promote a change in the culture surrounding collegiate athletics without punishing the entire university population.

I believe that the NCAA failed to act in a case that was obvious and egregious. This point is made very clearly by Dr. Gerald Gurney in a quote featured in the New York Times article referenced above.

“If ever there was a case of academic fraud, North Carolina would have to be the poster child — the longevity and the outrageous behavior to keep athletes eligible through systematic fraud,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and past president of the Drake Group, which seeks to reform college athletics. “And it leads one to the absolute conclusion that this finding sanctions academic fraud among our institutions for the purpose of keeping athletes eligible.”

New York Times: N.C.A.A.: North Carolina Will Not Be Punished for Academic Scandal

I am really unsure of how this issue is going to be resolved and how other institutions are going to react to this scandal. I am reminded of the interactive movie The Lab in which various members of a research team are faced with investigating and confronting academic misconduct in their own lab. The exercise shows how being aware of misconduct and ignoring the issues instead of reporting or addressing them makes those involved liable for consequences that result. I think that in the case of the UNC incident, there had to be many students and faculty that were at least somewhat aware of the “paper classes” that were being taught, or not taught in this case. Now that UNC has been exposed they are all in danger of suffering from the consequences of these actions, even though they were not directly participating. I think the lesson here is that we are all responsible for creating and maintaining integrity in our lives and in the institutions with which we associate.

Week 4: Graduate Honor System

After reading through the Virginia Tech Graduate Honor System policies and also some of the other documents about the policy, I found that overall the policy makes a lot of sense and I feel that it does a good job of trying to be fair to students. Often times academic misconduct can occur without students expressly trying to break rules or cheat. I think that it is very important to examine each case on an individual basis. Furthermore, the policies allow for students to learn from their mistakes and does not blindly expel students who violate the policy.

One of the statements in the supporting documentation that I felt conveyed the sentiment of the VT Graduate Honor System is quoted below.

“Virginia Tech’s Graduate Honor System allows that the human condition is not perfect and that a student faced with the consequences of a questionable moment has a rare opportunity to reexamine the decisions that led to the violation.”

-Hierarchies of the Virginia Tech Honor Code: Twenty Years of Case Studies of the Graduate Honor System

This reminds me of the idea of restorative justice. This is the concept that justice is served by fixing the mistake that was made and thus “restoring” the previous state of what was harmed. The decision to allow a student to reflect on a mistake and work to improve their behavior allows them to right the wrong that they committed. At the end of the day, I think that the world is better off working with people and allowing them opportunities to learn and grow. This doesn’t mean that there should not be a punishment or that violations of the Honor System should not be taken seriously.  I simply think that by expelling students, especially those with no history of infractions, we miss an opportunity to educate and improve the moral character of a student. Moreover, I think that people make honest mistakes and so systems should always be designed to allow for flexibility and to avoid absolute rules and punishments.

Another facet of the VT Graduate Honor System that I think is really important, and unfortunately not thought about as much as teaching, is the policies regarding teaching standards. I am glad to see that included in the Honor System are policies about how graduate students should conduct themselves when teaching and grading material. One of the statements that I have seen violated is the following:

“neglecting to properly grade submitted material”

– Article 1, section 3, 3. Falsification

I know that graduate students often have many commitments and people trying to get them to focus on a multitude of tasks. It is a full-time job and comes with lots of stress. However, when grading material graduate students should always think about what the proper amount of effort is always do their best to grade assignments with care and patience. As an undergraduate student, I had several graduate student TA’s that would not really read through lab reports or actually go through assignments and instead just give everyone the same grade, usually an A to avoid any complaints. As an undergraduate student I felt like I was being deprived of learning opportunities and meaningful feedback. I would work hard on writing lab reports and I genuinely wanted to know what I was doing well and what I needed to improve on. As a teaching assistant, I spent a great deal of time grading lab reports, but it was important to me to provide that feedback and do my best to help students improve.

I am also glad the the Honor System has policies that are meant to protect teachers and acknowledge that sometimes TA’s make mistakes even when they are trying their best to grade honestly and fairly. One of the statements that stood out to me was the following:

“Likewise, misconduct in teaching does not include honest disagreement over the method of presentation of instructional material to a class or in the evaluation of the performance of a student.”

– Article 1, section 3

I think that as students and as teachers we need to always remember that often there is no absolute truth. Our ultimate goal is to learn from each other and to create communities of people who can mutually benefit from the knowledge that we acquire and share. The VT Honor System is a great framework to create an environment in which students and teachers are treating each other with respect and conducting themselves with integrity. Having this type of environment is crucial to creating people who contribute to a successful society.

Week 3: Integrity in Authorship

When I was going through the reading, “Becoming a Scientist,” I was especially intrigued by the section about authorship. The complex issue of how credit is distributed for work on scientific articles is very interesting and I think that there are some parts of the system which make a lot of sense and help to create fair results. Other parts of the norms of authorship, however, perpetuate some of the power structures that plague academia and I think that as the next generation of researchers, we need to actively create change in the standards of the system as they stand.

As an undergraduate student, I was not aware of the importance of publishing to the career of an academic. When I began graduate school, I was a bit shocked to discover the degree to which entering an academic career relied upon publishing and the importance of where your name falls in the list of authors in a paper. As I learn more about this system, I have realized that it is important to have a system for acknowledging the various contributions that lead to a publication. In this sense, I think that the journals in which authors are listed in order of contribution seem to create a fair system.

In contrast, I think that cases in which, “the head of a research group is an author on almost every paper associated with the group” have the potential to create a very unfair system. If the head of a research group is not contributing a significant amount of work towards a publication, I think that it is misleading (at best) to include them as an author. As students we need to become comfortable about having conversations with our superiors about authorship. I think that this not only creates a more fair system, but also creates a more collaborative environment. Researchers, advisors, and heads of research groups are highly incentivized to publish. If one makes it clear that the expectation is that anyone listed as an author on a paper must make significant contributions to the work, I think it is likely that they will receive more help from these people because they benefit greatly from being listed as an author.

I realize that I am still very early in my career in academia and that some of these challenges are not easy to solve. I believe, however, that if we as academics do not recognize the parts of the publishing system (or the academic machine as a whole) that we are not happy with and actively work to change them, those things will just continue and no change will occur.

Week 2: Purpose of a Research University

The research university in the 21st century has many purposes. This can be a very good thing because it allows the vast resources that research universities poses to benefit a wide population. It can also be a challenge, however, because not all of the purposes work together harmoniously. In my opinion a university, even a university that is focused on research, should have a primary purpose of education. Students are the foundation of a university and I think it is a shame when universities grow to a level that they are no longer in touch with their most fundamental responsibility: imparting knowledge to students. A research university should also have a fundamental purpose of producing research. This seems obvious but it is important because a university has a unique position in the spectrum of organizations that undertake research. To a greater extent than in many cases, the research that comes out of a university is not constrained by the pressures of industry. They are one of the few places where knowledge can be advanced for the pure reason of understanding. Another purpose that ties into this is disseminating the research outcomes to the community and society as a whole. I feel strongly that universities have a moral duty to actively spread the knowledge that is uncovered in order to provide the maximum benefit to society. I also think that this extends to the role that universities play in their local communities. Through outreach programs universities have the opportunity to enrich the lives of the people who surround them, whether or not they are actually students.

Diversity Awareness

Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and attending public schools meant that I was surrounded by a relatively diverse group of peers from a young age. I never realized that this was different from how all children grow up, it just was. This is the case for most children I think, they grow up thinking that their own experiences are shared by all people. This is why educating children about other experiences and teaching them how to be aware of their own perspective is so vital. It is also so important that we all become aware of how our brains work and how to become aware of the “hidden brain” as writer Shankar Vedantam coined it. I thought this quote really summed it up well,

So the problem is not that the plane has a pilot and an autopilot function. The problem is that sometimes without the pilot even being aware of it, it’s the autopilot function that’s flying the plane.

Shankar Vedantam

By learning about how the subconscious sections of our brain function, we can better understand what causes us to react in certain ways and evaluate if we are “piloting the plane” or if we are allowing our automatic reactions to drive our decisions.

Over the years, I have worked as a part of many teams. From my own experiences, I have observed that teams that are comprised of diverse individuals seem to work better. This is also supported by in the article How Diversity Makes Us Smarter from Katherine W. Phillips.

Finally I wanted to address being uncomfortable. In some situations, exposing ourselves to diverse experiences can feel uncomfortable. I think that this is completely normal and actually a good thing. The feeling of being uncomfortable is a sign that we are extending beyond our current levels of knowledge and understanding.

The Secret Sauce

Teaching style can be kind of like a secret sauce. It’s that special thing that makes you unique, a kind of trademark. As a high school student I had certainly thought that I might like to become a teacher at some point, but it wasn’t until years later that I discovered my passion for teaching. My journey through undergraduate education was nontraditional. I took a five year break from classes and worked at Saggio’s Pizzeria in my hometown of Albuquerque. By the time I left, I had performed every job in the restaurant and was working at a new drive-thru store that I helped open. My favorite job during this time was being a pizza maker. It was one of the biggest and busiest restaurants in town and it was really fun to be running around a flour covered kitchen making pizzas and calzones as fast as I could. Another part of this job that I really enjoyed was getting to train the new employees. I was very passionate about the food that I made and I enjoyed teaching new people how to make the most beautiful mediterranean pizza or how to cut the perfect leaf-shaped vent holes in a calzone. When I was reading the material from Professor Fowler, it made me think of my experience in the pizzeria. I enjoyed teaching the material because it was something that I was really passionate about. It also made me recognize that teaching in a classroom requires awareness of so many other important details aside from just being passionate.

I have not yet had the opportunity to teach a class, so it is difficult to say what my teaching style is. I have been a TA for two mechanical engineering labs however, and I think I can say I want to be a teacher who promotes learning above all else. I think I will be able to relate to students who do not succeed in traditional classrooms because I am a student who really struggles in those environments. Becoming a mentor to students is something that really drives me.

Professor Fowler also talks about nerves, how they effect teaching and how they can be leveraged to be, as Fowler says, “positive attributes”. I like this point and I think that learning to harness one’s nervousness is an essential skill even for those who do not “perform” as teachers do, in front of people everyday. I began playing the conga drums when I was 10 years old and began performing in front of crowds soon after. I was incredibly nervous the first time that I walked out onto a stage to perform. It was so scary, but it was also really exciting. I look forward to developing my teaching so that I can get that same excitement after a great lecture.

While I may not know what my teaching style or technique will look like, I do know that like any good pizza you must consider all the ingredients and how they come together to make something truly special. You must take care and have patience with the dough and you have to have good sauce and good cheese but never too much of either! As a teacher you must foster a safe and patient environment and include the right amounts of structure and freedom, without too much of either, to create that special space where learning flourishes.

A Conversation on Grading

The theme of this week is assessment. This is a topic that brings out many diverse viewpoints, but it does seem that the majority of people agree that what we are doing right now is far from ideal. With traditional methods of assessing student performance, teachers promote the competitive culture of the modern education system and actually demotivate students. I can personally say that I am one of those students who was never really motivated by grades, much to the dismay of my mother. I would often get poor grades in classes, even though I would have high test scores. I never really understood why people were so motivated by grades. I enjoyed learning and often would loose points on assignments that I had done, but just never turned in for a grade. I thought I was a misfit in a group of students who all shared some unspoken understanding/level of content with the way that we were evaluated. It wasn’t until college that I really started to appreciate that I was part of the vast majority of students who really don’t perform well within the methods that are traditionally used to motivate students. In reading the article by Alfie Kohn I thought the quote about grades and testing was rather accurate,

Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.

Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”

Furthermore, even if these traditional assessment methods didn’t impede learning, they are also very poor indicators of the skills and competencies that students need in the modern workforce. Right now our education system produces students who are really good at memorizing content and regurgitating it in a a well defined setting. In a modern work setting, people need to be able to think critically and solve problems in settings that are often very loosely defined.

The perspective that Alfie Kohn brings to the table in the article, “The Case Against Grades” is very insightful. I really appreciated the fact that he tackled the issue from a practical perspective, focusing on tools and techniques that educators can use to actively begin to transform their classrooms. Change can often seem difficult and jumping into a new teaching and assessment style can seem like a really big undertaking, but I felt that Kohn did a very good job of providing guidance and examples so that teachers can approach the change confidently, without feeling too overwhelmed. I was amazed at finding out how long research has shown that traditional assessment does not produce desirable results. It is time that we begin to shift away from these outdated and ineffective techniques.

Don’t Go for the Presliced Experience

“A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. Being mindless, colloquially speaking, is like being on automatic pilot.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

Promoting mindfulness in learning is a concept that I think is extremely important in providing students with real tools that they can use instead of just checking the boxes of a curriculum. After reading the first chapter in the book, “The Power of Mindful Learning,” by Ellen Langer, I was really struck by how prevalent rote learning really is and how ineffective it can be. I also really enjoyed the many musical examples that she used.

It was very interesting/alarming to see how creativity is stifled when people are taught using traditional techniques. Throughout my educational experience, the majority of the classes I have taken relied primarily on the ideas of memorization and repetitive practice to master concepts. I think that this culture of teaching and learning is especially prevalent in the field of mechanical engineering, which I find ironic because one of the main duties of an engineer will be to solve problems in creative ways. It is essential that engineers can adapt the skills that they learn to novel situations that often do not have well defined constraints. Adopting a mindful approach would be a much better method for educating engineers, and really all students.

I also connected with the idea of “Sideways Learning” and how the methods we use to partition skills actually prevents true mastery of the information.

“Mindfulness creates a rich awareness of discriminatory detail. Theories that suggest that we learn best when we break a task down into discrete parts do not really make possible the sort of learning that is accomplished through mindful awareness of distinctions. Getting our experience presliced undermines the opportunity to reach mindful awareness. Sideways learning, however, involves attending to multiple ways of carving up the same domain.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

It is so important to real understanding that we are not just taking our “presliced” knowledge. To truly understand, you must look at the whole and dissect it for yourself; discovering the different parts and having the freedom to explore it from all points of reference. Learning in a mindful environment promotes this type of thinking.

I also really appreciated the discussion that Langer included about pianists and the idea that a truly amazing performance requires not only mastery of the technical parts of the music, but also the ability to convey the emotion and the performers individual adaptation of the music to create a unique performance. I thought this was a great demonstration of how important mindfulness can be.

“If a pianist is preoccupied with the voluntary, manipulable end of the spectrum of neurological possibilities, this preoccupation resounds in the music. The performance sounds calculated, not shaped from a spontaneous response. Hence critics often comment on virtuosos who, for all their technical brilliance, are unfeeling, or mechanical, or characterless, and so on.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

Teachers must change their material to be more mindful, but they can also incorporate the lesson of the pianist into their pedagogy by not just being a master of the material but also learning how to convey it in a mindful way.

The best part is that Langer found that students actually liked the experience of mindful learning more than traditional memorization techniques. This makes sense to me. Students want to succeed and they also want to be able to express their creative and unique ideas.

My favorite (digital) things

Engaging the current generation of learners requires that educators understand and make effective use of digital media and technology. In a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, it was reported that 87% of all teens in the United States have or have access to a computer or laptop and 73% have or have access to a smartphone. While smartphones and computers can be a distraction in the classroom, they can also be a powerful tool in helping to interest and capture student’s attention. Utilizing digital resources is becoming a standard tool for teachers and I think it really is a valuable one.

I am a very big user of digital resources for my own learning, including youtube,, and most recently I find it very helpful to watch lectures and worked example problems in a video format that lets me pause and rewind so that I can keep up with my notes and actually understand what is being taught instead of just copying notes as fast as I can. I also like that I can take breaks if I am starting to loose my focus. This point was eloquently made in the article, “Four Things Lecture is Good For”

There are serious problems with retention and recall of information given in a lecture even if the lecture is rhetorically solid — and this is to say nothing about the disconnect between the length of the average lecture and the average human being’s attention span.

Robert Talbot, “Four Things Lecture is Good For”

One of my favorite youtube channels is called 3Blue1Brown and is dedicated to making very nice animations to show complicated math problems. Often times the concepts that we teach can be difficult to understand, especially if they are abstract and don’t have intuitive analogies. This channel does a great job of tackling complex math problems and providing animations and perspectives that make them much easier to grasp. I think one of the best parts of this channel, and a common theme throughout successful digital education materials, is that when I am watching these videos, I am actually being entertained. I first found the channel when I was trying to understand some difficult topics in linear algebra, but now I am excited to watch the new videos that the channel creates because it is entertaining.

Who cares about topology? (Inscribed rectangle problem) Click on picture to see the video

I am interested in finding out what digital tools other students and teachers are using. Please share if you have a cool youtube channel or website that you like to use.