Monthly Archives: June 2012

Teaching’s a Joy in this Flat World

In the last month I’ve checked two books off of my list for summer reading, with seven remaining.

After reading the first 150 pages of The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, barely a quarter of the full text, I decided to lend the book to a friend for the remainder of the summer.  My impression of the book thus far is that it’s fascinating, and that I’ll likely finish reading it someday, but for now I’ve got too much on my list to continue it.  Friedman’s book reads like a history of the last twenty years, as told through anecdote.  He examines how the dot com boom of the late nineties funded not just hordes of computer scientists to generate product, but also funded the construction of massive amounts of physical infrastructure that was left behind when the bubble burst.  In a classroom setting, this book could be well coupled with Andrew Blum’s book Tubes, which as it so happens was just reported on last week on NPR’s Fresh Air program.  The massive internet infrastructure built during the dot com boom provides data streams around the world that connects the highly developed countries that have high incomes to the less developed countries with lower incomes.  The moral of the story is that any work that can be sent elsewhere using a computer WILL be sent elsewhere using a computer in the very near future.

My purpose for adding this book to my summer reading list was because it appeared as required reading on a sample syllabus for a course I registered for this fall in engineering education.  I can only deduce that its purpose is to have future faculty members keep in mind that the engineers of the future, the students sitting in their classrooms today, will be expected to think critically and creatively in order to remain employed, and that we should build our learning objectives around these goals.  I’m glad I read it either way, as I’ve since found that this book may well come up in conversation among academics at any given time.  So okay, I got that message, now I’m moving on to the rest of my summer reading!

The kids: 2012-05-04
With Isaac’s birth this spring I’ve been faced with the daunting task of being a father to three kids under the age of four.  A natural consequence of this has been some stagnation of my research.  The balance we’ve found is that I spend 4:00 to 9:00 with the kids every evening, and then one full day each weekend not trying to get any work done.  I don’t think that five hours taken out of each day is what’s slowing me down relative to my peers, I think it’s the exhaustion of being “on” during those five hours every evening and remaining patient and supportive of my kids when I’m with them.  I was initially a bit panicked when I realized that I won’t be hitting my publication goals while in grad school, but I’ve come to terms with it a bit.  I realize that I don’t enjoy doing research full-time, and a career after grad school as a researcher wouldn’t be that much of an improvement over the consulting career I left, and what I really want to be doing is spending my time in the classroom.  Either way, I need to increase my productivity again.

Source: PhDComics
Source: PhDComics
The unfortunate reality is that ANY job in academia within engineering brings with it a research load, and every one of those jobs is being pursued with a vengeance by a hoard of recent graduates who have been publishing regularly (by regularly, I’m thinking four journal articles and eight conference papers during grad school).  Now that I’ve got myself into a tizzy again, I’ll come to the point; I’ve been feeling worn out and in need of some rejuvenation.  A vacation isn’t what I need; because that would put me even further behind on my research goals when I returned.  My proscribed bandaid for the problem is to put a couple of teaching books on my reading list.  The hope is that spending some time each week thinking about teaching will give my brain the processing time it needs to move the research forward, instead of just banging my head on my desk.  Which brings me to the second book I’ve finished from my summer reading list

The Joy of Teaching (a practical guide for new college instructors) by Peter Filene was an enjoyable, if brief read.  In a compact 133 pages, Filene lays out what you need to know going into your first full-time teaching position.

The first section of the book is intended to help academics place their mindset for their upcoming course before diving into it.  Chapter one asks the reader to examine their own beliefs and values as an educator, pointing out that each person has different strengths and weaknesses, and that a given style of instruction may work wonderfully for one person but awfully for another.  The second chapter builds off of these ideas and examines how different students operate.  Filene encourages the reader to understand the different kinds of cognition, and to recognize that any given classroom will contain a spectrum of students with different preferred learning styles, and different levels of preparation to take responsibility for their own learning.  The third chapter brings the first two chapters together and examines the aims and outcomes of a course.  Once the goals of a given course are understood, it’s time to move on to the application.

The second section of the book is titled practices; beginning with writing a syllabus and ending with evaluation, the section spends a great deal of time discussing lectures an discussions in the middle.  Though there weren’t any light bulbs turning on or bombshells dropped in the syllabus chapter, it was succinct, useful, and made the task of laying out a course feel entirely approachable.  The middle of the book, with chapters on lecturing, discussing, and broadening the learning environment, actually felt the weakest for me.  These chapters were as well-written and engaging as the rest of the book, but I struggled to connect many of the author’s ideas to engineering, because they were so firmly embedded in a history or sociology classroom.  This weakness continued into the evaluation chapter, as much of the time was spent discussing how best to provide constructive feedback without becoming overwhelmed by mountains of literary submittals.  At some point I’m sure the author had to make a decision about the breadth of their intended audience, and I certainly don’t hold it against them to stick to their specialty, I just found it a bit frustrating because their advice was so approachable I wanted more that was geared toward me.

The final section of the book brought up some important issues that weren’t otherwise covered, mainly focusing on creating balance in the workplace.  Filene provides an entire chapter on methods to create dialog between the instructor and the students, with a number of suggestions to increase communication outside of the classroom atmosphere, while simultaneously warning that office hours and emails can swallow up all of an instructor’s time if they are not careful.  I found one of Filene’s comments to be particularly insightful, where he says that “… week after week you sit alone, except during those two days before an exam when anxious students line up in the hall.  Don’t fault yourself or your students.  After all, how often have you visited your physician just to talk?”  Before wrapping up the book and reviewing the main points, Filene takes a chapter to discuss the concept of publish or perish, and how the truth of this statement varies greatly depending on what type of school you are employed by.

In all I found the Joy of Teaching to be informative, but not inspirational.  I’m thinking that perhaps the book would have been more accurately titled: “I know you think you’ll never survive your first year of this, but here are some coping mechanisms to help.  You’re going to be okay.”  Filene comes back to the idea of being lifted up by your time in the classroom, but even when he does there’s some angst built in, and you can’t quite escape the feeling that the glass is half empty.  One of the quotes from the book is supposed to show the positive aspect of teaching and comes from Nancy Greenwood, who says “I can have a crummy day with my kid.  I can have a crummy day with my colleagues.  But I can go into the classroom and most of the time leave and feel like I’ve done something good that day.”  Another example of semi-positive quotes from the book, this time on the topic of negative student reviews: as one of Filene’s colleagues likes to say, “even Jesus lost one out of twelve.”

I’m in the process of writing first drafts for this summer’s conference paper submittals, so I’m thinking that my next focus should be on the statistical analysis books from my reading list, but we’ll see where my free-time takes me.  Quantitative summaries of qualitative information derived from observations of data are apparently not a strong suit of mine, but something I need to work on.  In the back of my mind I can’t help but hear a little voice yelling “find a co-author!”  Until next time…

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