So where so we go from here?

As this class winds down to an end, I find myself struggling with what to do with all of
the information that I’ve gathered. I don’t teach currently, won’t teach during my tenure
at Virginia Tech, won’t begin a PhD for at least a year, and won’t even begin to think
about applying for a faculty position (if I end up going that route) for several years! So
what do I do with everything I’ve just learned?

Well, I should use it every day, of course. We talk so much about specific applications
of learning in the classroom (understandably) that we lose sight a bit about how else
we can apply these skills. That a respectful environment that encourages learning isn’t
just valuable in a university, but in any workplace. That unofficial “contracts” about
standards of behavior are just as valuable when we’re talking about a public hearing as
when we’re talking about a syllabus. That the skills needed to begin a discussion are
just as critical when we’re trying to educate someone about our field.

Throughout this course I feel like the best benefits that are going to occur for me are perhaps the ones that aren’t the most explicit. While I may someday teach in a classroom, I certainty will teach in many other capacities, and I’m excited to see how these skills can improve those diverse opportunities for communication.

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Learning in an environment of fear?

The recent bomb threats at the University of Pittsburgh combined with the passing of April 16th have caused me to wonder about how you can continue to have a healthy learning environment in the midst of fear. In the past, fear associated with the world of higher ed has been more about the fear that if you say the wrong or unpopular thing, you may get kicked out. But there has often been examples of real fear on campuses, from the events above to the bombings conducted by the Earth Liberation Front/Animal Liberation front.

These events cause students/faculty to become suspicious of their own community, afraid of what they might do to spark off someone or something, or just plain fearful of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pitt has handled the situation by giving students the option of returning home and completing coursework long distance or of staying on campus and continuing to attend class. But I have to imagine that either option is tough, and that both have a very negative impact on the learning environment. History may not seem so important when you feel your life may be in danger.

So how do we deal? Do we ignore threats? Do we investigate every hint of one? Do we cancel the semester? Do we require students to continue attending class? Of course, every situation is going to be unique, but it seems to me that through the midst of these crises we should do our best to focus on that which brings us together – the pursuit of higher education. Use it as a unifying force in a time of trial… make it a statement of how we will overcome or persevere through anything that challenges us.

Not that I have any idea how to implement that ideal. Perhaps someone else does?

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Making a fool out of ourselves

As part of the Communicating Science course that I’m currently enrolled in we’ve been doing a lot of… well, improv exercises I suppose you could call them. Activities designed to have a variety of purposes, but that almost uniformly involve actions outside of our normal comfort zones.

One of the values that I’ve found in doing these exercises is that I understand them better after participating in them (rather than just in hearing about them). They create such a sense of community between the students involved, because if you’ve acted in a very silly manner in front of everyone and lived, then you can stop being embarrassed about the possibility of making a fool out of yourself. Because you already have!

I can only imagine how engaged and cool a sophomore level discussion class might be if the students spent the first day doing these types of activities. Made me wonder… what other types of “ice-breaker” activities has anyone done to try and decrease the self-consciousness felt by their students? Any tips for getting students to willingly participate in them?

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Teach For America Exposed in Seattle

Stumbled upon this unfortunate blog/discussion of Teach for America. I’ve heard rumblings of things like this in the past but never something so explicit.

The title of the author’s book, “Learning on Other People’s Kids” highlights the main problem with Teach for America nowdays – a lack of support and real pedagogical training for the volunteers. Kinda reminds one of graduate students, huh?

It seems that we have a consistent habit of throwing twenty-something new graduates into teaching roles without really considering whether or not they have any idea how to teach, resulting in difficulties for both primary and secondary school kids and college students.

As the author says, “Children can no longer afford to have anyone, even those with good intentions, learn on their time. That is just not acceptable.”

I find this to be just as true when it comes to our undergraduate students.

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Student-centered honor systems?

Since we didn’t get a chance to discuss the articles on cheating and plagiarism, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on the topic.

1) Both the technology article and the suggestions article imply that the responsibility for stopping or catching cheaters lies with either the university or the faculty. The tech article suggests that universities need honor codes with set penalties or sanctions, and the other suggests that faculty should go to great lengths to do what ever they can to reduce cheating (including denying bathroom breaks!).

Of course, Virginia Tech has both of these things. We have a very specific undergraduate honor system that assigns specific sanctions depending on the degree of cheating or plagiarism, and we have many faculty members that won’t allow cell phones or require ID’s before signing into a test. And yet I would say that cheating and plagiarism in our undergraduates is still shockingly common. 

So what’s missing? In neither article did either author suggest have a conversation with students about the importance of academic integrity. We tell students not to do it, but do we really ever talk about why? Honor systems are only functional with buy-in. Imagine a class that starts with a short conversation about why we have an honor system, engaging the students into discussing why they think it’s important. Talking about how each of them deserves recognition and credit for the work that they do.  From there, imagine asking to develop a contract between themselves, pledging, in person, to their fellow students that they will make the decision to act with integrity.

Perhaps it seems a bit crazy, but such systems already exists. At my undergraduate college, we had completely unproctored exams and quizzes, because we had committed, as a community, not to tolerate cheating.

Of course this won’t ever take the place of a formal system of dealing with violations of academic integrity, and I think it’s still very important to have a system that takes the decision-making outside of the faculty member’s hands. But what’s been proposed in these articles is not only ineffective, I think it’s contrary to the idea of student-centered teaching.

2) As future faculty members, we talk as if we have an obligation to our students. An obligation to do our best to help them learn. An obligation not to just mindlessly cover content. And obligation to care. And I would say that this obligation extends even further – we have an obligation to check for and call out plagiarism.

Imagine if a student came to you and lied. Blatantly. Would that be acceptable? If not, then why would it be acceptable for a student to come to you with a plagiarized paper and say, “Hi. This is my own academic work and is composed of my own ideas.” It’s just a lie wrapped up in a fancy word. I’ve seen students, graduate students, who have plagiarized on their dissertation. And after their honor system experience is over and they’ve been suspended or expelled, still come and say to me… “I just didn’t know. No one ever told me what I was doing wasn’t okay!” How many teachers must have failed them along the way, saying that it was just a sentence or two and not a big of a deal?

All the discussion we’ve had about grading schemes is important in its own right, but if students can cheat and pass without “getting it done”, then what are we accomplishing?

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The power of a united internet?

Over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to see two great examples of the power of the internet in action:

1) The SOPA/PIPA blackout

2) The Elsevier petition

The first resulted in the removal of support by a large number of congresspersons from their respective legislation and the second resulted in Elsevier withdrawing their support from the Research Works Act. I think it’s important that we share these events with our students and remind them that the power to create change doesn’t just originate with elected officials and tenured professors, but can come from them. As students, they can still have a say in how we treat the “big issues” through blogging, posting, facebooking, etc. and these actions can add up to have big consequences.

We tend to see blogging/facebooking/etc. as something very small scope, and treat it that way in our conversations to students. What we should be telling them is that you don’t have to blog a new cure for cancer or a dramatic reinterpretation of Shakespeare. What you do need to do is post about the issues that matter to you, because chances are a few hundred thousand other students may share your concerns.

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Professional Website

Since the subject of tonight’s discussion is professional websites I* thought that I’d go ahead and share mine. It was developed with google sites, and I can show anyone that’s interested how to get a custom url.

I’d be happy to hear any feedback or suggestions!

*Idea inspired by Dave Thornblad.


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Science: Not as hard as it looks

A recent NPR article titled “Science: It’s Really, Really Hard, And That’s Something To Celebrate” caught my eye this morning, and I’d encourage you to give it a read-through. From the author:

…a simple fact about science. It is hard. It’s really, really hard. That is not something we should attempt to paper over. It’s something we should celebrate.

Of all the things that science gives us, from the joy of discovery to the connections we get to make between different phenomenon, I’m not sure that the aspect we should be celebrating is that it’s hard.

Because it isn’t.

Science, or the application of the scientific progress, is actually very, very easy. It happens all the time, in everyday life, not just in the lab environment. And that we label it hard, that we insist that it can’t be done without the mandatory year of biology, physics, chemistry (organic chemistry too!), and math, is one of the reasons, I believe, that we’re headed towards a future where scientific thinking is discouraged or looked down upon. We need everyone to appreciate what science can provide, and in order to accomplish this we need everyone to realize that science is something they can do. It’s not elitist, and it’s not impossible. Honestly, it’s not even that hard.

Yes, the more complex our questions get the more complex our tools need to become, and that takes energy and persistence, and it requires learning a whole range of skills in a variety of disciplines. But we need students that want to take that first year of biology and physics, regardless of whether they’re going to be an artist or an economist or a marine biologist, because they realize that science is something that they can participate in – that doesn’t take a graduate degree in quantum physics to be successful in science – that it’s cool, it’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s easy enough that they can keep practicing it for the rest of their lives.


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