While this is a low-content post, it’s stress season for students, so I just wanted to share a helpful resource with a few tips on managing stress. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, click on the link below. If nothing else, they’re always good reminders.
Think back to some of your least favorite/least informative classes you’ve had in your undergraduate and graduate careers. What is the common denominator? Is it the subject matter or the instructor?
When I reflect back on my least favorite courses of my college career, two immediately come to mind: plant biology and macroeconomics. Why? Being a horticulturalist, I looked forward to taking plant biology, and economics has always been interesting to me. Thus, a disengaging subject matter was not the problem. Unfortunately, for both courses, the professors’ incompetency in teaching ruined my learning experience. But, that’s not what bothers me the most. What’s worse is that both professors are still teaching those same courses, ruining plant biology and macroeconomics for hundreds of students at a time. It sounds harsh, and I confess that I do not have hard evidence to support my accusation. While all online reviewers of these professors share my viewpoint, student evaluations don’t tell the whole story and shouldn’t be used to gage an instructor’s effectiveness (see “Student Evaluation of College Teaching Effectiveness: a brief review”). That being said, the one thing I believe should change in higher education is quality assurance in teaching.
I am passionate about teaching and truly believe that teaching is equally important to society as research. In fact, I would argue that many times these teachers are the inspiration for students who pursue research careers. Thus, I would say that if more instructor roles were filled by effective, passionate teachers, research would advance concurrently. So, how do we ensure quality teaching in higher education? I don’t think that teachers should only teach and researchers should only research, for research can improve the effectiveness of teaching and vice versa. However, I don’t think brilliant researchers should be given teaching positions if they are terrible teachers (by the way, both of my aforementioned professors are exceptional researchers). If they are brilliant researchers and terrible teachers, their time would be better spent doing research! So, I would suggest two ways to help resolve this problem: 1) to require all new instructors to be peer-evaluated by other faculty unannounced throughout the semester and 2) to increase compensation of full-time instructors.
As I perused through the case summaries on the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) website, I tried putting myself in the peer reviewer’s shoes. Although in some instances, the evidence for research misconduct was blatantly obvious, most violations would have been difficult to detect. How do you catch these errors as a reviewer? Fortunately, ORI provides several great resources that serve as guidelines for reviewers.
If you go to the ORI website and click “RCR Resources,” then “Peer Review,” the ORI lists four useful resources for peer reviewers that can facilitate detection of misconduct. The third resource in that list (“Ethics of Peer Review: A Guide for Manuscript Reviewers” by the Yale University) seemed particularly helpful. While this document has a wealth of information on peer reviewing, I’m going to share just a few of the described peer reviewer responsibilities/considerations that are good reminders for all of us.
Is the work you are asked to review too close to your own?
If you are asked to review a manuscript in which the research overlaps your current study or a study you are planning to perform, there is a definite conflict of interest. By reviewing that manuscript, you’re putting yourself in a lose-lose situation. If you give the manuscript a solid, ethical review, “you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” Assuming the manuscript is published, you could hinder your chances of publishing your own study. Obviously, if you choose to review the manuscript in the alternative manner to get an edge on your competition, prepare to receive the consequences. Remember, you’re better off just letting someone else review it.
Do you have the time to review the article within the time frame requested by the editor?
Agreeing to review a manuscript within the editor’s deadline and submitting it late is unethical (or at least frowned upon). However, doing a slapdash review is also unethical. Deciding whether or not to review a manuscript takes a little bit of forward thinking and realizing that you are not super-man/woman. In the case that you are too busy, by declining the review, you are doing yourself and the author a favor.
The average adult attention span is generally considered to be approximately 20 minutes. At Virginia Tech, class duration ranges from 50 minutes to nearly 3 hours. Since lectures aren’t likely to be reduced to 20 minutes, instructors (at least the good ones) implement various active learning strategies to maintain student engagement. A few of the more common active learning techniques include, discussion, group activities, in-class writing assignments, and question/answer sessions. However, Hackathorn et al., (2011) reports on an often forgotten, yet effective, strategy that may require little to no effort in execute: humor.
In the study, “All kidding aside: Humor increases learning at knowledge and comprehension levels,” (Hackathorn et al., 2011) humor is evaluated as a teaching tool for improving students’ knowledge, comprehension and application. The instructor utilized puns, riddles, jokes, personal anecdotes and multi-media as sources of humor to deliver the course material for a social psychology course. Assessment quizzes indicated that humor improved students’ overall exam performance and was especially beneficial for improving knowledge and comprehension. Why does humor work? The authors of this study use the following example to suggest one possible explanation:
“‘Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?’ is a play on words that is related to a famous psychologist, but requires students to remember who Pavlov is and remember his work with conditioning in order to understand the humorous twist. Thus, recall, retention, and comprehension skills are practiced while decoding the pun.”
In addition to improving exam performance, it is my personal belief that the appropriate use of humor in the classroom can help establish a constructive instructor-student relationship. When the instructor and students laugh together, it seems that a personal connection is formed that fosters a more participatory classroom. In other words, the instructor seems more approachable for questions and discussion.
When conducting my plant identification labs, I’ll occasionally make up silly puns involving the plant names. Sometimes I’ll get a chuckle; however, many times—after hearing crickets—I have to explain my own joke after which I may hear a few forced giggles out of pity. While I personally enjoy trying to be “punny” from time to time, students do seem to feel more comfortable answering and asking questions after having the chance to laugh at or (more commonly) make fun of my bad jokes.
Please share your personal experiences with classroom humor, and for your entertainment only, I’m going to share one of my favorites for when I teach the white ash tree.
As my students and I approach the aforementioned, enormous tree, I’ll say:
“Look everyone! There’s a big ash tree! Actually, it’s a big white ash! It’s so big, I’ll bet you can even see it at night…if there’s a full moon.”
(If you don’t get it, say “big ash tree” fast and out loud)
Some of my most valuable teaching experiences did not take place in a classroom, or in a lab or even on a campus. I actually gained much of my teaching experience from coaching functional fitness at a CrossFit gym as an undergraduate. While content delivered was dissimilar to horticulture, I became a better public speaker, learned how to effectively communicate to a broad audience and learned how to build positive relationship with the audience. Of the aforementioned acquired skills, the latter seems to be often overlooked in pedagogy: how do we foster positive relationships with our students?
First, why is a good student-instructor relationship beneficial? In “Small Changes in Teaching: The Minutes Before Class” (The Chronicle of Higher Education), James Lang shares the student-response after a colleague took the time to build relationships with her students throughout the semester: “Students were more talkative in discussions. The atmosphere in class took on a more positive, productive tone, and she felt more connected to her students — even the ones who normally liked to hide out in the back row.” Personally, in addition to improved student engagement, I’ve noticed that I have fewer honor code violations when I am more conscious about maintaining a good rapport with my students. I think most would agree that as long as the relationship is ethically sound, a good instructor-student connection can facilitate learning.
Second, how can we develop and maintain these positive relationships with students? The method I’ve adopted for my classes is derived from a coaching technique we used at the gym called “off-the-floor coaching” (similar to the method described by Lang’s colleague). At the gym, “off-the-floor coaching” normally takes place the 10 mins before and after coaching a class, and we use this time to get to know clients. Doing so builds client-trust and enables the coach to tailor the workout to the needs of the client. Likewise, in the classroom, I’ll spend the five minutes before class to chat with students (I should note that I only have 10-15 students). The conversation normally relates to the course, but not always. Regardless of the topic, the small talk makes me seem more approachable, and students seem to feel more comfortable asking and answering questions.
My question to you is this: do you have any experiences outside of the classroom that has made you a better teacher? What, specifically, did you learn that you have integrated into the classroom?
We all know what it feels like to read a vague syllabus. You know the one…deadlines aren’t yet set, assignments aren’t explicit and it’s difficult to see the pathway to success. Without specific direction, it is difficult to truly understand expectations. As human beings, we best function by knowing what is expected of us from those in authority. We want to know how we should act in certain situations in order to avoid consequences. This is why having a code of ethics is useful to an organization, but a code of conduct produces results.
Codes of ethics are like the aforementioned syllabus—helpful but inexplicit. Codes of conduct, on the other hand, are like the syllabus that lays it all out like a road map: time of submission, font sizes, heading location, page number formatting….and they are usually about 10 pages long. This may be too detailed for some, but in general, it is a clear guide for success. The “Code of Ethics” for the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is, in my opinion, a great example of when a code of ethics and code of conduct are combined. It contains both enforceable and non-enforceable directives. For example, in Article II: Relation of Professional to the Public, ASHS states, “A Registrant shall avoid and discourage sensational, exaggerated, and/or unwarranted statements that might induce participation in unsound enterprises.” What does this even mean? An average reader, unfamiliar with such jargon, would not truly understand implied expectations from this statement. Thus, it would be difficult to know when one is not abiding by this specific ethical code. In addition, this statement would also be difficult to enforce by those in authority. In contrast, “A Registrant shall not divulge information given in confidence” (Article III: Relation of Professional to Employer and Client) is straightforward and enforceable. So, in a way, this Code of Ethics actually seems to be instructions for both ethics and conduct, combining abstract and concrete specifications for success and/or consequences.
Therefore, I have concluded having both codes (Ethics and Conduct; vague and concrete) in one document could be very useful to an organization. It allows for subjectivity and discretion on the readers part, while also explicitly describing admissible and non-admissible behaviors. In doing so, the organization can come across as just authoritative enough, while also showing that they trust the reader’s view of ethical behavior. By giving the reader a few ambiguous rules, there is room for self-regulation. Thus, like ASHS’ Code of Ethics, sometimes just the right mix of direction and self-discretion is the best recipe for success.
I just read a great article in Scientific American on the difficulties and importance of communicating science. Marcus du Sautoy is an award-winning mathematician and professor for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. In addition to his research, he is a passionate advocate for communicating scientific research to not only the general public, but also to scientists in other disciplines.
According to de Sautoy, when scientific research is effectively communicated to the public, “the public is then in a much better position to make judgements on what we should be doing about the energy crisis or whether we should give the okay to stem cell research.” This is a great point, but how do we accomplish conveying potentially dry information to an uninterested audience? Du Sautoy proposes that scientist need to learn how to become better storytellers and that “universities need to do a much better job at training scientists to communicate and become storytellers.” Ironically, in preparation for a presentation I was recently asked to give to an audience outside of my discipline, my advisor encouraged me to explain my research as if I were telling a story and to make the story entertaining. “Otherwise, you’ll be talking to yourself.” What tips have you received that have helped you communicate your research to the general public?
Interdepartmental communication of science can nearly as difficult as connecting with the general public. De Sautoy attributes this disconnect between disciplines to “linguistic barriers” and the tendency of scientists to specialize. Despite this communication barrier, de Sautoy foresees the next great scientific breakthroughs arising from discoveries in the narrow borders between subjects. Thus, he has been facilitating cross-departmental conversation groups and podcast debates to stimulate multidisciplinary research. Personally, I think Virginia Tech is moving in the right direction for improving interdisciplinary communication. For example, in 2016, three departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Science will be merging to improve cross-discipline collaboration. However, I think it will take more than just merging of departments to really stimulate collaboration. I like the idea of “conversation groups” amongst researchers from different disciplines. Have you ever participated in a research discussion group between scientists of multiple disciplines?
Personally, I’ve never cited an open access journal for my research in horticulture. It’s not that I’m concerned with their credibility; simply put, I’ve yet to find an open access journal that specifically addresses the narrow scope of my research. However, there are several open access journals in other areas of horticulture, one being the International Journal of Horticulture and Floriculture (IJHF).
As its title implies, IJHF is published in multiple countries, specifically Brooklyn, NY (United States) and Asokoro, Abuja (Nigeria) by International Scholars Journals Publishing Corporation. Upon reading the journal’s “Aims and Scope” summary, I found it to be generic and somewhat vague in its representation of the journal itself. I felt as though it could have been written about most any scientific, open-access journal. According to the summary, the overall goal of IJHF is to act as a tool for horticulturalists and floriculturists to convene and share their research ideas. In addition, the journal aims to stay on the cutting-edge of horticultural research, and it also aims to liberate researchers of financial constraints as it is free to submit manuscripts and to access published articles. However, upon acceptance of a manuscript, authors must pay a $500 handling fee.
In contrast to its “Aims and Scope” summary, IHJF’s open access policy is more descriptive and clear. The publisher addresses open access by explaining that the journal is freely accessible internationally, and there is no fee for researchers to submit their manuscripts. In addition, they mention that even though IJHF is free to download and use (as long as it is properly cited), the researchers will maintain copyright ownership of their work, as well as the ability to allow or refuse third party usage. IJHF, according to the publishers, positions itself at the forefront of the open access movement, focusing on the idea of spreading knowledge freely in hopes of international collaboration and education.
Honestly, journal accessibility has been the least of my concerns in my graduate studies. Since students have access to journals through university subscriptions and free interlibrary loans, I have yet to encounter a situation in which subscription fees have hindered obtainability. It seems to me, those who have the desire to read peer-reviewed articles (e.g., grad students, researchers, professors, etc.) have access anyway, and those who would have to pay for a subscription would much rather read a trade journal. It would be interesting to know if changing a journal’s status to open access actually increases number of readers. Obviously, my observations of journal readership is limited to my time spent at Virginia Tech in the small Department of Horticulture. I am aware that accessibility may affect readership in other disciplines, universities and countries much differently.
Do you think open access affects readership in your field?
It’s hard to believe—we are already approaching the half-way point of fall semester. Most of us have taken our first exam(s) and have had plenty of time to evaluate our professors’ teaching styles and the classroom’s conduciveness to learning. Maybe the instructor is going too fast or too slow. Maybe a foundational concept was poorly explained at the beginning of the semester and you’ve been lost ever since. Maybe you can’t focus due to construction work just outside your classroom. Regardless of the situation, many students feel they have to wait (sometimes suffer) until the end-of-semester evaluations before they can anonymously tell instructors how they feel. Wouldn’t it make more sense to give the instructor some feedback before the end of the semester…while the instructor still has time to respond and potentially accommodate requests? Furthermore, since every classroom dynamic is different, it may not make sense for the instructor to tweak his/her pace or teaching style based on student comments from a year ago. For example, let’s say in the 2014 class, there were two or three “question askers” who encouraged the instructor to clarify complex concepts. However, in 2015, the class was moved from 11:00 am to 8:00 am, and now, few students are speaking up even if they are a little confused. Unfortunately, as a result of the positive reviews from 2014, the instructor may not understand why the 2015 class is struggling. Or, he/she may be blindsided by the poor evaluations at the end of the semester. This isn’t fair to the students or the instructor.
How do you feel about mid-term instructor-evaluations? What are some ways to enforce student participation in these evaluations? Should the teacher adjust his/her educative methods based on the current classroom dynamic, or should students learn to adapt to the teacher’s pedagogics?
One of the most valuable tools I’ve learned to utilize within and outside of my graduate career is something that I’ve never heard mentioned in the classroom. Yet, this tool could be just as valuable to my career as the doctorates degree for which I am studying. This tool is called networking.
In “How Do You Teach Networking” (Chronicles of Higher Education), James M. Lang reviews his transition from “distaste” and mistrust” at the very idea of networking to pondering whether or not it is his responsibility to discuss the “importance of this basic skill” in his capstone course at Assumption College. Regardless of its mission, a college/university is supposed to prepare its students for their future, right? Thus, is making connections with industry leaders (or future industry leaders) not crucial to one’s success? Before answering this question, humor me while I tell you a bit about my personal experience.
Just so we’re all on the same page, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines networking as “the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” I’m NOT referring to the definition you might find elsewhere on the web (e.g., Urban Dictionary)—a crude variation of “flattering ones superiors to earn an unworthy raise or promotion.”
Now that that’s clear, let me give you an example of how networking has worked for me outside of academia. A few years ago, I began coaching at a local CrossFit gym, hoping to utilize this position to stay in shape, practice pubic communication, and earn some extra cash as I attended college. One thing I did not anticipate was the effect this job would have on my landscaping business—my other side job. Although the clients I coached had never seen my landscaping work, they trusted me more than the landscape contractors whom they had never met. I didn’t have to “sell myself;” I was simply cultivating relationships. Eventually, the landscaping jobs I gained through coaching became more lucrative than coaching itself. Obviously, because of this experience alone, I agree with Lang: networking should be taught to undergraduates, even if it’s just teaching them how to recognize networking opportunities. After all, they come when you least expect it.
In academia, networking opportunities seem much more obvious. In these instances, it’s more about how than when to network. An academic conference is a prime example. Since these conferences are more explicitly about networking, it can be easy to blur the aforementioned definitions and become “that person.” “That person” takes every opportunity to demonstrate his or her superior intelligence and is immediately best friends with the leading scientists at the conference. Since I’ve encountered a few of these individuals at these conferences, I can empathize with Lang’s initial perception of networking. However, for the most part, my experience during these events has been very positive. I’ve found that these conferences are very conducive to introductions that may have not happened otherwise. Though these meet and greets may not be extensive, they allow graduate students and new faculty members establish an identity that is relatable, memorable, and, hopefully, credible, rather than just another name on an impressive CV.
Although networking is not a hard skill, we all know soft skills are just as important. As someone in a field that primarily focuses on hard skills, learning and understanding the nuances of networking may not always be second nature. Therefore, teaching this in the classroom is crucial if the goal is to truly prepare the student for the “real world”. Cultivating relationships can lead to opportunities at the most unexpected time, and it is important to prepare students to recognize and utilize such occasions.