Monday, December 17, 2012

MLA Panel on Re-Thinking the Surveys

On January 4th, from 10:15 to 11:30 in the Back Bay D room of the Boston Sheraton Hotel, I will be chairing a roundtable for the Modern Language Association Convention on re-thinking the literature survey courses that are a staple of many English department required curricula.  The original impetus for this panel came from a column that I published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the spring.  If you are interested in learning about the genesis of this panel, start by reading that column here.

In order to allow attendees at our panel to see examples of the kinds of experimentation with survey pedagogy that we will discuss at the roundtable, I asked the participants to send me syllabi or other supporting materials from the courses they are developing or will be discussing.  In this Dropbox folder, you will find the following materials:

1) The syllabus from a team-taught British literature survey at Oregon State University by Rebecca Olson and Tara Williams.
2) The syllabus from a one-semester British literature survey taught by Timothy Rosendale at Southern Methodist University.
3) A Masterworks of American Literature survey syllabus from Evan Carton at the University of Texas at Austin.
4) Some sample course materials from a team of faculty at the University of Texas at Austin who have been working on a large grant project to re-think their large required survey courses.

I would encourage attendees of the panel to take a look at these materials in advance of our session on the 4th.  But more importantly than that, I would encourage attendees to please come and contribute to our discussion.  I have felt for several years now that the conventional ways in which we teach survey courses do not match up very well with what we know about how human beings learn and remember complex information and ideas.  I don't have a magic solution to this problem, and I don't expect anyone else has one either, but if we can put our heads together as a discipline we can perhaps come up with some new ways to approach the surveys that will inspire deeper learning in our students.

Ultimately I believe this problem has to be solved not just by individual faculty members, or by whole departments, or by the MLA--or by textbook publishers, who exert an important (and perhaps undue) influence on how we teach the surveys.  I believe all of those constituents must ultimately work together to think hard about why we teach literary surveys, how we design those courses, and what we expect of students who have taken them.  The end result of this process should be new kinds of survey textbooks, new forms of the survey course, and perhaps new and better learning feats from our students.

We have the information we need about how learning works in order to do this job better; we need collective will and collective action.  I hope that this panel can serve as a catalyst to jump start the process of re-thinking the literature surveys, and I hope you will join me and my roundtable participants in this conversation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Teaching What You Don't Know

Therese Huston
Welcome to readers who are visiting this page after reading my column in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Therese Huston's book Teaching What You Don't Know.  My original intention was to include in the column some comments from Therese in response to questions I posed to her about the subject matter of the book, but I ended up writing the column primarily about the book itself.  As a result, I thought I would share her responses to two of the interview questions I asked to her, and which allowed her to offer additional explanation and advice to her readers.

JL: Where did your original inspiration for the book come from?

TH: Part of the inspiration for the book was lived experience. I have taught many courses where I was just a few weeks (and in some cases days) ahead of my students. As a graduate student and then as a new faculty member, I used to wonder, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about how they learn all of this material, knowing they have to teach it in 12-24 hours?” But I was hoping to get my PhD and then tenure and that seemed like a risky question. When I looked at books on college teaching for advice, it bothered me that the only thing most books said about expertise could be summed up in two sentences: “In order to teach, you need to have mastered the subject matter. And in order to teach well, that’s not nearly enough.” So I’d been wrestling with this issue personally and professionally for years.

I’d also noted in my role as Director [of Seatle's University's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning] how I’d often consult one-on-one with faculty on courses outside of their expertise. A faculty member might tell me he was teaching three courses and didn’t need much help with the first two, but confidentially, he needed a lot of help with the course where he was still grappling with the material. These faculty walked into my office seeking time management advice, but the conversation often moved to their anxieties around this seemingly impossible task of teaching something they didn't know.

But the “ah-hah” moment, the insight where the book title came to me, was in a yoga studio. I was taking a yoga class, just another person on a mat trying to shake off the stresses of the week, when the instructor said something that caught my attention. She said “If I’m going to be a good teacher, I need to focus on what I don’t know. It’s not about remembering all that I do know. That’s fine when I’m doing poses and trying to impress myself at home, but it’s thinking about what I don’t know that helps me notice what you, my students, need right now.”

I’m not entirely sure what she meant, but as I drove home from the yoga class, I knew I had my book title.

JL: Let's say you are a content expert--what are some concrete steps you could take in order to help yourself understand the problems that a novice learner in your field might have?

TH: One problem for experts is that it can be hard to appreciate what novice learners do and don’t know about a topic. One good way to find out is to do Google search on the phrase “Top misconceptions” or “Common myths,” then enter the name of the topic you’re addressing that week. For instance, one of my areas of expertise in psychology is attention (how we pay attention, how we become distracted, etc.), and when I do a quick search for “common myths about attention,” the first few web pages that appear have almost nothing to do with how I’d normally introduce the topic in class. I want to talk about attention allocation (boring and abstract), and these websites are about ADHD (concrete and potentially familiar). But now that I know what students might be thinking about attention when they walk into class, I can do a better job connecting to their notion of attention. I can reframe some of the unfamiliar and complex topics that I want to discuss in the context of what they’re already thinking. Best of all, I get a chance to challenge some misconceptions they might have

My second suggestion would be do a web search on the phrase “Best blogs” followed by the general field of study. So in this case, I would look for “Best blogs psychology” or “Best blogs cognitive science.” I find that I need to enter broad search terms, not narrow ones, to get the best results. Bloggers have often done some of the hard work for you because they are looking for ways to take research findings and make them applicable to non-specialists and everyday situations. That's how they hold onto readers. You’ll often find images and links to videos that you might want to use in class, and you might even find a blog that you want to subscribe to professionally.

And lastly, if you’ve taught an undergraduate course several times and you’re looking for a way to refresh it, update at least one example for each week of the course. As experts, we tend to be curators of the best examples of a concept, rather than recent or familiar ones. The best examples, however, are often obscure. In a political science course, for instance, you might want to talk about elections and from an expert’s perspective, the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 was evidently fascinating, but you’d probably get better reasoning and arguments from students if you drew something from this week’s news.

Readers can learn more about Therese Huston and her work at her website:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Learning from Cheating

To have a cheating scandal erupt at the most prestigious university in America just after the publication of your new book on cheating would be a blessing any writer would welcome--but to have it happen six months before the scheduled publication date is more painful than you can imagine.  I don't want to wade too deeply in the fray of the arguments about Harvard's cheating problem until I have had the opportunity to present the results of my research more fully, in book form, but I also am having a very hard time remaining silent, given that I have spent the last year of my life dedicated to researching, reflecting upon, and writing about cheating in higher education.

So, briefly.  The basic argument I make in my book (forthcoming in spring 2013 from--oh, irony--Harvard University Press) is that we can learn from academic dishonesty how to build better learning environments.  The best prevention against cheating is good teaching--and, it turns out, the features of a learning environment that induce cheating also happen to be the major ones that reduce learning, especially deep learning and long-term retention.  A teacher friend who heard me say this reacted with indignation: So now you're going to blame the teachers for kids cheating?

Yes and no.  No matter how good a teacher you are, some students are still going to cheat.  Bad apples, rotten eggs, dishonest students--they exist, and we are all bound to get some of them. One student cheating in a course may just be one dishonest student who happens to be in your class that semester. But I would argue that if you scratch a major cheating scandal, like the one at Harvard, you are likely to uncover problems in the teaching and learning environment.  Those problems may come from the design of the course, the teaching methods, the nature of the assignments--but they also may come from a curriculum which forces students to take classes which they don't want, or from larger campus cultural forces, such as the competitive nature of the environment.

The argument I am making is not so much that poor teaching causes cheating as it is that we can learn from cheating how to teach more effectively.  If we look carefully at the reasons why students cheat--which consists of most of Part I of my book--what we find are that they are frequently cheating as a response to a learning environment in which they feel unmotivated, incapable of succeeding, or uncertain about their assignments.  So the research on why students cheat can focus our attention on some key features of the learning environments we build--i.e., our courses and classrooms--and can help us understand how to make them more effective learning experiences for our students.  In some cases, yes, my argument will implicate teachers who are not attentive enough to these issues.  In other cases, it might help expose problematic curricular situations over which teachers have little control, and which need to be re-considered at the administrative level.

To take our most pressing example, consider the case of the cheating students at Harvard.  The students were given a take-home exam and told they could use their books and the internet, but could not talk to other students.  So, in other words, it was pretty much open-anything except for your fellow students.  You could get help from a guy in India posting to his blog, but you couldn't talk about the exam with the person next door to you.  Does this not strike anyone else as an extremely strange way to set up boundaries around an assignment?  In what other situations in their professional careers might students encounter such a strange set of instructions?  What purpose do they serve?

My argument suggests that we need to think harder about a take-home exam like this one. We have to build our curricula, our courses, and our assignments in order to motivate students to learn, and give them all of the tools and opportunities they need to succeed.  To take a hypothetical example from my own discipline, if you put an unwilling student into a literature survey course, lecture at him three times a week, and then ask him to write an essay on William Wordsworth's most famous poem--well, I think you are going to get exactly what you deserve in response, and very little of it will be the student's original thinking, however effectively he or she may cover up the "research" they have done.

This is already much longer than I intended, so I will wrap up.  I will just note that I have had the opportunity now to present my research and arguments at four different campuses over the past few months, and have been grateful to receive some excellent feedback and constructive questions.  Thanks to the faculty at Ken Bain's Best Teachers Summer Institute, at Framingham State, at West Kentucky Technical and Community College, and Trinity College in Hartford for their responses to my work, which will continue to evolve as we move through the editing and revision process. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Further Reading on Andrew Kaufman

Welcome to readers who are visiting to learn more about Andrew Kaufman's Books Behind Bars course at the University of Virginia, which I featured in a recent column in the Chronicle of Higher Education as well as in my forthcoming book project from Harvard University Press. If you are interested in doing some additional reading about Kaufman's work, check out the following places:

“Can Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Prevent Crime?” Feature story in University of Virginia Magazine, with video interviews (May 16, 2012).

“Humans and the Humanities,” a pair of companion essays by Kaufman and a student in the course published in, Mary 14, 2011.

“WithGood Reason”--an NPR feature about Books Behind Bars from May 30 through April 6, 2011, with audio clips from Kaufman, students, and residents.

The Richmond-Times Dispatch feature about Books Behind Bars on April 26, 2011.

Kaufman's course is also profiled in a new book by Ken Bain, What the Best College Students Do.

As I mentioned in the article in the Chronicle, I am interested in hearing from faculty who know of other excellent example of grounding the curriculum, so please post below or e-mail me with information about others whose work I might profile for this ongoing series.  

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Woohoo! (and Whew!)

Earlier this week I finished a complete draft of my new book on cheating in higher education.  Although I still have to do most of the peripheral work, such as the notes and works cited and some revising, most of the hard thinking is done.  This comes as a particular relief because of a major meltdown I had with the book earlier in the year.

To make a long story short, I had reached around 40,000 words in a manuscript that was following the original proposal I gave to my editor at Harvard UP last summer.  But as I researched and wrote, throughout the fall and winter, I had become increasingly uncomfortable with that proposal, which I had put together before I had done most of my research on the topic. Nonetheless, inertia and fear of not meeting my deadline kept me pushing forward.

Near the end of the spring semester, I came to a point one day at which I just suddenly realized that what I had was not working, and that I could no longer move forward with the book as I had proposed it.  At the same time, I also received a flash of insight into what the research was really telling me, and how I could present it in ways that would prove most helpful to faculty who were trying to understand, prevent, and respond to cheating in higher education.  I stopped writing and paced around the house for a day or two, miserable and depressed.  I debated three options: sending back my advance and bagging the whole project, asking for an extension, or holing myself up and working like a dog to meet my original deadline.

In the end, I opted for the third choice. It was an emotionally wrenching process to let 40,000 words go and begin from scratch, but I had a strong conviction that I was onto something good with the new approach I was taking. And now, with the book mostly behind me--75,000 words or so--I am happy I made the decision.  I am very pleased with the way the book has turned out, and I hope that I will be able to offer faculty and administrators a new and productive way to think about cheating in higher education.  I am excited to get the book into the review and production process, and hope that it will be out and in your hands in the spring of 2013.

In the meantime, I have had and will have a few opportunities to present the ideas from the book to groups of faculty at various institutions.  Initial feedback at Ken Bain's summer institute in June was excellent, and I will be discussing the material again with groups of faculty at Framingham State (MA) and at West Kentucky in August.  I'm looking forward to hearing what faculty think about the approach I have taken, and will welcome opportunities this fall to present the ideas and get feedback from colleagues on other campuses as the book goes through its review and revision stages.

In the meantime, I'm going to relax for a day or two, anyway.  Time to sit down at the piano for a couple of hours, ride bikes with the kids, or just hang on the front porch and watch the world go by.    

Monday, June 4, 2012

IPLA Participants

Dear Chronicle Readers:

Below you will find a list of the participants in my workshop on Mind-Based Teaching and Learning at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts in May.  These excellent teachers helped me develop the list of suggestions that you can read about in this month's On Course essay.

IPLA Participants: 2012 Mind-Based Teaching and Learning Workshop

Jennifer Elder, Social Sciences Librarian, Emory University

Jennifer Foster, Assistant Professor, Neil Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Emory University

Drenna Waldrop-Valvade, Associate Professor, Neil Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Emory University

Brandy Simula, Recent Ph.D. from Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University

Roger Rochat, Research Professor, Department of Global Health, Emory University

Ann Massey, Clinical Assistant Professor, Neil Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Emory University

Mary Stewart, Director of Foundations, Department of Art, Florida State University

Alicia DeNicola, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Oxford College (Emory)

Brenda Harmon, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry, Oxford College (Emory)

Bronne Dytoc, Assistant Professor, Architecture, Southern Polytechnic State University

Liang Sun, Assistant Professor, Mathematics, Georgia Gwinnet College

Jan Rippentrop, First-Year Ph.D. Student in Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University

Adeel Khalid, Assistant Professor, Systems Engineering, Southern Polytechnic State University

Anna Rulska, Assistant Professor, Political Science, North Georgia College and State University

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Now You Argue It

I am writing this blog entry in my hotel room in Covington, Georgia, getting ready for the two-day workshop I will be leading tomorrow and Friday at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts at Oxford College of Emory University. I am grateful to Jeff Galle for inviting me down here and giving me the opportunity to spend two days with a couple of dozen faculty members talking about Mind-Based Teaching and Learning.

I became interested in this topic—how research from cognitive theory can help us better understand the teaching and learning transaction—last summer, as I was doing research for my current book project, and first began writing about it in The Chronicle of Higher Education late last year. My research and fascination with this topic has continued to grow, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with others and inviting them into the conversation.

On the plane ride down here I finished a book that I have been meaning to read for a while now, and finally got around to this past week: Cathy N. Davidson’s Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking, 2011). Davidson uses the famous video of the basketball players and the "invisible" gorilla to advance the idea that attention blindness—which means that when you focus intently on one thing (such as counting basketball passes), you miss lots of other things (such as a gorilla walking across the court)—is the fundamental structuring principle of the human brain, and provides us with an exciting opportunity to build collaborative knowledge networks. You count the basketball passes, she suggests, and I will watch for gorillas. Together we’ll overcome our individual attention blindness and see the bigger picture.

Davidson seems intent on critiquing the many studies which have been conducted and published on the question of multitasking. The vast majority of those studies suggest that our brains are not very good at multitasking. We tend to perform more effectively at any given task when we focus our attention than when we have multiple tasks we are switching between at any one time.

Nonsense, says Davidson. If we focus on one task, we miss the gorillas. And, she points out in the final pages of the book, the human brain never really concentrates on one task. Close your eyes for five minutes in a dark room and try to concentrate on one thing, and you will see how easily and continually our mind wanders from one thing to the next. Instead of criticizing this habit of mind, and condemning multitasking, she suggests we should embrace multitasking as the modus operandi of the digital age, and figure out how to do it as effectively and collaboratively as possible.

This book, I will now confess, drove me a little crazy. On the one hand, I find her argument an innovative one, and I love the positive attitude she has toward the digital age. She is an excellent writer, and can weave together seamlessly a wide range of nonfiction forms: literary and cultural critique, scientific research and reporting, personal profiles, personal narratives, and more. The book could serve as an excellent primer for aspiring nonfiction writers on how to think creatively about the nonfiction book form.

And she brings to light many innovative thinkers and teachers who are doing outstanding work in the digital age. I was blown away by her portrait of a Danish entrepreneur who has hired members of the Autistic and Asperger’s communities to work on a complex computer task, and has found an excellent fit for these individuals working in an environment conducive to their special intellectual strengths. The book features a dozen or more profiles of such innovative thinkers, and Davidson deserves high commendation for showcasing their work to a broader public.

And yet the book’s overall recommendation seems to me—and to multiple reviewers from the fields associated with cognitive theory—to stem from some fast and loose playing with brain science. Cathy Davidson’s original field, like mine, is English literature, so for me to detail for you the flaws of her brain science research doesn’t strike me as a great idea. I was startled enough by much of what she said, however, which conflicted with most of what I had read in this area, to jump online and read some reviews. Those reviews confirmed my own suspicions, and so I will let the cognitive theorists tell you why Davidson seems to, as one brain science reviewer puts it, cherry pick ideas from the “mall of brain science.” You can read another version of this same critique of the book from Christopher Chabris, one of the creators of the invisible gorilla experiment, in the New York Times.

I will add two critiques to what you can find in those reviews. Davidson argues that education needs to focus more on developing the skills of imagination, collaboration, creativity, communication, and so on, and that the best way to develop those skills is to construct classroom environments that resemble video games. Students who interact and learn skills in complex, multi-player gaming environments, the argument goes, will take and apply those skills into the complex digital age in which they will be living and working after school.

Except, unfortunately, plenty of studies show that one of the most challenging features of learning—another one, like multitasking, that we don’t seem to be very good at—is transferring knowledge and skills from one environment to another. As Susan Ambrose and her colleagues write in How Learning Works, “most research has found that (a) transfer [from one learning context to another] occurs neither often nor automatically, and (b) the more dissimilar the learning and transfer contexts, the less likely successful transfer will occur. In other words, much as we would like them to, students often do not successfully apply relevant skills or knowledge in novel contexts” (108).

So the argument that students will transfer the skills they are learning in World of Warcraft or any other video-game environment into the business world they will be inhabiting in a few years just does not seem to be well-supported by the research on human learning. Davidson gives blithe descriptions of the transfer she imagines will happen from video games to the real world: “game playing makes gamers more able to respond to unexpected stimuli: a new antagonist appearing on your digital visual field, a child running out into the road in front of your car, or a sudden drop in your company’s capitalization” (149). Research on learning and transfer suggests that game playing makes you better at game playing—so yes, it will help you identify a new antagonist in the game. But to imagine that that skill will transfer to a better ability to see a drop in your company’s capitalization is a massive leap, one unsupported by the research on human learning.

Finally, I am concerned that Davidson is engaging in some ladder-pulling here. Davidson earned a Ph.D. in the pre-digital age, has written many books of traditional scholarship, and published her argument in a 300-page book of dense (but always lively and readable) prose. She clearly has the ability to focus and pay attention when she needs to. In fact she notes in her acknowledgments the time she spent out walking in the woods and the “divine month of quiet and beauty” she spent in Italy doing research. The multitasking students to whom these arguments are addressed, it seems to me, are less and less likely to have that kind of training in their background, and hence may end up much less able than Davidson would be to perform the kinds of sustained-attention tasks that still are required for many contemporary jobs.

So what concerns me is that when we (i.e., faculty) tell our students to go ahead and multitask, we are doing so from the perspective of people who spent our careers learning to focus our attention for sustained periods of mental effort. And while we now perhaps see multitasking as an interesting alternative to that sustaining of our attention, I wonder about the extent to which we continue to rely on it ways that may be less and less accessible to our students.

With those reservations in place, I want to conclude by saying that I am glad I read the book, and that I would recommend it to you as well, dear reader.  I will concur with what other reviewers have said: I wish she had simply made the case for a bold new vision of education without trying to layer all of the brain science on there.  I think she does an excellent job of promoting the work of innovative educators and schools, and that would have been good enough for me.

Although I am usually pretty terrible at participating in conversations started by my blog posts or Chronicle columns, I promise to join in any conversation that starts up below. I’d be especially interested to hear from other readers of Davidson’s work, or other researchers in this area.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Twitter Recommendations

This month I am following up on a promise made to readers in my April 11th column in The Chronicle of Higher Education to provide a fuller list of recommended Twitter feeds from Derek Bruff, the Director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. Derek was kind enough to serve as a guide for me through the teaching and learning Twitterverse, and to share his insights into how Twitter can contribute to a faculty member's personal learning network on teaching and learning in higher education.

I gave a number of my own recommendations for Twitter feeds to follow in this area, and below you will find the recommendations that Derek gave to me, each followed by a brief explanation of what he finds useful about it:

@GardnerCampbell – Generally brilliant, and particularly smart about digital media and technology in teaching and learning

@sidneyeve – A great curator of links and resources relevant to the intersection of social media and education

@RobertTalbert – The Chronicle’s own “Casting Out Nines” blogger also tweets about math, technology, and education

@BrianCroxall – One of the ProfHackers (or is that Profs Hacker?), Brian is a great source of information about teaching and the digital humanities

@cvhorii – Cassandra’s relatively new to Twitter, but she does a great job covering conferences on topics relevant to teaching at liberal arts colleges.

@CNDLS – The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown tweets about the many interesting teaching initiatives on their campus

@CatherineCronin – Thanks to a conference in Galway last year, I follow a number of higher ed folks in Ireland. Catherine does a great job of tweeting about the higher ed landscape over there.

@dcbphd – Assessment in education? Learning spaces? Yes, there’s a tweeter for that.

@pomeranian99 – This Wired Magazine columnist is a great example of someone outside academic who’s worth following.

@EDTECHHULK – My favorite of the Twitter Hulks, this one likes to smash bad uses of educational technology.


I took Derek's advice and followed all of these folks, and have found all of them excellent resources. If you were as befuddled as I was by the fact that Derek implies that are multiple "Twitter Hulks," just take my word for it and follow this one. His posts are written in the stilted, all-capitalized prose that one might imagine the Incredible Hulk would use if he had a Twitter feed on teaching and learning in higher education. It's hard to describe exactly how and why this is funny, so I will simply let you see for yourself.

In the meantime, work on the cheating book has shifted into high gear, as I am making excellent progress and have a good vision of the whole plan at this point. Hope to be more than halfway done by the end of April . . . You can see occasional updates on my progress, and even ideas or examples from the book, at @LangOnCourse if you are interested.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Update on Updates

So I have been busy working away on my current book project, Speaking About Cheating, tentatively scheduled for publication by Harvard University Press in 2013--assuming, that is, that I make my September 1st deadline. It's going to be close, but I think I will make it. I have enough pages now to make the project feel substantive, and I have the whole book mapped out pretty carefully. I just have to make sure I find enough hours in the days and weeks to come to get the prose down on paper.

And that should explain why I have not been doing too much updating on this blog--and why that will probably continue for at least the next couple of months. Until at least June, the only blog entries you will see here are updates on new speaking engagements, and entries related to my Chronicle of Higher Education column that month. My April column features an interview with Derek Bruff, the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Vanderbilt University, and focuses on the use of Twitter in order to help faculty expand what Bruff calls their personal learning network. I will post an entry here soon with a list of Bruff's favorite Twitter accounts for those of us interested in teaching and learning in higher education.

In the meantime I am continuing early, exploratory work on what I hope will become my next major project: taking on the literature survey. My most recent column in the Chronicle described my personal efforts to re-think how I approached and taught the survey course; I am preparing a roundtable proposal for MLA 2013 on how others have been experimenting with the surveys; and I have a meeting in April with editors from a major textbook publisher to discuss the possibility of constructing a new kind of survey textbook. More on all of that will follow, but probably not in too much detail until after I get my manuscript submitted in September.

Looking forward to my next chance to speak and work with colleagues on other campuses, which will take place in mid-May at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts at Oxford College at Emory University.

More to come soon on the value of Twitter to higher education faculty . . .

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chronicle Outtakes

Welcome to readers visiting the website from my most recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The column I originally submitted to my editor contained a fuller list of parody television shows, as well as fuller descriptions of some of those shows that you saw. The version the editors sent back to me was cleaned of shows or sentences that were either scatological or potentially libellous. Naturally those were my favorite parts. So, thanks to the wonders of the interweb, I can give you the original versions, as well as some deleted outtakes.

1) My favorite part of the Mythbusters show was the third example, which was cut:

Campus Mythbusters: Is the library really sinking a little bit every year at Rival U. because the architects failed to take into account the weight of all the books? Did a student really go into the final exam of a large lecture course in which he wasn’t enrolled, and then pretend to go mad and run out screaming in the middle of the test? Should students in the dorm rooms really flush twice because the waste products have to make it all the way to the dining hall for use in the dinner menu? Our quirky committee of investigators will take on all of the campus legends you heard when you were a student from a friend who was visiting from another campus, and who was totally and completely sure that it was a true story.

2. The full version of the Jersey Shore parody. My editors upgraded the participants from "stupid" to "dim," which seems kindhearted to me.

Jersey Shore Extension Campus: Snooki, Pauly D, the Situation and the rest of the gang take online courses during the off-season, attempting to better themselves through higher education. We follow our buff and suntanned learners as they log onto the computer, view online lectures and Powerpoints, sit quietly reading and highlighting textbooks, and taking final exams on campus. Thoughtful expressions, bouts of test anxiety, and high-spirited late-night debates about course content—our expert camera operators capture it all. Candid interviews with cast members about their studies, as well as a close analysis of their written work, reveal that the cast members are just around as stupid as they seem in their regular show.

3. I was much more insulting to Finding Bigfoot, which is the only show on this entire list which I actually watch religiously.

Finding Bigfoot Believers: A team of psychological investigators travels around the country in search of educated people who take the Bigfoot legend seriously. Using the most up-to-date technology in their nocturnal strolls around campus, our researchers accost drunken students and show them videos of Matt Moneymaker, the host of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot, knocking blocks together and making Sasquatch howls. Measuring blood pressure and skin conductance levels, the team seeks to discover whether a college education actually improves the ability of students to spot bullshit when they see it.

Two other quick points for this February blog update.

First, two weeks remain to submit to the MLA panel I hope to co-sponsor at this year's MLA on new approaches to teaching the American and British literature survey courses. If you are doing interesting work in this area, I want to know about it. Please consider submitting or passing the word along to others.

Second, I am a recent and very happy convert to the joys of Twitter. If you have a Twitter account, keep up to date with all things teaching, learning, and cheating at @LangOnCourse.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Metacognition and American Idol

Welcome to readers who are visiting from my January 18th column in The Chronicle of Higher Education on metacognition, student learning, and American Idol. Below I have listed a few additional resources that were given to me by Stephen Chew, Ph.D. for readers who are interested in learning more about the subject of metacognition and its implications for teaching and learning. Below each resources I have provided a brief summary comment by Prof. Chew.

To start your research, though, I would definitely recommend beginning by watching Chew's entire five-part video series on learning for students or anyone else interested in the topic.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DePietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

SC: A good overview of cognitive process involved in effective teaching that includes a discussion of metacognition.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild N., Su T. T. (2009). Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions, Science, 323 (5910), 122-124.

SC: An article that demonstrates the effectiveness of ConcepTests.

Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

SC: There are lots of good resources for formative assessment online, but this compilation is a classic.

Dunning, D., Heath, C., & Suls, J. M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 69-106.

SC: More on the implications of poor metacognition or self-awareness in education and other contexts.

As a final note, I am always on the lookout for new ideas, people, or programs to recommend to faculty to help us all do our jobs more effectively. If you know of a teaching and learning resource that you believe the world should learn more about, send me an e-mail or post it below and I will consider it for a column.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

MLA 2013: New Approaches to Literature Surveys

In my most recent (and forthcoming) articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education, I have been interviewing cognitive psychologists on the subject of learning and memory. Those experts have stressed the importance of framing our subject matter in ways that are relevant and meaningful to our students if we want them to learn and remember what we have to teach. Although students may be able to memorize disconnected facts and material they don't much care about, they'll have a hard time remembering it beyond the test.

And as I have been conducting those interviews, and thinking about this issue, I have been preparing to teach the British Literature Survey course, which requires students to learn about the great British authors and major literary trends from 1800 to the present. And one part of me keeps wanting to ask the other part of me: Why should my students care about the major British authors and literary trends from 1800 to the present? I can almost see their eyes glazing over as they open up their big survey anthologies and begin working to memorize the lists of dates and timelines, the introductions to authors they've never heard of, and the poems they have to work to understand, much less interpret.

And I wonder why we're still teaching the surveys like this. How much longer can we convince our students--or our selves--that they should learn about these authors because they're important, and part of our literary heritage, and necessary to live a full life, and so on. Is that the best we can do?

If you have ever wondered the same thing, or if you are teaching a British or American literature survey course in a way that moves beyond the conventional approach--Monday it's James Joyce, Wednesday it's Virginia Woolf, Friday a quiz on the Modernists--then consider submitting an abstract for a panel I hope to organize with my colleague John Staunton for MLA 2013 in Boston. We are looking especially for papers from faculty who have taught the surveys multiple times, and who have tried out alternative and innovative approaches to the survey, and who can share their ideas with the rest of us.

Check out the Call for Papers on the MLA website or feel free to post comments or ideas below.

I will be testing out a completely new approach to the British Literature Survey this spring semester, and hope to use what I learn from the experience as the starting point for a textbook proposal for a brand new kind of literary anthology. I am hoping this MLA panel will help me to connect with other faculty who might be interested in becoming involved in that (much longer-term) process.

Stay tuned . . .