Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Praise of Elizabeth Gilbert




 Reviews of the work of Elizabeth Gilbert almost invariably include a sentence or two noting the enormous success of her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and frequently make reference--sometimes snide, sometimes admiring--to the legions of besotted female readers who found inspiration in Gilbert's tale of physical and spiritual longing and discovery in the wake of divorce.  So at times I wonder what's wrong with me, as I count myself as one of the few males I know who is an an utter devotee of Gilbert's work.  I count her, along with Jon Krakauer, as one of the two greatest modern masters of the nonfiction form.

I fell in love with her memoir the first time I read it, and have subsequently assigned it in multiple classes I have taught.  At this point I have read it close to a dozen times, and still find it as enjoyable as the first time through, as each new read gives me the opportunity to admire and emulate her quick wit, her playful prose, her nuanced depiction of complex spiritual conflicts, and her skillful handling of narrative structure.  I admire all of these qualities in equal proportion in her previous nonfiction book, The Last American Man, a portrait of mountain man Eustace Conway.  Almost every semester I find myself assigning one or the other of these two nonfiction works to my students, in part for the great joy I take in re-reading them myself, but more importantly because her work provides such excellent models for my writing students in so many areas.

Hence it was with some trepidation that I finally undertook to read The Signature of All Things, Gilbert's epic new novel, as soon as the fall semester was over.  I had purchased the book shortly after it was published a few months back, but had been reading about it for much longer than that, thanks to Gilbert's countdown to publication on her Facebook page.  I had read and heard so much about the book that I feared from it the disappointment one sometimes experiences from a long-anticipated event.

I finished the book this evening, the last day of 2013, and can happily say that I have found in it the same lovely writing that I have admired so much in her nonfiction writing.  The book is a big and generous read, a novel of 19th-century America, of scientific curiosity, of sexual longing, and of world exploration.  I won't spend much time here reviewing it, as the book has been reviewed in so many places already.  You can read a glowing review of it on NPR, for example (and note, by the way, the subtly gendered reference to fans "tearfully clutching" copies of her previous books), or a more mixed appraisal from the New York Times.

But here's what I really want to say about Gilbert, and what makes me such an admirer of her work.  On every page of this novel, as on every page of her nonfiction writing, one can see the imprint of a human being who finds the world an utterly fascinating place, and who seeks to learn from it afresh at every turn.  I can imagine almost any human being on the planet meeting Elizabeth Gilbert at a party, and telling her some seemingly insignificant fact about him or her self, and Gilbert's eyes lighting up with genuine interest, and exclaiming: "Really? Tell me more about that!"  And that response would be a completely genuine one.

As a constant reader of nonfiction, both literary and otherwise, this quality seems to me missing from so much of the genre.  Too many writers expect that, now that I have sat down with their book, I should sit up straight and pay attention: "I wrote a book; sit quietly and learn."  Gilbert never seems to take this for granted.  One hears, behind almost every page of her writing, an unspoken sentiment of sheer enthusiasm for her subject matter: "You think that was interesting--wait until you hear what's next!"

In this respect, good nonfiction writing is a lot like teaching.  As I have argued in a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about the tragic death of teacher Colleen Ritzer, teachers have a responsibility to model intellectual curiosity for their students.  Before we can expect students to sit up straight and learn, we have to entice them to take a seat and wonder about what we have to teach.  The teacher's passion for learning, and for her subject matter--just like the passion of the writer--strikes me as an essential tool in helping to accomplish that objective.  Gilbert's writing makes me wonder, and that wonder draws me into her travels, her characters, and her research.

At the conclusion of Gilbert's new novel, her heroine responds to a question about whether or not she believes in an afterlife with an encomium to the world we have before us: "I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me," she says.  "All I ever wanted was to know this world.  I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived."

At the end of The Signature of All Things, just as at the conclusion to her nonfiction books, I find myself not only knowing a little bit more about this world, but also energized to get out and conduct some explorations of my own.  As this year rolls into a new one, I hope to take a page from Gilbert and find new ways to inspire both readers and students to do the same.   

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Cheating Student Speaks Up

This morning I received an e-mail from education writer Jessica Lahey that my book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty would be mentioned in her education column over at The Atlantic.  I was thrilled, and even more thrilled to read her very kind and generous article about the book.

I went about my business during the day, which was mostly preparing for a webinar on cheating that I was doing for Magna publications.  When I finished that webinar, I had an e-mail from Jess which she was forwarding from a student at a top state university.  The student's message offered a disturbingly honest confession of the cheating she had done in high school, the total lack of remorse she felt for it, and an explanation of why she put the blame for her cheating squarely on the back of her poor high school education.  You can read the whole thing here, but here's a brief excerpt:

"It boils down to this: we are told that cheating is wrong because we are attempting to earn a grade that we do not deserve. A grade earned by cheating is not a grade reflective of our true achievement. But my contention uses identical reasoning. I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning. I never cheated in a subject that I did not learn on my own terms. That is supported by my performance in AP testing. I took 9 AP tests in high school, scoring 5s on all of them except the one I self-studied for, on which I earned a 4. Never did I cheat on any of those tests, because I felt that they were fair representations of my learning. But in AP Biology, I cheated on literally every in-class test. The curriculum and test techniques of my absolutely atrocious AP Biology class were not fair representations of my knowledge. I felt cheated of the education I deserved, and thus to earn the grade I knew I deserved, I had to cheat the system. This is only one example. I also cheated throughout physics, introduction to statistics, Spanish, chemistry, and so on. But never did I cheat a subject that I did not learn on my own terms."
What can you say about this?

On the one hand, the student's explanation of her cheating supports my overall approach to the problem.  Cheating represents a failure in the teaching/learning transaction, and we should look at all features of that transaction to understand and combat the problem--including the role that the course design and teaching practices play.  Teachers aren't perfect, and we have to acknowledge that we may contribute to the problem. Thinking hard about cheating can help us understand when we are not reaching students effectively, and we can learn from it how to do our jobs better.

But I would never argue--and did not argue in the book--that this excuses students for their cheating.  There are two problems with her explanation:

1) She found herself in a difficult situation, in which she felt she was not given a real opportunity to learn.  Her frustration is understandable.  But she could have found other ways to try and improve that situation, rather than simply defaulting to one that compromised her academic integrity.  Did she talk to her parents about her courses?  Her teacher? Her principal?  Did she talk to other students about how they might have worked together to effect change in the curriculum?  I recognize that these would be challenging activities for a high school student to undertake, but she has to recognize that she will encounter such difficult situations throughout her life, and there are always going to be easy and wrong solutions, and difficult but better ones.  We have to train ourselves to choose the better ones.

2) Dan Ariely's research on cheating and dishonesty, which forms an important basis for my own research, suggests that multiple instances of cheating produce a "What the Hell?" effect in the cheater.  After cheating a certain number of times, he explains, the subjects in his experiments always reached a tipping point after which they seemed to just say "What the Hell?" and cheated at every opportunity that presented itself.  So if you get into the habit of cheating, cheating becomes a habit--and that habit may bleed over into all other areas of your life.

When it comes to cheating, we need all hands on deck.  I firmly we believe we need the teaching/learning approach I take to cheating, but I believe as well we need to help students understand that honesty matters, and that their work in our courses should help prepare them for lives of integrity beyond their college years.

Monday, October 21, 2013

2013-2014 Events Updated

A quick update on my schedule of speaking events for the 2013-2014 academic year.  Please come out and engage in the discussion if you see me in a town near you!

November 1st, 2013: University of Notre Dame, sponsored by the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning (South Bend, IN)

A presentation on how research in academic dishonesty can help us understand how to build better learning environments for our students.  

November 3-4th, 2013: Council of Independent Colleges Institute for Chief Academic and Chief Student Affairs Officers (Pittsburgh, PA)

I will be moderating a panel discussion on honor codes and leading a breakfast session on the book.

November 6th, 2013: Emmanuel College (Boston MA), EC Reads Program

A presentation on how research in academic dishonesty can help us understand how to build better learning environments for our students.

November 12th: Clark University (Worcester, MA)

A presentation on how research in academic dishonesty can help us understand how to build better learning environments for our students.

January 31st, 2014: Georgia Tech

I will be offering a lecture and workshop at a faculty retreat.

February 28th, 2014: International Center for Academic Integrity Conference (Jacksonville, FL)

I will be keynoting the Friday evening banquet.

March 24th, 2014: Ohio State University

Details TBA.

April 15th, 2014: North Carolina State University

I will be the guest lecturer at their Teaching and Learning Symposium

If you are interested in a possible visit to your campus to spark conversation about academic integrity, to provide opportunities for your faculty to learn about and discuss new developments in teaching and learning in higher education, or to orient your new teaching assistants or faculty, don't hesitate to inquire.  I should be able to squeeze in one or two additional events this academic year, but will be on sabbatical during the 2014-2015 year, so will be much more available then.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Armenian Faculty Development Cont.

So I have been busy fulfilling my obligations to the American University of Armenia over the past couple of days, and then today went on an all-day excursion to some amazing sites just outside the city of Yerevan.  In short, my ambitious plan to update the blog every day fell by the wayside as soon as I started actually doing the faculty development I had been brought here to do.

Sometime within the next week or two I will post a longer summary update on how that all went, but I can say without hesitation that it has been an amazing learning experience for me, a wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas with faculty working in a very different cultural context, and a fantastic visit all around.

Tomorrow is another long day of travel to make my way back home, but I will return here soon with more substantive reflections on the experience.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Disruption (Armenian Faculty Development, Day 3)

As I am fighting some jet lag this evening/morning, I have time to squeeze in a post prior to my day of workshops with the faculty at the American University of Armenia.

One of Ken Bain's arguments about learning is that it has to begin with failure.  We are first motivated to learn when we encounter a problem or situation for which our current knowledge and thinking seems inadequate.  If we care about that failure, we then set out to learn.

More generally speaking, you could argue that learning begins with disruption. Something disrupts our normal patterns of thinking, behaving, or negotiating the world, and we have to consider things anew or gain new knowledge or skill to manage that disruption.

Traveling to a foreign country, especially a very unfamiliar one--Armenia, in my case--provides an easy example of disruption which can launch the learning process. All of my regular routines are disrupted simply by my displacement in time and space, and by the fact that I don't speak the language or know the customs.  So that means I have to switch on my cognitive faculties and begin to learn if I want to successfully negotiate the environment.  I grab a map and begin walking my way around the streets, checking my progress and noting familiar landmarks.  I listen to people speaking, tune in on simple words, and ask friendly waiters to teach me a word or two of the language; I watch people engage in everyday acts of business and imitate them as best I can.  All of these are attempts to gain the skills and knowledge I need to master a new environment--the most fundamental form of learning in which human beings engage.

And it all begins with disruption.  If I had a "fixer" here along with me, someone who walked beside me at every moment, translated everything for me, guided me through the streets, and transacted all of my business for me, I wouldn't need to switch on those cognitive faculties in the same way.  The disruption has to be real if it inspires learning.

Where does this sense of disruption fit into our normal learning environments?  Are students "disrupted" simply by arriving in a new classroom each semester?  Or do they need more disruption than that in order to push them into the kind of learning that I am experiencing over the course of these few days in Armenia?

Getting these thoughts down in writing seems to have helped my disrupted sleep pattern, so I will sign off for now and head back to bed.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Traveling to Learn (Armenia, Day 2--Almost)

I write this blog post on the first day of my trip to Armenia, thought I have yet to reach my final destination.  I have a five-hour layover in Paris—not enough time to make it into the city and back, and yet definitely more time than one would like to spend in an airport, even one as lovely as this.  I caught maybe an hour of uneasy sleep on the plane, and it’s 10:00 am here now, so I have miles to go yet before I sleep.  I am more hopeful for some sleep on the four-hour flight to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city. 

And yet despite this airport purgatory in which I find myself for a few hours, I have already been reminded of one important truth about travel and learning, the subject of my blog posts over the next week or so—namely, the extent to which travel learning engages the whole person.  Whatever we learn on a travel experience, we are typically doing so through a variety of our senses and faculties: we are moving our bodies through unfamiliar places, and negotiating unexpected obstacles; we are tasting strange foods, seeing unexpected sights, and hearing the sounds of accents and languages much different from our own.  We catch glimpses of people interacting in unaccustomed ways, and our emotions bubble closer to the surface of our skins. 

In these contexts I can feel my mind opening and blossoming, as I seek to understand the unfamiliar environment around me, and all of my cognitive faculties are marshaled into action.  How radically this experience differs from what my students normally encounter in their learning spaces every day, where they sit still, in the same spot, and do little more than listen, talk and write. 

Whether it makes sense to try and engage the whole person in a college classroom in the way that I find myself engaged right now, as a traveler, is a question to which I don’t have an easy answer.  Something tells me yes; but I also don’t want to oversimplify the issue.  Certainly there should be space for both classroom learning and for learning through an engagement of the whole person.  We offer plenty of the former; do we offer enough of the latter?

I am also reminded this morning/evening of the way in which cues of sight and sound can trigger memories.  As I walk my way through the airport, memories flood back to me of the year or two I spent learning French for my Ph.D. language exam—some of these memories are ones I have not accessed in many years.  I used to sit in our apartment in Wrigleyville, on Chicago’s north side, and watch the evening news in French every night in order to supplement the studying I was doing by working my way laboriously through French novels with a dictionary.  And now as I find myself reading French signs in this airport, walking in this unfamiliar place and hearing French spoken all around me, I remember vividly the face of that news broadcaster, his particular way of speaking and the turns of phrase I came to recognize.

So again here I think about the extent to which our senses play such a crucial role in learning and memory, and wonder a little further about the way in which we build learning environments in higher education which seem strangely sanitized of sensual cues. 

But right now my body needs less wondering and more wandering. 


Next stop Yerevan.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Armenian Faculty Development, Part 1

I am heading to the airport shortly for my flight to Armenia, where I will be doing some guest faculty development for the faculty at the American University of Armenia.  I'll be guiding their faculty in-service day on Monday, October 14th; on Tuesday I am holding open office hours to meet with faculty, as well as having scheduled meetings with various administrators; finally, the trip culminates with me giving a public lecture in Yerevan on Tuesday evening.  Sunday will be a day of preparation, with a visit to the Armenian genocide museum; Wednesday will give me time to visit some sights outside of Yerevan.  

I will be updating this blog every day, starting on Sunday, with pictures and stories and reflections from my visit.  Please check back for more!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Review

Cheating Lessons gets a starred review from Library Journal.

Lang (English, Assumption Coll.) addresses the unpleasant subject of academic dishonesty but avoids focusing on rules and punishment, instead exploring more positive ways to encourage students to engage in learning. First, he assures readers that there is no evidence that cheating in college has increased; he claims dishonesty occurs when students feel unable to succeed in an academic environment and that it will be reduced if faculty modify their courses and motivate students to prioritize learning instead of test taking. Lang explains relevant cognitive theory, outlines factors that foster cheating, and presents fascinating examples of course structures and classroom activities that stimulate students to work toward mastering their subjects. 

VERDICT This lively book combines a review of key studies of cheating, inspiring examples of active student efforts to stop academic dishonesty, and useful guidelines for how faculty and institutions can respond when it does occur. Aimed at faculty and college administrators, this readable and well-structured analysis presenting methods to facilitate academic success will also be of interest to readers concerned with how universities provide support to students.—Elizabeth Hayford, formerly with Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Chicago

I like that verdict!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Publicity Update

So yesterday at around 4:00 pm I received an e-mail from Time.com asking me if I could produce 800 words on a news story about a survey that incoming students at Harvard took, on which they reported their cheating behaviors in high school.  They wanted it turned around that same evening.  I can produce prose pretty quickly, especially on the subjects that I know something about, but this was the fastest deadline I have ever encountered.  Ultimately, I got it done, and they put a catchy headline on it and linked it to a bunch of other stories on learning, so I was happy with the final result.

In the meantime, a long interview I had done with insidehighered.com appeared this morning as well.  They asked great questions, and the interviewer wrote a smart and generous introduction to the piece, which they published in full QA format.  If you are looking for a fuller understanding of the book's argument, that's the place to go.

This Thursday afternoon at 3:00 pm will mark my third appearance on an NPR affiliate, this one in San Antonio, Texas.  But if you are not going to be in Texas on Thursday, you can listen to my appearance on Boston's NPR affiliate right here.

And of course all of this publicity is designed to get you interested in the book, which is now available from Amazon.

In the meantime, eldest daughter has settled into her first semester of college at the University of Notre Dame, and seems to be doing wonderfully. Notre Dame has an extensive intramural sports system, which includes every sport under the sun.  So naturally she decided to join a dodge ball team.  I encouraged her to watch the movie Dodge Ball in preparation.  "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball."

We are in the second week of the semester, and between that and the publicity work for the new book I am keeping pretty busy.  But when I have some open space in my schedule I spend it reading George Orwell, who is helping inspire my next project: a writing text that tries to enact some of the basic ideas I have been arguing for recently about how we can best motivate our students to learn--and, in this case, motivate them to write.  This text will seek to develop a framework for the teaching of writing that taps into the problems and questions that matter to students, and that helps them understand how they can use writing to, as Orwell once put it, "push the world in a certain direction."

Finally, don't forget @LangOnCourse as a place to join an ongoing conversation about teaching and learning in higher education on Twitter.  See you next month.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fall Schedule

Almost two weeks beyond publication day, and the publicity for the new book seems to be kicking in.  So here's an update on how and where you can catch me or writing or speaking about the new book.

On Sunday, August 4th, an essay which provides an overview of the basic argument of the book appeared in The Boston Globe.  Some folks at WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston, read that essay and invited me to join them for a live call-in segment on the book on Thursday, August 8th.  You can listen to the show, and also find on their website a link to an interview I did for an online course about cheating in college.  The final essay in my three-part series on cheating for The Chronicle of Higher Education should be out within the next couple of weeks (check out Part I and Part II beforehand!).

I have a bunch of campus visits and conferences lined up this fall.  Here's the current schedule:

August 21-22nd: New TA Orientations, Emory University (GA)

August 26th, 9:00-1:00 am: Bay State College Professional Development Program (MA)

August 29th: 9:30-11:00 am: Fisher College (MA)

October 15-16th: Public Lecture and Faculty In-Service Day, American University of Armenia (Armenia)

November 1st, 10:00 am: Faculty Lecture, University of Notre Dame (IN)

November 3-4th: Panel Moderator and Book Discussion, Institute for Chief Academic Officers, Council of  Independent Colleges, Pittsburgh (PA)

In the meantime, in just two weeks my eldest child will start her first year the University of Notre Dame, so that makes me a proud (but broke) father.  Looking forward to observing the teaching and learning process in college from the perspective of a parent.  Go Irish!





Monday, July 29, 2013

PUBLICATION DAY!

Just around two years ago, the editor of my last book with Harvard University Press told me that she had been to a conference about teaching in higher education and heard a lot of discussion about the problem of cheating on campus.  Everyone was looking for solutions.  She wondered whether I might have an interest in tackling the problem in a book for the Press.

I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but you don't get too many offers like this as a writer, so I agreed to think about it.  She drove out to Worcester and we has a lovely lunch together at the Sole Proprietor, my favorite seafood restaurant.  By the end of the conversation, I was convinced enough to at least do some reading and put together a proposal.  I went to the local public library, checked out three books on cheating, and brought them with me on vacation that following week.

After reading them, I had some vague ideas about how I might like to approach the problem, and the book, and so I put together a proposal, which the Press accepted.  As I then really dug into the research on cheating over the next few months, I began to see things differently.  The more I tried to understand why students were cheating, the more I became convinced that the problem cheating revealed some fundamental flaws in the ways we structured and taught courses in higher education.  I abandoned the structure of my initial proposal and struck out in an entirely new direction.

By the spring of 2012, I had settled on my approach to the issue, which was to argue that research on human learning and research on cheating were both pointing us in the same direction in terms of how we should be designing and teaching our courses, and so the heart of the book became an argument about how we can learn from academic dishonesty how to build better learning environments.  Christopher Hager, a Trinity College professor who read an advanced copy, captured this well with his very kind blurb for the book: "James Lang has written a smart, original, well-researched guide to 'building better learning environments' framed as a guide to avoiding academic dishonesty."

The heart of the book, then, is essentially an argument for how we can teach our students more effectively--and, in doing so, reduce their incentive and opportunity cheat.  Around that basic argument are two shorter sections: first, a brief tour through the history of cheating, both in higher education and beyond, as well as an overview of the statistics on cheating in higher education today; and, in the final part of the book, some arguments about how and why we should tackle the problem of cheating from the broader campus perspective.

So if you have any interest whatsoever in the question of why students cheat, or how they do it, or what to do about it, you should buy this book!  But I hope the book will appeal to all teachers, even those who teach at the secondary and elementary levels, as it also reviews recent research in learning theory and uses that material to make the case for how we should be building learning environments for all of our students.  Finally, if you are interested more broadly in the present and future state of higher education, I hope and think you will find the book of interest, as it explores how the root causes of cheating may extend deeply into the structure and nature of the way we do business on campus.

In any case, that's the story of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty.  Now click the link and buy a copy!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Is College Worth It?

Last year Notre Dame Magazine asked me if I would be willing to write a story about the high cost of college tuition these days, and offer my perspective on whether college was still a worthwhile investment for our students.  This really involved researching two questions: Why does college cost so much? And what do our students gain from their college education?

Understanding the first question was far more complex than I had anticipated.  Like everyone else, I had read plenty of pundits opining that college costs were being drive up by dorm amenities and other unnecessary campus expenses.  It turned out that those kinds of expenses, while real, were only a tiny part of the problem.  Gaining a clear picture of the real forces that have driven up tuition costs pushed me to the edge of my economic understanding, but also really helped me see the extent to which the media has oversimplified this issue and done a disservice to the public and to higher education.

Answering the second question was more simple, and involved looking at reports on the economic difference that a college degree makes on both employment prospects and lifetime earnings.  The picture that emerges from that analysis is a very clear one.

I spent a few months researching these questions, and conducting interviews, and then sat down and pounded out a draft in a single day--something I almost never do.  I much prefer to write a little bit on a project every day, working in very small chunks.  But I'm happy with the final product, which you can read at Notre Dame Magazine online.  It's a long-ish essay, but I hope you will find it worthwhile.

Today also marked the publication of the second of my three-part series on cheating in higher education; looking forward to finishing up with part three, which should be published just around the time the book becomes available.  Of course you can already order an advanced copy.

Finally, a reader e-mailed me a few months back to let me know about a nice overview of lecturing in higher education--what it's still good for, and how to do it well.  I'm passing along the link for those interested in this form of teaching.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

First Review of Cheating Lessons

Here it is, from Publisher's Weekly:

As Lang (Life on the Tenure Track), an associate professor of English at Assumption College, observes from the start of this practical and insightful volume, “Cheating and higher education in America have enjoyed a long and robust history together.” Lang argues that we cannot blame cheating epidemics on students or institutions alone. The key, he says, is to understand factors that increase the likelihood of cheating (such as an emphasis on “high stakes” exams or performance in one situation versus overall mastery of material), and modify the learning environment to eliminate those factors. Using findings from cognitive theory, Lang examines why students cheat and offers suggestions to stem the tide. The most useful section of the book focuses on how teachers, by modifying teaching techniques and objectives, can engage students in ways that make them less likely to cheat. He uses studies of specific professors and their classes to illustrate his thesis about the relation between cheating and the learning environment. Whether tracking historical incidents of cheating to illustrate different factors, or discussing how university communities can talk to their students about academic dishonesty, Lang is an upbeat guide, effectively arguing that even small steps can help reduce the potential for cheating. (Sept.)


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cheating Lessons, Part One

Welcome to readers from the Chronicle of Higher Education, who are stopping in from my May 29th column on cheating in higher education.  If you are interested in following up on some of the research that I cite in the column, you should check out Dan Ariely's book The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, in which he lays out the evidence for his claim that the structures of our daily environment play an important role in determining whether or not we cheat.

If you are interested in learning more about the Princess Alice study, conducted by Jesse Bering and two colleagues, you can find a link to the published abstract here, and a newspaper report about the experiment here.  Jesse Bering publishes widely in both academic and trade venues; you can read all about him and his work at his website.

The official publication date of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, is July 29, 2013. It's available for pre-ordering here.

Before my summer hiatus begins, I'll be presenting the argument of the book three final times, beginning this Saturday at the Teaching Professor Conference in New Orleans.  From there I'm off to Seattle Pacific University, where I will be speaking and working with the faculty on this subject and its implications for our teaching. My final event will be at Ken Bain's Best Teachers Summer Institute, where I will be presenting the book's main argument again on the afternoon of Thursday, June 20th.

In short, you will have multiple opportunities to learn more about the argument I have to make about cheating, both in print an in person, in the coming weeks and months!  I look forward to engaging with college faculty and other teachers who are interested in these questions in order to help us work together to discover how to create learning environments that reduce the incentive and opportunity for students to cheat, and induce their motivation and interest in learning in our courses.

One final note.  I spent all of last week in a seminar on "Free Will and Moral Virtue."  A dozen faculty members spent six hours every day listening to presentations and discussing these large topics from a variety of perspectives--neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, etc.  I saw this as an opportunity to cleanse my mind from two years of thinking and writing about cheating, and perhaps open up new avenues of thinking for whatever my next project might be.  But when one of the psychologists learned that I had a book coming out about cheating, she handed me this fascinating article, in which two researchers demonstrate that belief in determinism increases the likelihood of people to cheat.

"Does the belief that forces outside the self determine behavior," the authors speculate, "drain the motivation to resist the temptation to cheat, inducing a 'why bother?' mentality?"





Sunday, May 5, 2013

The New Book!

Publication will be in early August.  This was the second proposed cover; the first one was an image of a Pinocchio marionette against a white background.  I like the old-school note-passing in this cover, and of course the idea that it's "copied" four times.

Two bits of Lang book history trivia.

1) Of my four books, this is the first and only one on which a person's face does not appear on the cover.
2) This is the third of my four books in which a variation of the word "learn" appears in the title.  This could be interpreted either as an admirable consistency in focus or as an unfortunate lack of imaginative powers.  I will leave that up to the reader.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

New Position

I'm pleased to be able to announce that I will be assuming a new professional role this fall, as I step down from my position as the Director of the Assumption College Honors Program and step into my new role as the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Assumption College.  I will be the Center's founding Director, and am very excited about the opportunity to invent this position, and the office, on our campus.

Of course I won't be inventing the position in a more general sense, in that I have many models to consider as I work this summer and into the fall to put in place our first set of programs.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and speak with many directors of teaching and learning centers around the country--including, most recently, Kevin Barry at the University of Notre Dame's Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning--whose ideas and insights will undoubtedly inform my work.  I am looking forward to connecting with more teaching and learning center folks at conferences in the coming years, beginning with this summer's Teaching Professor Conference, where I'll be doing a presentation on my forthcoming book on academic dishonesty in higher education.

Speaking of which, the book heads into production this month.  I have some final tweaks to make to the index, and then I will finally get this project off my desk for good.  Happy as I am with the final product, I will not be sorry to take a break from it for at least a few months until it actually appears in August of 2013.

In the meantime, I am busy preparing for my visit to the American University of Armenia in mid-May.  The University will be admitting undergraduates for the first time this fall, and so I will spend a few days working with their faculty on making that transition from the teaching of graduate students to undergraduates.  The trip finally motivated me to pull a book called Black Dog of Fate off the shelf, a memoir by Armenian American author Peter Balakian about his slow journey to awareness of the Armenian genocide, and the impact it had on his own family.  The book is beautifully written, and illuminated in disturbing detail the contours of an event that I knew about in only the vaguest terms until now.  I have on my schedule a visit to the genocide museum in Yerevan, and am eager to learn more.

Finally, a new stage begins in my ongoing effort to understand the role that teaching and learning plays in higher education.  My eldest daughter will be heading off to college this fall.  My experience taking tours of college campuses motivated this month's column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I expect that my observation of the work of the university from a parent's perspective will continue to inform and inspire new writing and thinking.  Although I won't enjoy paying the tuition bills, I am looking forward to seeing what that new perspective will bring.




Thursday, March 28, 2013

Selling Teaching: A Modest Proposal

This week my family has been anxiously awaiting the decision letters and e-mails from the universities to which my oldest daughter applied this spring.  For the past year we have been touring campuses, browsing websites and reading promotional materials, and dreaming about where she will find herself in the fall of 2013.  That process has been an illuminating one for me to observe as a faculty member and as someone who writes about higher education, since I have learned about plenty of interesting initiatives and programs happening on other campuses.

But what has struck me most deeply throughout this process has been the light attention paid by the admissions guides and published materials to what probably strikes most faculty members as the central activities of the college or university: teaching and learning. Most of the college tours we took spent time walking us through sample dorm rooms and spoke extensively about life on campus; only a few of our tour guides took us into classrooms or laboratories, and spoke in any detail about their experiences in the classroom.  What does that convey to the prospective student, and to the parents who pay our bills, about our priorities?

I'm not surprised to find my daughter training her eyes on the living quarters or social lives of the schools she plans to attend; she's 17, after all, and those issues loom understandably large in her perspective.  And I understand perfectly well that colleges have to tailor their marketing campaigns to late adolescents, and so an emphasis on the quality of the dining hall food or the weekend social scene makes good business sense.  But it seems to me like the education we provide to our students should perhaps begin before they ever arrive on campus, if we can help shape the way they think about their college experience.  It seems to me, in other words, like we can probably do a better job of educating prospective students and their parents about what matters most deeply around here, and about why they should care about it.

I want to make a very modest proposal to admissions offices about one way in which they could begin to shift this balance of emphasis more toward the heart of the college and university enterprise, where I think it belongs.

At the beginning of the year, ask your student tour guides to think about the three most powerfully charged learning experiences they have had on campus.  Have them write those experiences down, and practice narrating them.  Work with the guides to ensure that they understood what made those experiences so powerful, and how those learning experiences were--or were not--connected to the good work of an educator on campus.  Then ask those tour guides to make sure that their tours include stops at three locations which will allow them to tell those three learning stories, and offer the kind of passionate statement about learning on campus that will inspire prospective students to think a little more clearly about what they will be doing in college.

An initiative like this one could have a ripple effect into the college, as it inspires the tour guides to think more carefully and deeply about their own learning, and that may inspire other students to do so as well.  It could also end up providing a rich set of materials for the institution to draw upon in their promotional materials, as well as helping to identify faculty and staff on campus who are making the biggest difference in the lives of their students.

Touring another campus as both a parent and a faculty member, I know where to train my eyes in order to get a sense of the teaching and learning environment on campus.  Most parents will not have the same experience in dissecting a college campus, and could use our help in gaining a clear picture of what their sons and daughters will experience in the classroom.  We should be doing a better job of giving them that help.

  

Monday, March 4, 2013

An Open Letter to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Dear Profs. Hacker and Dreifus:

As preparation for a magazine article I am writing about the costs of a college education today, I have been reading your book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids--And What We Can Do About It.  I was quite looking forward to this book; the provocative title and the impressive set of endorsements in the opening pages held out the promise of a fascinating read.

In the opening pages of your first chapter, you tell a story designed to illustrate your thesis--which is spelled out pretty clearly in the title of your book, so I won't rehearse it again here in my own words.  The story recounts an incident that happened a "few years back" in the political science department at Queens College.  A job candidate for a position in political science, as you describe it, sat down for an interview with the department chair and asked a series of outlandish questions indicating that he expected to teach as little as possible, spend most of his time on research, and take frequent sabbaticals. This story serves as a stand-in for the ways in which contemporary academia has lost its soul, focusing more on research and faculty perks than educating students.

Like all good storytellers, you fill out your narrative with details--including, in this case, the title of the job seeker's dissertation.  You give the following title to his "trendy" thesis: An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures.  It sounds trendy!

Fascinated to learn whether this self-centered political scientist ever landed that plum research job he was seeking, I Googled the dissertation title you gave.  Strangely, the only results came from your book.  It seems highly unlikely to me that a dissertation written a "few years back" would have absolutely no presence on the internet.  I double-checked the language of your story, and the notes from your book, none of which indicates that this is a fictional story.  So I have written this open letter in the hopes that you will be able to provide me with more information on this job candidate or his dissertation.

I confess I would not find this question quite as pressing if it did not seem to me part of a constant and disturbing trend in your book of citing undocumented "anecdotes" in support of massive claims about the wastefulness of higher education, or of manipulating statistics, to the same purpose, in some really obvious ways.

Just an example or two.

1) You reserve some of your most damning complaints for professors and their light teaching loads. You rightly anticipate the objection that for every hour we spend in the classroom, we spend many more hours preparing for class and evaluating student work.  You claim to be skeptical about this, and cite this story in support or your skepticism:

"A tale is told of a classroom where all the students were busily scribbling as the professor droned on.  All,that is, but one, a young woman in the back row, who wrote down nary a word.  How so?  She had with her the notes that her mother had taken with that professor during her own student days."

I would love to learn more about where this story took place.  Unfortunately, the language you use to introduce the story--"A tale is told"--seems to imply that this is an urban legend.  Urban legends are fun, but generally, as I like to explain to my students in English Composition, we should not cite them as evidence in arguments.

2) In a chapter which tries to explain why colleges cost so much, you claim that "a big slice of the tuition pie ends up with lawyers and their clients.  After hospitals, colleges may be our society's most sued institutions."

Putting aside the slippery nature of adjectives like "big," it seems to me like information about our society's most sued institutions "may be" available to someone who does their research.  It strikes me as curious why you would not want to track down this actual fact.  Instead of providing any documentation for this statement, you cite five eye-catching lawsuits in which colleges had to pay legal fees.  Five lawsuits, over a two-year period, against more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States!  If those figures are correct, we may in fact be the least sued institution in our society.

I suspect the number is more than five, but I don't really know.  The point here seems to be neither do you--but that didn't stop you from making a sweeping claim about it in your book.

3) In that same chapter, you claim that "football can be the biggest budget buster of them all," implying that expenditures on football are driving up tuition costs.  Two paragraphs later you point out that the "profitable sports program at the University of Texas brings in $100 million each year."

Can you help me out here?  I'm prepared to debate the merits of big-time college football programs, which I think bring both goods and ills to our campuses, but I just can't make any sense of the difference between your sweeping statements and the specific evidence you cite.

I supposed I should add to this open letter the editors at St. Martin's Griffin, which published this book, and the host of folks who endorsed it. As a writer of a few books myself, I know how well-scrutinized my manuscripts are before they appear in print.  As an occasional reviewer of books, I know how important it can be to check a few facts in a book like this one before endorsing or reviewing it.  How did examples like this--and the many dozens of others I could cite--slip by so many people?

But I will let that question go, and return to my original one.  I'm really just looking for the author of An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures.  If you wouldn't mind sending me his e-mail address, or pointing me to his research, I would much appreciate it.

Sincerely,
Jim Lang

Saturday, January 26, 2013

New Book Series Announcement

I am very pleased to announce that I will be editing a new series of books on teaching and learning in higher education from the University of Nebraska Press.  We are anticipating publishing one or two titles per year for the next four years, and then seeing where things stand and evaluating whether that pace makes sense.  As I described it in the proposal, the series will have three distinctive features:

1) None of the pseudo-objective, passive-voiced prose that characterizes too much literature on teaching and learning.  First and foremost we are looking for authors who can write.  As my editor at HUP once described it, the reader should be able to discern a human being behind the prose.  We are looking for lively prose voices that know how to blend the personal and reportorial with the (social) scientific.  For excellent examples of the kinds of prose voices we are seeking, see the recent books of Ken Bain or Cathy N. Davidson.

2) All books will rest on a solid foundation of knowledge from the learning sciences.  While certainly not every book will focus explicitly on findings from cognitive psychology or neuroscience, we want to ensure that our authors have a basic familiarity with what scientists tell us about how the brain learns.

3) Each title will focus on a very specific problem, challenge, or approach facing or available to 21st-century higher education faculty.  So we envision a title on the teaching of writing in the digital age, for example--one that can guide faculty who might find themselves responsible for teaching writing in general education courses without having had any background or training in the teaching of writing.  The books will survey what the literature of the learning sciences tells us about their subject, and then offer practical implications and guidelines for working faculty or administrators.

We have not yet formalized these guidelines into a call for proposals; check back here over the next month or so and I hope to have that formal document ready soon.  In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more or would like to propose an topic, don't hesitate to get in touch.  You can find me most easily on Twitter at LangOnCourse or via e-mail at lang followed by the @assumption.edu.

Quick update or two beyond that.  I am slowly working my way toward a new book project on the subject of immersive learning experiences.  My interest in this topic has stemmed from studying the problem of transfer in learning--i.e., how learners apply knowledge or skills they have learned in one context into another context.  You can read my first thoughts on the issue in a recent column for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

At the same time, I have been on the road quite a bit, and 2013 looks to be even busier.  In mid-February I will be at Texas Women's University in Denton, TX.  In May I will be doing a multi-day faculty workshop at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan.  Quite excited about that trip--doing faculty development in the shadow of the Biblical Mount Ararat!  In late May I will be at the Teaching Professor Conference in New Orleans, and then in June at Ken Bain's Best Teachers Summer Institute in New Jersey.  After several family vacation trips in June/July, I will be back at it in September  for what I hope will be a two-week Fulbright Senior Specialists Grant at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

It keeps me busy, but travel is one of my greatest joys, and visiting other institutions gives me a steady stream of new experiences and ideas for my columns in The Chronicle of Higher Education. If you see me at a conference or event, and you--or a colleague--is doing something you think the world should know about, come up and introduce yourself and tell me about it.

And good luck in the new semester . . .