Archives For Education

Excellent Sheep.What do students want from their teachers?

  • Information?
  • Good grades?
  • Friendship?
  • Leadership?
  • Knowledge?

Slate produced a helpful excerpt from William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, where he argues students want two things from their teachers. They want their teachers to:

  1. challenge them
  2. care about them.

My years in the classroom, as well as my conversations with young people about their college experience, have convinced me there are two things, above all, that students want from their pro­fessors. Not, as people commonly believe, to entertain them in class and hand out easy A’s. That’s what they retreat to, once they see that nothing better is on offer. What they really want is that their teach­ers challenge them and that they care about them. They don’t want fun and games; they want the real thing.

What they want, in other words, is mentorship.

That is why many times the best classrooms are run as a mix of lecture and seminar.

Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. “Educate” means “lead forth.” A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. To put it in the language of computers, you can download all the data you want, but it won’t be any good to you unless you have the software to make use of it. That software, the ability to operate on information—to understand it, to synthe­size it into new combinations, to discover and create with it—is what college is meant to “install.” But here the analogy breaks down, for unlike actual software, the installation isn’t quick and easy, and it certainly isn’t passive.

The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges asser­tions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and en­courages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them. Some of those questions should be ones she doesn’t know the answer to herself. Discussion in a seminar should be collaborative and open-ended, alive with serendipity and the energy of immi­nent discovery—a model, too, of how to think together.

Teacher-ShortageHow are teachers to both challenge students and care about them? What skills do you need to have? The first step is to be yourself.

For all the skill that teaching involves, you ultimately only have a single tool: your entire life as you have lived it up until the moment you walk into class. “The teacher, that professional amateur,” said the critic Leslie Fiedler, “teaches not so much his subject as himself.” He provides a model, he went on, “of one in whom what seemed dead, mere print on the page, becomes living, a way of life.” I developed a rule of thumb in graduate school. If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him. It’s not that I needed my teachers to be confessional; I just needed them to be present. “Mortimer Adler had much to tell us about Aristotle’s Ethics,” Saul Bellow wrote about the University of Chicago eminence, “but I had only to look at him to see that he had nothing useful to offer on the conduct of life.”

Students want you to be honest, not least about yourself. They want you to be yourself. You need to step outside the role a bit, regard it with a little irony, if only to acknowledge the dissonance between the institution and the spirit. It often feels that there are certain things you cannot say inside a classroom—the most serious things that you want to say, the most genuine things. You want to say that life is tragic, that we are dangling above a void, that what’s at stake, when you read a book, is nothing less than life itself. But you feel your institutional surroundings holding you as if between quotation marks. You fear that your words will fall to the ground with an audible clink. That is where a little distance from the situ­ation is of service. Just because I say this stuff in class, I used to tell my students, doesn’t mean I don’t believe it.

There are two things that kids invariably tell you about their favorite professors. The first one is “she teaches about everything.” That’s never literally true, of course, so what does it actually mean? Great teachers, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus remark, are not bound by disciplinary ideas of what they’re allowed to say. They connect the material at hand, in a way that feels spacious and free, with anything to which it might be relevant. They connect it to ex­perience, and so they shed light on experience—on your experience. Just as great art gives you the feeling of being about “life”—about all of it at once—so does great teaching. The boundaries come down, and somehow you are thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, and instead of seeing things as separate parts, you see them as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. A student put it to me this way, about a professor in an oceanic studies program: “He made marine ecology reflect universal truths.”

You know great teaching the moment you encounter it. Yes, you feel, this is it—this is what I came for. It reaches deep inside you. It satisfies desires that you didn’t know you had. It makes the world feel newly large and meaningful—exactly, again, like art. The other thing that students say about their favorite teachers is “he changed my life.”

These insights are not only relevant for the academy, but for the church.

Maybe that is why the Bible was so wise to call the pastor not only a teacher, but a shepherd, an overseer.

Ivory Tower

August 3, 2014 — 2 Comments

Here is the trailer for a documentary about higher education that questions the cost — and value — of higher education in the United States.

The New York Review of Books had a review of the movie which I am posting below.

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower prods us to think about the crisis of higher education. But is there a crisis? Expensive gambles, unforeseen losses, and investments whose soundness has yet to be decided have raised the price of a college education so high that today on average it costs eleven times as much as it did in 1978. Underlying the anxiety about the worth of a college degree is a suspicion that old methods and the old knowledge will soon be eclipsed by technology.

Indeed, as the film accurately records, our education leaders seem to believe technology is a force that—independent of human intervention—will help or hurt the standing of universities in the next generation. Perhaps, they think, it will perform the work of natural selection by weeding out the ill-adapted species of teaching and learning. A potent fear is that all but a few colleges and universities will soon be driven out of business.

It used to be supposed that a degree from a respected state or private university brought with it a job after graduation, a job with enough earning power to start a life away from one’s parents. But parents now are paying more than ever for college; and the jobs are not reliably waiting at the other end. “Even with a master’s,” says an articulate young woman in the film, a graduate of Hunter College, “I couldn’t get a job cleaning toilets at a local hotel.” The colleges are blamed for the absence of jobs, though for reasons that are sometimes obscure. They teach too many things, it is said, or they impart knowledge that is insufficiently useful; they ask too much of students or they ask too little. Above all, they are not wired in to the parts of the economy in which desirable jobs are to be found.

A fair number of the current complaints derive from a fallacy about the proper character of a university education. Michael Oakeshott, who wrote with great acuteness about university study as a “pause” from utilitarian pursuits, described the fallacy in question as the reflection theory of learning. Broadly, this theory assumes that the content of college courses ought to reflect the composition and the attitudes of our society. Thus, to take an extreme case that no one has put into practice, since Catholics make up 25 percent of the population of the United States, a quarter of the curriculum ought to be dedicated to Catholic experiences and beliefs. The reflection theory has had a long history in America, and from causes that are not hard to discover. It carries an irresistible charm for people who want to see democracy extended to areas of life that lie far outside politics.

An explicitly left-wing version of the theory holds that a set portion of course work should be devoted to ethnic materials, reflecting the lives and the self-image of ethnic minorities. But there has always been a conservative version too. It says that a business civilization like ours should equip students with the skills necessary for success in business; and this demand is likely to receive an answering echo today from education technocrats. The hope is that by conveying the relevant new skills to young people, institutions of higher learning will cause the suitable jobs to materialize. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, believes this, and accordingly has pressed for an alternative to college that will bring the US closer to the European pattern of “tracking” students into vocational training programs. Yet the difficulty of getting a decent job after college is probably the smaller of two distinct sources of anxiety. The other source is the present scale of student debt.

Unpaid debt from student loans today exceeds credit card debt. The national total is more than a trillion dollars. And unlike an underwater mortgage, where the owner’s immediate trouble ends with foreclosure, arrears from unpaid student loans follow the student ever after.

This situation came about as a remote consequence of a generous idea. The Higher Education Act of 1965 laid the groundwork for Pell Grants and other loan programs, but the following decades saw a weakening of the belief that the federal government should subsidize intellectual curiosity. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, led the withdrawal of support by the states for higher education; and many other states gradually cut back the appropriations with which they once helped universities to function well. The difference was passed on to students in the form of rising tuition costs; and tuition had to be paid for by reliance on loans in ever-enlarging quantities. The federal government will make $184 billion in profits from student loan debt over the next decade.

The financial crush has come just when colleges are starting to think of Internet learning as a substitute for the classroom. And the coincidence has engendered a new variant of the reflection theory. We are living (the digital entrepreneurs and their handlers like to say) in a technological society, or a society in which new technology is rapidly altering people’s ways of thinking, believing, behaving, and learning. It follows that education itself ought to reflect the change. Mastery of computer technology is the major competence schools should be asked to impart. But what if you can get the skills more cheaply without the help of a school?

A troubled awareness of this possibility has prompted universities, in their brochures, bulletins, and advertisements, to heighten the one clear advantage that they maintain over the Internet. Universities are physical places; and physical existence is still felt to be preferable in some ways to virtual existence. Schools have been driven to present as assets, in a way they never did before, nonacademic programs and facilities that provide students with the “quality of life” that makes a college worth the outlay. Auburn University in Alabama recently spent $72 million on a Recreation and Wellness Center. Stanford built Escondido Village Highrise Apartments. Must a college that wants to compete now have a student union with a food court and plasma screens in every room?

The question comes up in Ivory Tower because these are the sorts of things college recruiters boast of when they talk to prospective students. The model seems to be the elite club—in this instance, a club whose leading function is to house in comfort thousands of young people while they complete some serious educational tasks and form connections that may help them in later life. Corporate decisions, in such an organization, naturally require an administrative balcony of corporate heft. There are college presidents who now command salaries well over a million dollars a year.

“What gets measured gets improved,” runs the motto of the nationwide body culture franchise LA Fitness. Obedient to the same assumption, the administrative bureaucracy of universities has grown at a rate that far outpaces the growth of faculties; and much of the expansion goes to build up a regimen of institutional self-monitoring and self-measurement. But is it true that what gets measured gets improved? An obvious protocol of measurement is the consumer satisfaction survey. In colleges and universities, these are known as student evaluations. Much interested energy has been expended on the design and revision of these forms. And yet good and bad teachers were spotted easily enough in the days before evaluations. A hidden danger both of intramural systems and of public forums like “Rate My Professors” is that they discourage eccentricity. Samuel Johnson defined a classic of literature as a work that has pleased many and pleased long. Evaluations may foster courses that please many and please fast.

At the utopian edge of the technocratic faith, a rising digital remedy for higher education goes by the acronym MOOCs (massive open online courses). The MOOC movement is represented in Ivory Tower by the Silicon Valley outfit Udacity. “Does it really make sense,” asks a Udacity adept, “to have five hundred professors in five hundred different universities each teach students in a similar way?” What you really want, he thinks, is the academic equivalent of a “rock star” to project knowledge onto the screens and into the brains of students without the impediment of fellow students or a teacher’s intrusive presence in the room. “Maybe,” he adds, “that rock star could do a little bit better job” than the nameless small-time academics whose fame and luster the video lecturer will rightly displace.

That the academic star will do a better job of teaching than the local pedagogue who exactly resembles 499 others of his kind—this, in itself, is an interesting assumption at Udacity and a revealing one. Why suppose that five hundred teachers of, say, the English novel from Defoe to Joyce will all tend to teach the materials in the same way, while the MOOC lecturer will stand out because he teaches the most advanced version of the same way? Here, as in other aspects of the movement, under all the talk of variety there lurks a passion for uniformity.

One of the rock stars, the Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun, becomes in Ivory Tower the subject of a separate character study. “There’s a red pill and a blue pill,” says Thrun (a theorist of artificial intelligence) to explain the new path he has chosen, “and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your twenty students. But I have taken the red pill.” The sci-fi rap is just a way of saying he quit his job at Stanford to teach for Udacity. “For me,” says Thrun, “this is an interactive medium that exposes the student—just very much like in a video game.”

How much do we want teaching and learning to resemble a video game? But at this point, the appeal to amusement value shifts to an earnest profession of democratic concern. “We take the focus away from the professor,” says Thrun, “and put the focus back on the student.” Pause there for a moment. The AI innovator was asked to record his lectures because he is a star. At the same time, by rendering less glamorous types redundant in thousands of classrooms, Udacity says it will “put the focus back on the student.” How does that work exactly? In what educational state of nature was the “focus” on the student before the teacher came and took it away? And now that Udacity has put the focus back—as if the very presence of the teacher was an aberration which the MOOC format has corrected—will the company at last render even the star redundant?

A MOOC lecturer may interact with a small cross-section of students, but in the nature of the artifice, where class enrollments may soar upward of 100,000, this will never be more than a specimen group. A conventional delivery system for “the personal touch” in the MOOC format is the so-called “flipped classroom.” Here a teaching assistant circulates in a roomful of students who have watched the assigned video, and helps them to sort out questions about details. The assistant—as Ivory Tower suggests with a single understated caption—will often turn out to be somebody who was once a professor but whom economies facilitated by MOOCs have demoted to the status of section leader. At the heart of the MOOC model is the idea that education is a mediated but unsocial activity. This is as strange as the idea—shared by ecstatic communities of faith—that the discovery of truth is a social but unmediated activity.

Still, however fanciful the conceit may be, the MOOC movement has a clear economic motive. Many universities today want to cut back drastically on the payment of classroom teachers. It is important therefore to convince us that teachers have never been the focus of real learning.

As things worked out in Silicon Valley, reality checked the dreams of Udacity. In 2013, the company was awarded a trial of its offerings in a contract with San Jose State University; and in July of that year, scores were posted for its spring term entry-level courses. The pass rate in elementary statistics was 50.5 percent; in college algebra, 25.4 percent; in entry-level math, 23.8 percent. Teachers have been fired en masse for results like these by administrators or politicians who would not sit for an explanation.

A less pretentious alternative to university teaching and learning is suggested by Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, who is described in Ivory Tower as a leader of the “UnCollege movement.” Thiel awards scholarships to persons of college age to support their self-education out of school. Some live, for that purpose, in the communal quarters of Education Hackerhouse in Silicon Valley. Thiel and his followers break down higher education into three goods that students are hoping to come into possession of: first, knowledge; second, a network of peers; and third, a credential. His approach, he thinks, may free them to work up the knowledge they need from the possibilities thrown open by digital technology. Along the way, living arrangements like the Hackerhouse offer a usable network of fellow students. As for the credential, it will come from whatever chance they make for themselves by following this elective path.

Thiel is wrong to suppose that all knowledge worth having can be quantified, that the main social good of four years of college has always been supposed to come from networking, and that intellectual authority is reducible to a credential. But the students on Thiel Fellowships who are interviewed in Ivory Tower seem alert and mentally alive. In a curious way, they show more spontaneity and more pleasure, and seem far less relentlessly organized, than many students now attending the better colleges and universities. Is it the absence of hand-holding—the sense that they are on their own—that has given them something of the freedom of college forty or fifty years ago?

Ivory Tower manages to encompass, though in foreshortened segments, a wide sample of the varieties of higher education as it is now experienced. We are shown the attractions that draw out-of-state consumers to risk the hazard and pay the price of a “party school” famous for pleasures as much as credentials. There are also dramatic moments of the sixty-five-day student occupation of the president’s office at Cooper Union, in a protest against the new requirement of tuition at a historically tuition-free institution. And we are shown the first day of the school year at Harvard, where CS50 (Introduction to Computer Science) has become the most popular course and its office hours draw hundreds seeking tutoring in two long lanes of tables.

The most instructive parts of the film are the segments on Deep Springs College in California and Spelman College in Georgia. The footage dealing with Spelman, a school for African-American women, illustrates the paradoxical fact that diversity of mind and intellectual self-confidence may flourish most where students from similar backgrounds, or sharing similar aims, live together and encourage each other. Deep Springs makes the point in a vastly different setting. The school offers the first two years of college to a small group of men—it is in the process of becoming coeducational—and its students undertake (as one of them describes it) “a two-year commitment to, in effect, drop out of the world.”

The pillars of education at Deep Springs are self-governance, academics, and physical labor. The students number scarcely more than the scholar-hackers on Thiel Fellowships—a total of twenty-six—but they are responsible for all the duties of ranching and farming on the campus in Big Pine, California, along with helping to set the curriculum and keep their quarters. Two minutes of a Deep Springs seminar on citizen and state in the philosophy of Hegel give a more vivid impression of what college education can be than all the comments by college administrators in the rest of Ivory Tower.

Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia University and author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), is the steady voice behind the film, a sort of chaperone or cicerone for the nonacademic viewer, and his explanations go far to organize the miscellaneous richness of the subject matter. We see Delbanco walking to his office and working at his desk, and hear him reflect on the crisis; and on the whole, a better and more reasonable voice could not be asked for. He wants much of the life of liberal education as he has known it to continue, and he detects the dangers in several of the up-to-date nostrums. Teaching at a university, he says, involves a commitment to the preservation of “cultural memory”; it is therefore in some sense “an effort to cheat death.”

Probably it is. But so are many other things in life: having children, founding a company or a charity, tending one’s garden. There is a pressure and a demand for human continuity beyond the dreams of standardized tests, cost-benefit readouts, and human resources questionnaires. “How shall a generation know its story/If it will know no other?” Edgar Bowers said it like that in his wonderful poem “For Louis Pasteur,” and the question may serve as a reminder of an elusive value that Ivory Tower conveys through other words and images. Universities exist not to answer the question but to register and reiterate its force.

HT: Matthew Arbo

Fascinating chart posted here by Conrad Hackett of the the percentage change in the number of employees in higher education from 1975-2011. I have done administration and believe in the value of it, but where a school puts their money shows what they value.


percent of change in college

Teaching with Twitter

January 2, 2014 — 9 Comments

twitterI have been rolling over in my mind how one could use Twitter to enhance teaching.

Thankfully, I am not the only one to think this way. I did a simple search for how teachers are using Twitter and found many resources.

The best article I found was by Josh Eyler. He says:

If you had told me three years ago that I would someday not only be using Twitter in my classes, but that I would also be writing a blog post on what an incredible experience it’s been, I probably would have told you a thousand reasons why that couldn’t possibly be true.

Yet here I am.

This is my second year of incorporating the social media platform in my classes, and doing so has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as a teacher.  Why?  The level of student engagement in these classes is the highest I’ve ever seen, and–as a result–students have been performing exceptionally well.

He goes onto to give an example of what he puts in the syllabus for his students.

The social media site Twitter has been gaining tremendous currency in the academic world as an instrument for sharing information, commenting on issues related to higher education, addressing issues in one’s particular field, etc.  As such, it has achieved acclaim for its use as a pedagogical tool to extend the work of the classroom.  We are going to use Twitter in this course as a complement to our other activities and to augment the analytical work of the class.  Beyond its relevance to the coursework, though, you are encouraged to explore the site as to its possibilities for professional networking for yourselves.  Certainly follow me (@joshua_r_eyler) and the other members of the class, but also follow leaders in your field.  Make connections!

Although we will sometimes use Twitter in the classroom, the bulk of your Twitter activity will take place outside of class.  You will be required to tweet a minimum of five times per week.  The only guidelines for tweets are:  1) they must have something to do with the class (i.e. a response to the reading, a link to a related article, a question, etc.); 2) they must be substantive; and 3) they must be respectful.  In addition to reading your tweets on a regular basis, I will be using an online archiving tool to keep track of Twitter activity.

You must use the hashtag #LitMA320 in your tweets so that they register as being a part of our class discussion.  Any tweets that do not incorporate this hashtag will not be counted, because the website will not record their activity.

I will hold a Twitter tutorial on the second day of class to answer any questions you might have.

This Twitter activity will be graded on a pass/fail basis.  If you tweet the requisite number of times (5 tweets per week X 15 weeks = 75 total tweets), then you will receive an A for this assignment.  If not, you will receive an F.

Twitter seems to be a great way to keep your students thinking after class and interacting with you and one another. Teachers may be fearful that this could take over their life as class discussion is suddenly with you all the time. It is like the class never ends!

But if one sets some boundaries with responses then this problem is gone, and hopefully some teachers will want to invest as much as they can in each student, and be glad that the class is constantly interacting.

It is necessary that everyone use the same hashtag for the class so that people can catch up on what they missed.

Although many of the articles recommend using Twitter in class, I actually think this is a time to not use Twitter. Twitter allows interaction when you are not together, but when you are together there is no need to use the technology. (I can foresee rare circumstances where large classes did use it occasionally in class.)

Of course one of the main barriers to this is that some students (or teachers) may not use Twitter at all. One solution to this is to make it optional, but then the engagement and production may not be as beneficial.

Here are ideas for using Twitter outside the classroom.

  • Students can tweet questions/comments about their assigned readings.
  • Students can tweet points of disagreement with their assigned readings.
  • Students can tweet questions or comments about the lecture after the class.
  • Students can simply share quotes or insights about what they are learning about.

Here are some other articles I found on the subject.

  • Structured Twitter Assignments – Examples of how Twitter is being used in innovative ways in higher education. [Agile Learning, by Derek Bruff, Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics.]
  •  Teaching with Twitter – Twitter allows me to stay in touch with my students quickly and easily, it fosters discussion in the classroom, and it helps to create a community among my students.






chapelAndy Crouch has a good article on the future of theological education in Catalyst (Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminaries).

In the article he identifies three major transitions (or maybe more aptly what seminaries are lacking in) that they will need to adapt to. They are 1) the transition to the visual age 2) the multi-racial/generational transition 3) leadership and entrepreneurship training.

Although not everyone will agree with his analysis, I am thankful for his creative thinking on this subject. Seminaries can no longer sit idle and simply do what worked in the past. They must either adapt or die.

However Crouch also rightly says that they cannot lose who they at their core.

The challenge is to connect the energy at the innovative edge with the depth of the traditional core — and to find ways to make the edge just as rigorous and deeply rooted as the core, while the core becomes just as entrepreneurial and vivid as the edge.

Seminaries that invest too heavily in exciting new projects at the edge, without committing to deep excellence at the core, are likely to find that students (and even faculty, institute staff, and donors) who arrive excited about interdisciplinary work will leave feeling that their seminary career was like the seed sown among the rocks, springing up quickly, but then withering without depth of soil. Seminaries that neglect the need to experiment and explore how to serve new audiences and address pressing questions in church and society at the edge are likely to find that students (and eventually talented faculty, staff, and donors) will never arrive and, thus, never have the chance to discover the richness at the heart of theological education. The seminary of the future will nurture deep roots and expansive and innovative branches at one and the same time.

3009886_300On Kickstarter Credo House is raising money to launch a Textual Criticism course by Dan Wallace. At this moment they have raised a little over 50% of the money with 23 days to go. They describe the project in the following way:

You are not going to believe what we are doing! We are starting a project which seeks to preserve the greatest teachings in the world by Christian scholars and make them available to everyone!

New Testament Textual Criticism is our inaugural course and will be taught at the Credo House in Edmond, OK by New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace. He is widely known for his research in the area of New Testament Textual Criticism. Dr. Wallace will take the student through thirty 30-minute sessions of textual criticism, giving people a solid foundation on the history of the New Testament Text and how the New Testament was put together.