April 2009 Archives

JBFC: The End

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Today was the last day of class.  Though I'd planned out the semester reasonably well, we were a little tight on time as the last few students gave in-class presentations.

Still, we did have some time at the end, for — something.

Just as conclusions often prove more difficult than introductions, I usually find the last day of class much more difficult than the first (in part because I've got an established approach for day one that I'm largely satisfied with).  I see basically three possibilities:

1. Summarizing the course.  This seems natural, given that there's nothing more to the course.

2. A day just like any other day.  Summarizing the entire semester is a big job, so end the period like any other, which is to say, asking for outstanding questions, clarifying assignments, smiling, etc.

3. Send them off on a new trajectory.  Look mainly forward via a few major questions that remain open.

I've tried (1) in the past with limited success,* and I think (2) doesn't encourage students to appreciate the entire course as an event itself, as a whole.  I went, therefore, with (3).

Freshman year is mainly (implicitly) about joining a discourse community, a particular cultural institution.  And Freshman seem (implicitly) to get this, at least if the very recent survey by Damico & Quay (2009)** holds up to scrutiny.  The trajectory I aimed to set my freshman off on, then, was primarily a skill-based on.  I reminded them of the kind of thing we did over the semester, which is to say, a certain kind of explanatory project defined by a certain set of tools.  And further, that though most disciplines and their courses have an explanatory project at their center, their tools can differ widely.  Just knowing that can, I think, obviate some disasters.

I also hoped to make a plug for the general utility of the philosophical stance — namely, the willingness to be puzzled by almost anything, to give pride of place to questions over answers.  As O.K. Bouwsma  puts it in his essay "The Blue Book":

Philosophers are people who investigate what sorts of things there are in the universe.  They are, of course, scrupulous in these investigations beyond the scrupulosity of any other investigator.  They stand at the gate and wait, fearing to tread where angels rush in.

I don't know whether any of this registered — let alone resonated — with them. But regardless of how much content they absorb in their years here (and beyond), I hope they see the back of at least one angel.

Then I encouraged them to have a nice life, or whatever.

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*Mainly because it's too big of a job to pull off.
**Amy M. Damico, & Sara E. Quay. (2009). Learning to Learn: What Matters to First-Year College Students. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 20(1), 101-120.

JBFC: Feedback (taking and giving)

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Teaching, oddly enough, has eaten up enough time to put a JBFC entry further down my list.  (That fact itself could fund a post, but it's achingly familiar, so anyway.)  Let's catch up a bit, shall we?

I've struggled this semester with getting my students to contribute to class discussion.  I tried giving them some time at the beginning of class to write out some questions, tried the one-minute papers at the end of class, tried small-group work.  I make jokes (though I'd probably do that anyway) and reference news/current events and TV whenever I can.  I even turned my students into quasi-subjects for the day, running a simple experiment on them that produces a vivid tactile illusion that is, simply put, pretty cool.

That moved them a little but not as much as I wanted.  So I kicked things up a notch by inviting the author of the experimental paradigm —a professor in the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Institute here — to visit our class.  He was kind enough to spend the entire class time talking about where his idea came from, what he hoped to understand with the experiment, and he even talked a little about the difficulties of getting the original paper published.  To ready my students, I asked them to each come up with at least one question and to post it to Blackboard.  The Discussion Board filled up on cue — and many of the questions were quite good — but my students were mainly quiet that day.  They said they really enjoyed the rubber hand experiment and his visit, but they didn't so much show it at the time.

How do I know they enjoyed the visit?  Simple:  I asked them, more or less.  Again following our own advice, I set up a mid-semester evaluation form on Google Docs*, and asked long-form responses to a just a few questions.  Eleven of my fourteen students responded, and several mentioned the visitor and the rubber hand experiment specifically as course highlights.

Interestingly — and frustratingly — most students who responded mainly gave the course high marks (interesting readings, clear expectations, etc.), but most also said that more class discussion would improve the course. I'm not sure what to make of that suggestion; after all, my students are best positioned to do something about the discussion.  Sigh.

If anyone has any swell ideas for getting freshman to talk more, I'm all the way open to them.  Feel free to fill up the comments on this post and/or send them directly to me.

Speaking of feedback, I'm trying something new this time around with returning written work: I've returned their first major bit of writing for the semester with pretty extensive comments, but I did not put a grade on the papers themselves.  Instead, I revealed grades only via Blackboard — and I waited a day between handing papers back and posting grades.  I owe this approach to Professor Jeff Stout of Religion, for whom this is standard operating procedure.  The idea is to force open some space for the feedback to be formative as opposed to merely summative.  (This issue recently came up on a larger scale here at Princeton, and we wrote up some suggestions for providing students with feedback.)

We'll see how it goes.

Lunch tally for the curious:  Other commitments kept me from inviting students to lunch last week, but the week before, I sat down with five students.  Now that they have their papers (and grades) back, I'm curious to see if I get any takers.

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*Why Google Docs?  Because the Big G has an easy (and free) form creator, and since it's outside Princeton's domain, students simply know that their responses are completely anonymous.

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