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JBFC: After the End

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Sure, I called my last entry "The End," but that last JBFC entry was not, in fact, my last.  This time, however, I mean it:  The final grades have been entered, the dorms left empty, the student evaluations returned.  The quiet around here borders on spooky.

Why one more?  Well, I think it's worth spending a little time on this last bit.  (No, not the spookiness, but the student evaluations bit.)

Reading student evaluations usually proves disconcerting when they should be useful.  We've got some advice as to how to use this feedback, and it's worth mentioning here.  It almost goes without saying that students will often have idiosyncratic reasons for approving or detesting a course, and there's little that can be done about that.  Patterns, however, can be really instructive.  Do several students remark about the difficulty of the assignments or ambiguous expectations?  One or two of these is probably something personal; more than three, and you've probably got a problem worth addressing.

If you do decide to change a course based upon student feedback,* direct is not always best.  If several students do remark upon the difficulty of the readings, for example, the solution may not be to look for alternative texts.  Instead, you might consider filling out the skills side of your teaching, such as spending some time talking about how to actually go about reading in your discipline.  Even some older students won't be all that sensitive to disciplinary differences when it comes to core activities such as reading and writing — reading a neuroscience journal article differs dramatically from unpacking an epic poem, but in both cases students will be asked, simply, to read them — and they would benefit tremendously from having those skills revealed and perhaps modeled for them in class.**

Similarly, you might consider what prior knowledge students brought to your course and how that effected outcomes.  Prior knowledge has a powerful influence over the kind of work students produce and even how they interpret and assimilate what they hear and read.  In my own course, I had a student remark that she didn't know how to write a philosophy paper because she'd "never written a paper without facts before."  After I stopped shuddering, we were able to have a meaningful conversation about what instructors mean when they ask students to write a philosophy paper, and how that differs from a psychology paper, a history paper, etc.  In general, prior knowledge can be a powerful teaching tool, particularly if confounded.

Finally, still on the change theme, I would also suggest keeping a running log of your course (not unlike this one, though perhaps less public) in which you track what worked at what didn't.  The very exercise of writing these entries fairly regularly has given me specific ideas for adjusting my course tactics throughout the semester and for the next go around, should there be one.  (Note to self: more classroom opportunities for students to talk, such as board work, discussion groups, presentations earlier in the semester, and so on.  Sigh.)

At the very end of a semester, I almost always find myself wondering how I could ever teach again, how I could ever find the will and the way to carve such a crooked thing out of libraries and students and chairs that don't sit neatly on all fours.  But after a while, that wonder inverts, and I begin to think about when I can next clap chalk dust off my hands after working through a new student's great question.

Until next time perhaps.


*That's a good thing to do, by the way.
**Bonus:  By better balancing skills and challenges, you'll also produce better flow, and, honestly, who doesn't want that?

JBFC: The End

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The End by nomeacuerdo - En modo chnacho zombie (cc).jpg

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.


*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.


*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.

JBFC: Honeymoon is over edition

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If you've taught before, you know the feeling.  Discussions have been pleasant and perhaps even (at moments) exhilarating.  They ask good questions, post good posts, almost look you in the eye.  Some even talk comfortably with you before and after class.

Then the lengthier written work comes in.  And whatever your in-class experience, a gap always seems to open up between what you expect of particular students and what they produce.  I ran into a little bit of that recently.

It's something like a theorem now (for me, anyway) that students who talk often and often insightfully in class don't often hand in the best arguments.  It makes some sense — in-class contribution often consists of shorter, quicker bursts of thinking, whereas even relatively short essays demand coherence and extension.  Essays by Good Talkers, then, can be impressionistic, flecked with intriguing thoughts that may not be well developed (or developed at all).

We recommend a backward-looking approach to course design, which is to say we suggest beginning with articulating course goals, then move to particular assignments that embody those goals, and then work backward to provide whatever raw material students will need — skills, readings, advice, etc. — to have a shot at realizing the original course goals.  Part of this process involves envisioning how students will respond to assignments, including which prompts they'll likely favor (if given more than one), what mistakes they'll tend to make, and so on.  By now, I pretty much have a relatively clear idea of what my students' essays will look like, an idea that sharpens further as the semester progresses.  So I more or less saw the in-class/on-paper gap coming, but I hope enough otherwise that I'm still mildly surprised.

Still, the surprise can be pleasant.  This time around, I gave four prompts of differing difficulties with the main goal of getting students to engage in theoretical lens use.  That is, I wanted my students to draw upon more theoretical readings to expand our understanding of some subjects or questions.  I expected most people to go for the ethical dilemma — should elective amputation be permissible* — but I knew that students would find arguing either in favor or against the procedure more difficult than they anticipated.  That choice was the overwhelmingly popular one, and good struggles resulted.  A brave few students took on a couple of tougher readings —including one that we didn't discuss at all in class — and became usefully puzzled.  And one student wrote about which theory of body representation can account for some really strange phenomena (autotopagnosia and somatoparaphrenia, if you must know), which requires some deft analysis.  Overall, I was pleased.

Quite Possibly Impractical Tip of the Week:  Part of the M.O. for the writing seminars I've taught includes draft conferences where instructors meet with each of their students individually to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments.  Ideally, instructors write a letter to each student (approximately one single-spaced page) and e-mail it in advance of the meeting.  That way, the time can be more focused and students can do most of the talking during the session itself.  I've found these conferences an extremely useful way of getting to know my students while communicating to them that I take their thinking and writing seriously.  I believe that since they feel more seriously taken they're more likely to reflect that seriousness in their work.  For large courses, it's simply impracticable to meet with everyone individually for 30 minutes or so.  But for, say, 20 or so students or fewer, the approaching-death exhaustion proves worth it.

Lunch Note:  This past week was midterms week, so I didn't even ask for lunch partners. 


*It's a longish story.  Feel free to ask.

JBFC: Why.

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Last week I pledged to (re-)introduce my love of my field and our topic into the room, and this week I spent a fair amount of time attempting to do that.  The idea was (and is) to be sufficiently contagious so that my students would be more motivated and therefore better positioned to take on the harder course material.

And it wasn't just me who thought the current topic is difficult.  I again used the one-minute paper approach at the end of class Tuesday to get a sense of where they're struggling, and this time I found much more sophisticated questions (which was nice) and much more agreement about what remained confusing.  Which is to say, pretty much every main point from Tuesday's session.  

Okay, so two things to accomplish this week, then—light a fire under them about philosophy and clarify everything.

This order seemed less tall the more I thought about it.  Many students were struggling to understand a philosopher's claim that the very nature of bodily experience (of a tickle or itch, say) defeats Descartes's claim that the mind and body are radically distinguishable.  It seems like a straightforward claim, but it's not, particularly considering what it's in response to.  Looking back, I see that on the first pass I focused too heavily on explaining the professional backstory—the professionalized conversation between academics—and not enough on the why. For example, I hadn't (publicly) asked why these authors still feel compelled to respond to Descartes some four hundred years later?  After all, he's not just dead, but very, very dead.  In fact, why think about this stuff at all?

So we went all the way back to the first drawing board, back to the why.  My students offered some interesting answers to the fundamental Why's, including the observation that perhaps some writers were professionally invested in being correct, and that's why Descartes must be wrong.*

But the answer I didn't get was the one I emphasized the most—namely, that all this stuff is simply crazy on its face.  For philosophers (and bunches of other people, too), very little space lies between puzzlement and wonderment, and it's this combination of admiration and astonishment that can get lost.  If you stop to think about it, much of the obvious and the mundane turns out to be anything but.  We're the rare kind of creature that has a body and a mind, has thoughts and experiences, can think and talk about things.  Why write and think and talk about these facts?  Because if you stop and think about them, you have to, and that's what we did (I think) for the beginning of class Thursday—stop and think, recreate getting hit by the wonder before we went back to the puzzle.

We then did go back to the texts, which went a little better, in no small part because I spent some time on my own in front of a blackboard working out how to make a map of the material that they could better navigate by.  Their midterm essays are due in roughly two weeks, so I guess we'll see more clearly how we're both doing.

Lastly:  Number of students who came to lunch with me this week:  3.  It's a start.

*That was the first answer, too, oddly enough, which strikes me as a little cynical coming from a bunch of freshmen.  But anyway.

JBFC: How hard is too hard?

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We're three weeks into the course, and the material is starting to get noticeably harder. I've done this deliberately, of course, but I worry whether I've calibrated correctly.  I want my students to be puzzled—even deeply puzzled—by what they meet in my class, but I don't want them to be defeated by it.  Is the material too hard?  Sure, they're smart and all, but am I nevertheless expecting too much of them?

The worry is not merely, as they say, academic.  Ask too little of them, and they're bound to get bored.  But, as psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi argues (and as I've mentioned before), provide challenges that dwarf the current skill levels of students and you trigger anxiety, which is no more productive than boredom.  The ideal, in other words, is to ladder them up to the really hard stuff by first giving them skills—recognizing and analyzing an argument in an approachable reading, say—and then by providing opportunities to exercise those skills in slightly tougher contexts, and then by helping them develop further skills, and so on.  A very strong argument could be made, I think, that this laddering up simply is what learning is.

Okay, so that's the ideal.  But this calibration problem has been somewhat tough to deal with given the nature of the course.  Since this is a Freshman Seminar, I've only got 14 students and their various skill levels to consider instead of 50 or 75 or 175, which makes settling on a level of difficulty a little easier.  But since this is a Freshman Seminar, I've got a classroom full of people still working out what it is to be in a Princeton classroom and part of this discourse community, which means I've got a lot of skill work to do.  Accordingly, I've tended to spend more time talking than I would in an upper-level seminar while still trying to have discussion drive the in-class work we do.  I've also been trying to model skills that I want them to use and then just plain telling them what skill we were just using.

But I've recently been reminded of one thing that I don't think I've done well or enough of yet this semester.  Like many spring semesters here at the McGraw Center, we're putting on what we call the Master Class in Lecturing.  The short course consists of a series of talks about lecturing given by some of Princeton's best lecturers, and then those who sign up for the course present mini lectures and receive feedback from their audience, including the faculty "master."  During a recent session, the invited lecturer emphasized the importance of communicating your love for the discipline, for what you're teaching.  As he so nicely put it (more or less):

"Students arrive with adolescent loves—they don't know what importance is, what depth is.  Their lives need to be changed, and if I'm not aiming to change their lives, then what's the point?"

Giving my students a clear reason to love what we're doing will no doubt encourage them to stick with what's hard, to find love in the work itself and therefore the desire to work at it.  In many ways, I suppose, that's what defines philosophy—the love of the puzzle itself and not so much the solution.

Next week, then, I will work harder at getting them to feel the love (as it were).  The week after that:  Changing their lives.

For those keeping track at home:  I again welcomed students to come to lunch with me.  Takers?  Still nobody.

JBFC: The other (student) minds problem

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Though I've taught for quite some time now, I still find myself surprised by the disconnect between what I think my students are thinking about and will react energetically to, and what they actually write and say.

Take today's class.  I had them read several (very) short articles on Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a disorder where otherwise normal people want to have healthy limbs amputated.  The first assigned article is from the late 70's and presented a fairly dubious but provocative argument for categorizing the disorder as psychosexual.*  The last is from 2008, and the authors put forward a brain-based explanation, but their conclusion runs against some data collected in other pieces we read.  So we've got self-amputation, sexual deviancy, bizarre behavior in general, conflicting explanations, etc.  Just a lot of puzzling, wild stuff.  Who wouldn't want to talk about it?  Right?

So I expected the class to light up, but the response was, well, okay.  Nearly every student did talk at some point during the 80 minutes, but I had to pull it out of many of them with questions, some of them eventually quite leading.  What's going on?

One way to get a little insight into what and how students are thinking when they sit around the table so quietly is to ask them.  Putting a little more McGraw advice into practice, at the very end of class I asked students to write down a lingering question or a point that seemed important but remained muddy to them.  The responses ranged from specific questions about today's subject (e.g., How can apotemnophiliacs think amputation will stop them from getting negative attention?) to more general questions about the course itself ("How will studying a scientific topic from a philosopher's point of view ... explain the union of mind and body?").  Good stuff for the most part.  Now I have a better idea what I should be sure to speak to, and how.

Near the bottom of the stack of these "one-minute papers," I came across one that ended with:

"This class keeps making me think.  It's uncomfortable at times."

So maybe things are going better than I think.

Note to future self:  The Discussion Board feature of Blackboard is a nice tool, but it works best when weekly posting is folded explicitly into students' course grade.  I told them that contributing to the board falls squarely within the "Participation" category (worth 20% of the total) — and some have contributed some nice thoughts and questions.  But it's not on fire, if you know what I mean.  Sometimes the route to deep learning has to pass through strategic-learning territory.

Also, as I promised/threatened in the course syllabus, I put out an open invitation at the end of class for anyone to join me for lunch at Wilson College.  Number of students who came to lunch with me today:  0.  Ah well, maybe next week.


JBFC: First day, first week

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Classes started this week, which meant facing the First Day.  It's always a tough day, in no small part because the students often walk in as total unknowns.  Will they talk?  Will they Facebook the whole time?

My start stress is a little more intense this semester because I'm teaching a brand new course.  Sure, I'm using some familiar readings, and I've written and presented on everything listed on the syllabus.  But I haven't put together these readings, ideas, activities, and assignments before in just this way, so I'm concerned about pacing and possibility.  (Can we, e.g., make it through three of Descartes's Meditations in one 80-minute session?  Answer:  um, no.)

But back to the first day.  We recommend that instructors use the opening day of the course strategically.  That is, it's tempting to cram in as much content as possible given the short semester, but students will likely arrive with a range of expectations and assumptions about the course and the instructor.  Spending a little time on expectations — both theirs and yours — can bring the class together around a common purpose.  Asking students about their expectations can also signal that they're participants and not merely passive vessels into which delicious knowledge will be poured.

Here's my approach:  I spend a little bit of time at the very beginning of the first class going over the course overview, which explicitly (I think, anyway) lists my expectations.  I talk a little about grades — they always want to hear about that — but I spend more time emphasizing my availability and how to get a hold of me.  I don't want to insult their intelligence or waste time by reading the whole thing, but I've found that students rarely read all that info themselves.  Highlighting parts of it in class, then, makes it important.

I also try to reward students who do actually bother to read the course info.  I insert jokes, weird asides, and odd footnotes here and there (as in the picture above), among other things.  This approach risks trivializing the info and maybe even the course, I realize.  Still, I think the risk is worth the reward of increased attention and interest.  I also like a fairly informal, conversational atmosphere in my classrooms, and I like to signal that preference not only by stating my expectations up front but via the way in which those expectations get stated.  We'll see how this semester's students react.  As of day 2, no mention.

After introductions (including answers to Why this course? and What do you want to get out of it?), I devote the rest of the first day to method.  Since I'm teaching a Freshman Seminar, I'm assuming that my students are very new to philosophical thinking and university discourse in general (even in their second semester).  We therefore spend about an hour reading a short article from the New Yorker by Michael Kinsley about opinion, ignorance, and intellectual piety.  Kinsley's argument is clear and compelling but not without controversy, and since it's about many Americans' belief that they have, as Kinsley puts it, a "democratic right to ignorance," students don't need any privileged knowledge to follow or to respond to Kinsley's case.

It went fairly well.  They talked less than I hoped but more than I expected.  I let the discussion go, and we wound up puzzling over the distinctions between opinion, belief, theory, and faith.  And in the end, I had what I wanted, which was the opportunity to point out that what we just did — namely pull out the argument in a reading and respond to it in kind — is what I'm going to expect of them (and of myself) over the course of the semester.  We'll have to come back to this expectation again and again, in word and in deed, but ultimately I think it was a good start.

Plus, I really love talking about all this stuff.  Next up?  Descartes and Really Old Texts.


(Note:  This is the first real entry in a new weekly series, "Just back from class," where we mull over our experiences in our own classrooms.  To quickly see all the entries in the series, click on either the "JBFC" tag over in the Tag cloud or the "Just back from class" category in the sidebar.  You won't see that much right now, but just wait.)

Introducing a new feature: Just Back From Class

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opendesk.jpgNot only do we research, think, and write about teaching and learning here at McGraw, we teach.  Last semester, Jeff Himpele (our Associate Director) gave a class in Anthropology entitled "Anthropology of Media."  This semester, I'm teaching the Freshman Seminar "Minding the Body," an interdisciplinary investigation into how we represent and misrepresent our bodies to ourselves.

Nothing focuses the mind and tests practices like an actual classroom with real, honest-to-goodness students.  We thought that it might be useful, perhaps for us more than anyone, to spend a little time each week discussing what worked and what didn't.  Along the way, we also want to hear about your own teaching experiences and what you make of them.

We're calling this new series "Just back from class."  The weekly posts will lean more to the informal (maybe even confessional) side, recorded in that heady time right after the chalk goes back into the tray.

Okay, so let's get started.

Creating Course Flow

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When we conceive of assignments and activities for courses, we often think in terms of what students will produce — the essay, the lab report, the presentation, the finished problem set.  Research suggests, however, that giving some thought to students’ experiences while they work through their assignments can increase student performance and enjoyment.

Ideally, students find their assignments both challenging and engaging.  Psychologist Mihaly  Csíkszentmihályi calls this optimal experience of positive engagement “flow.”  A student experiencing flow is intrinsically motivated, finding enjoyment and reward in the performance of the task itself.  Accordingly, people experiencing flow — whether artists, athletes, or students — want to do what they’re doing when they’re doing it, which means they tend to sustain intense concentration longer, reach higher levels of accomplishment, and perform better overall.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow results from a proper balance between a person’s skills and a particular challenge.  Assigning tasks that challenge students beyond their current skill levels leads to anxiety; providing challenges that require relatively low skills to complete leads to boredom.  Instructors — and students themselves — should strive for the “flow channel” where skills properly meet challenges.

Read on after the jump for some ways that you can encourage flow both inside and beyond your classroom:

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