The Real Scandal Behind “Operation Varsity Blues”

Steven Volk, March 13, 2019

What was your first reaction when you read the news about the FBI operation known as “Operation Varsity Blues” that took down the latest college admission racket? You know, the one that had wealthy parents paying bag-loads of money to get their kids – often without their knowledge – “guaranteed” admission to gold-plated universities, colleges to which they otherwise (i.e., in the real world of college applications) would not have been admitted. Um…what else is new? Isn’t this what happens all the time? As Libby Nelson put it, “the whole business of being admitted to elite colleges in America in 2019 — and make no mistake, it is a business — is corrupt all the way down.”

I must admit that my own reaction was to think: Oh, crap. Yet another reason for the public to throw shade on higher education. As if we needed another one. Nearly 60% of Republicans already think that higher education has a negative impact on “the way things are going in the country,” according to Pew survey. Sean Westwood of Dartmouth observed that “Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.” (I probably should stop here to note that, according to the latest survey of undergraduate teaching released by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, some 48% of the faculty identify as “liberal,” a number which has fallen from the 2010-11 survey. A large number, to be sure, but not even half of the faculty.) For their part, lower-income families will argue that the economic value (the “return-on-investment”) of a college education has fallen, although that is also inaccurate. And it probably doesn’t help that the media and the current occupant of the White House are fixated on challenges to free speech on college campuses that, studies show, are extremely rare, on controversies over “trigger warnings” that are daily, unremarked-upon, lead-ins to radio or TV coverage of difficult issues, or on cultural appropriation dust-ups which – also few in numbers – manage to live on for years, fueling the public imagination that all we do in college is argue about who can eat sushi and wear hoop earrings.

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Into the Free Speech Debate, Once Again

Steven Volk, March 4, 2019

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All images from John Wilkins’ An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668), Wellcome Library, London

In an “off-script” romp before the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) on March 2, President Trump announced his intention to issue an executive order to block federal grants to colleges and universities that don’t take steps to “guarantee free speech.” Here’s some of what he said:

“We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas. These ideas are dangerous,” Trump said. “Instead we believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.”

Wait, what? What does that even mean? That Trump opposes the “hard left” from confronting people with “ridiculous and dangerous ideas”? That “ridiculous and dangerous ideas” should be welcome on college campuses while any attempt to prevent them should be challenged? That people should be allowed to express their opposition to the “hard left’s…ridiculous and dangerous ideas” because those ideas are “dangerous” and therefore should be, um, censored?

Ugh. Why waste time parsing Trump’s verbiage when his CPAC listeners, like lions in a cage urging their keeper to throw them another hunk of red meat, know exactly what he means irrespective of the words that tumble from his mouth? To conservative Trump supporters – and nearly four-fifths of Republicans think that professors are bringing their (one assumes liberal) political and social views into the classroom – all higher education is a snobbish club where coddled snowflakes and feminized “soy boys” flee from challenging ideas, debate pronoun use, and beat up those foolish enough to sport a MAGA hat on campus. (We’ll just ignore the contradictions here.) Trump and CPAC can extravagantly salute the “free speech” flag without either actually supporting it – more on this below – or understanding its intricacies.

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Actually, Deadlines DO Matter

Steven Volk (Contact at: Steven.Volk@oberlin.edu)

In a recent Reddit post, Tobias Rush, a musicologist at the University of Dayton, remarked that he allows students in “music theory and aural skills classes to turn homework in late and redo it as many times as they want for a higher grade. The students LOVE this policy and it does benefit them in that it gives them opportunity to learn the material by doing.” The posting was picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Teaching Newsletter,” where it appeared under a headline offering, “How One Professor Learned to Stop Worrying and Drop the Deadline.” The article notes that it’s a bit more complicated: Rush provides due dates for each assignment but, “they are really just suggestions, since assignments can be turned in late without penalty.” Ultimately, he clarifies, “There is a hard and fast due date at 5:00 pm on the last day before finals week where all materials are due.”

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zen Sutherland, Flickr Creative Commons

The arguments in favor of such an approach are significant, including never having to parse various requests for extensions, from the familiar (computer crashes without any backups; the untimely death of a grandparent), to the outrageous (“I’m going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and won’t have time to complete it before I leave. I’ll bring you back some beads”), to the sadly believable, if eyecatching (“I lost my carabiner which had all my keys, including the one for the lockbox where I keep my ADHD meds, and my father can’t mail me a new prescription until next week…”). One also doesn’t have to calculate grade deductions for assignments turned in late (is that a grade down for every day late, or every CLASS day late?), or trouble one’s mind as to whether it’s better for students to turn in an assignment, however late, vs. discouraging them from doing the work by mandating a failing grade after, say, 5 late days.

Prof. Rush also notes that such a policy requires significant preparation (“we have a big discussion about this on the first day of the first class…”), as well as talking about the final due date continually as the semester draws to a close. He also notes that, in the end, he ends up with a lot more grading at the end of the semester, when everything is finally submitted. And he indicates that the policy works best for certain “lower-level” assignments, not for all assignments.

Yet for Rush, as reported in the Chronicle, the policy paid off: “…His students, all in their first and second year, appreciate having the space to better understand their time-management skills, or lack thereof…His method allows the procrastinators at the margins to understand the material rather than give up.” While Rush hasn’t studied the results of his experiment in a thorough manner, he noticed an increase in the average grades in his course.

Maybe Not?

The idea was so intriguing that I thought I would try it – well, actually I did try it, about a decade ago. In the syllabus for an introductory survey of colonial Latin American history (50 students), I wrote: “This semester, I am adopting a new policy regarding late assignments based on an understanding (and a hope) and it is you who are ultimately responsible for your education.” Much like Prof. Rush, I provided deadlines for every assignment (4 in total), but indicated that assignments could be turned in after the deadline without a grade penalty, up to the date of the final exam; nothing turned in after that date would be accepted. My approach differed from Prof. Rush’s in two other ways: Students who turned in assignments late would be graded normally, but would not receive any written comments – which, I noted, “means that the assignment will lose some of its value as a learning opportunity.” And students could not pass the course unless they (ultimately) turned in all the assignments. Continue reading

The Many Lives of a Syllabus: Making Yours Work

NOTE: This is cross-posted at the GLCA Consortium for Teaching & Learning.

plants to save time

From: From 114 proved plans to save a busy man time (A.W. Shaw Co, 1918).

A “syllabus,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “(a) a concise statement or table of the heads of a discourse, the contents of a treatise, the subjects of a series of lectures, etc.; a compendium, abstract, summary, epitome,” and, in a more contemporary sense “(b) a statement of the subjects covered by a course of instruction or by an examination, in a school, college, etc.; a programme of study.” We all know it as the “thing” (I believe that’s the formal term) that we need to have completed by the first day of class. Perhaps instructors dislike it so much because when we finally copy it for distribution, it means that our summer/winter/whatever break is over. (I’m old enough to associate the smell of the mimeo machine ink with the start of a new semester.) And, perhaps, as instructors we dislike it because we don’t think our students will actually read it. We certainly  have ALL had occasion to answer a student’s question by responding, “It’s on the syllabus!”

 

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And yet – I will argue – the syllabus is actually a critical document whether or not your students read it (and I will suggest ways to get them to, yes, read it). Why is it so important? It is the actual place where your understanding of learning theory (how students learn) intersects with your pedagogical style and approach (not just what you feel comfortable with, but what you understand as important for student learning) mapped out on the field of reality: the content that you have to “cover” that semester, how well your students are actually prepared, and the concrete reality of your life at that moment (new child at home? a parent who is ill? a book manuscript due at the publisher? your “heavy” teaching load semester, etc.). What I am arguing is that a “successful” syllabus – one that helps you teach and bolsters your students’ learning – needs to take these elements into account. Yes, you can prepare a syllabus that is close to the original Latin meaning of the word: a list – in this case of the readings and assignments. But to do so is to lose the opportunity to grapple with what you really want to accomplish in your course and how you can help your students achieve at a high level. Continue reading

“Teaching as Possibility”: Lessons for Teachers

Steven Volk, December 30, 2018 (a version first published December 7, 2014)

[In memory of Jakelín Caal Maquín and Felipe Alonzo-Gómez, two Guatemalan children who died in December 2018 while in the custody of the US Border Patrol, children who will never sit in our classes.]

Jakelin Caal Maquin

Jakelín Caal Maquín

Felipe

Felipe Gomez Alonso

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Semesters can feel like ocean journeys. Sometimes the seas are choppy, sometimes calm. Sometimes you’re relaxing on an ocean liner, sometimes pulling the oars of a rowboat. And when land is once again in sight, it often feels that it’s you, teeth gripping a tow-rope, who hauls the ship into port. I was reading something the other day, don’t even ask me what, that called attention to the words we use to talk about what it is we do as faculty members. When asked about our “load,” we understand the question to be: How many courses do you have to teach each semester? When asked if we’ve had a chance to get to our “work,” we know we’re being queried about our research, writing, or creative production. Outsiders could ask why we have developed that vocabulary to talk about what we do, but we know the answer, so I won’t bore you.

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Wellcome Library, London. “A large mule carrying a heavy load,” Etching by J. E. Ridinger. CC.

Teaching, of course, is far more than a load, an 80-pound pack that we hump up endless hills, and the end of the semester is always a good time to remind ourselves what we can and should be about. Teaching, as Maxine Greene once put it, is possibility. My wife, a professor of early childhood education, turned me on to Greene some time ago, amazed that I didn’t know her writing. As much a force of nature as a human being, Greene, who died in 2014 at the age of 96, taught for nearly 50 years at Teachers College (Columbia University). TC proudly claimed her as their “Philosopher Queen,” and a rightful heir to John Dewey.

In a 1978 essay, Greene observed that too many people in modern society feel dominated and powerless. But rather than become pessimistic,  she suggested that “such feelings can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them, to interpret the experiences they are having day by day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life.” She called this sense, “Wide-Awakedness.” Continue reading

The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins

Steve Volk, October 12, 2018 (First published on February 1, 2016)

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Michael Ayrton illustration (Radio Times, January 24, 1947)

In early 2016, James Lang, an English professor at Assumption College and a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote a lovely piece on how to best use the first five minutes of class. In it he argued that, much like the opening sentence of a novel (“Call me Ishmael!”), how you begin your class can make a difference in your ability to capture and hold student interest. (We can push this even further and paraphrase Tolstoy by noting that “Happy classes are all alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own way!”) In any case, I couldn’t agree more. Instead of the basic kinds of housekeeping that often take up the start of a class, think about saving those for later and launching the class in a more engaging way. Among Lang’s suggestions:

  • Open with questions (on a slide, the board, or just spoken) that point to the heart of what it is you want the students to engage with in that class. What are the questions that students should be able to answer by the end of the class?
  • Ask them to review the material covered in the last class: What were the main points? What key things were learned? Have them answer without consulting their notes, from memory. This kind of exercise helps spur the “retrieval effect”:  if we want to remember something, we have to practice. Frequent, low-stakes quizzes can do the same thing.
  • Ask them what they already know about the topic you are going to be examining in the day’s class. It is important to know if they have any misconceptions so that they can be addressed (or, alternatively, if you need to pitch the class at a higher level).
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Medieval scribe Jean Miélot (AKA Jehan), , ca. mid 1400s. Image published: 1885.

To these I would emphasize another point that Lang mentions: have students write down answers to these early questions. If you begin with a questions that is too broad or complex, you’ll often get few answers or, more likely, the same students will answer each time. Try questions that are easier to address and give the students a minute or two to write their answers. This allows you to begin the class by calling on students who don’t often speak in class and encourages them to prepare for the class by doing the reading. Continue reading

What’s in a Name? Getting to know your class

Steve Volk, August 26, 2018 (A reprise of an article published a year ago)

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

–Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

After a summer that has quickly scurried away into some dark corner from which it will only emerge, like a baby newly born, nine months from now, we return to our classrooms. At least for those who didn’t spend the summer teaching or are not teaching this semester. As we reengage, hopefully refreshed and ready to go, I’m reminded of what the poet Nikki Giovanni once remarked when asked what she would miss most when she retired from teaching. (Lord knows, it wasn’t grading exams or sitting through department meetings!)

I’m going to be sorry when I retire — she wrote — because… if it’s one thing that I definitely enjoy, it’s my 8:00 class. My 8:00 class, they come to me, 8:00 AM, they come to me from their dreams, and I come to them from mine. And I would give up a lot of things, in terms of teaching; I really don’t want to give up my 8:00, because I like the freshness that they bring. And the other word would be, I like the love that we have for each other as we come into that class.”

Good to keep in mind.

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When I began teaching, I was sure I’d never forget a student’s name. A few years in, and it became quite evident that wasn’t going to happen. OK, I don’t remember their names, but I was sure I’d never forget a face. Fast forward — maybe a few weeks? — and I realized no guarantees there, either. As the years went by, I was embarrassed to admit that I greeted returning alumni as if they were still in my classes (“So, how are your other classes going?” “Er, I graduated 5 years ago”) and, occasionally, currently enrolled students I bumped into at the gym as former students. I soon switched to a more noncommittal, “So, what’s going on?” when I saw a familiar face.

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