To Whom It May Concern: Writing Letters of Recommendation

Steve Volk, September 25, 2017

“Hey, Professor,” the email began. (What’s with the omnipresent “Hey.” Even on “Morning Edition,” it’s “Hey, Rachel” and “Hey, David.” OK, stay focused!) “Hey, Professor. I’ve been thinking a lot about next year and have decided to go back to school. I understand if you don’t have time, but I’d be hugely grateful if you’d write me a letter of recommendation.”

We’re rapidly moving into the recommendation-writing season. If you’re new to your position, you’ll only get a few entreaties. After you’ve grown old at your post, the requests can multiply into dozens or scores. And take it from someone who has put in some time here: the requests don’t stop after a student has graduated. (Two requests materialized in my inbox this morning; I’m still asked for letters from students who graduated in the 1990s.)

We all know that we’re not evaluated on the number of letters we write, and certainly not on their quality or impact. Feel free to put those metrics in your tenure file, but you can be confident in the knowledge that the peer reviewed articles you could have written in the same time will “count” more.

And yet I’m not alone in arguing that the letters of recommendation we write are among the most important of our tasks as teachers, that the time we put into them can be vital. They are about our students’ future.  Now, an enthusiastic letter will likely not win an unqualified student a fellowship – nor should it – but a poorly written or meh letter can damage the prospects of a highly qualified student to get into the program that can make a huge difference in her future. These letters, then, can be critically important.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind when writing letters of recommendation. Continue reading

Help One, Help All: Universal Design in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 18, 2017

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d'histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d'après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d’histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d’après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

The headline immediately caught my attention: “Atmospheric scientist at Illinois is on leave after refusing to provide lecture slides to student with disabilities.” Not exactly the Kardashians or the latest scorched-earth quote from Sebastian Gorka, but striking to a pedagogy-nerd like me. As I clicked through to the article, I found that the scientist in question wasn’t just “any” teacher, but a Nobel laureate with 41 years of teaching to his credit.

Although I’m more interested in this article for what it says about the state of “Universal Design” thinking than for the actual controversy at hand, some facts in the case are still in order.

  • The faculty member in question is Michael Schlesinger, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2007, he was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in building and disseminating greater knowledge about man-made climate change. Conservative bloggers, for their part, prefer to see him as an “environmental extremist.”
  • According to a report in the Daily Illini, Schlesinger refused “to provide a student with electronic lecture notes, even after Disability Services confirmed the need for accommodation.” Further research reveals that the real issue was Schlesinger’s refusal to share his slides with the student. In fact, he is quoted as saying that he offered to pay for the student to have a note taker in the class, but that he opposed sharing his slides because he was unwilling to give one student an “advantage” over others taking the course who couldn’t access the slides.
  • According to the University of Illinois, Schlesinger was “not currently teaching.” Schlesinger insisted that he hadn’t resigned and did not tend to resign. Rather, he wrote, “I intend to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

Continue reading

Documents and the Undocumented

Steve Volk, September 11, 2017

LicenseWhen I was growing up our social studies teachers firmly inscribed a line between “history” and the “prehistoric.” The prehistoric, we were instructed, was the time of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and “Indians.” (Unprepared or unwilling to teach about one of the numerous Native American cultures that inhabited California before the arrival of Europeans, my Los Angelino classmates and I learned about a fictional indigenous tribe, a sort of cultural composite that mashed together north and south. No need to worry our elementary school brains over the differences between Chumash and  Payómkawichum.) The dividing line between “history” and “prehistory” was not animal vs. human, but those who inscribed their past in a written form and those who were “pre-literate,” another troubled term of the time. Prehistory was the time of the people who didn’t write. In short, we were taught to distinguish between those with “papers” and, well, the undocumented.

Eric Wolf, a path-setting anthropologist, was one of the first to challenge my California-befuddled brain in his 1982 monograph, Europe and the People Without History (University of California), proposing that people without formal writing systems were not by any means without history, although waves of European colonization had rendered them prehistorical. Continue reading

Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus. Continue reading