Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rise of JCU - Then and Now

It occurred to me to write a post about how my beliefs about teaching and learning have evolved over the years.  So I asked myself a related question - how can I pinpoint what my beliefs were on this topic during the early years?  As it turns out, this question has a remarkably easy answer.  About 15 years ago I started to write a novel, my way to express my frustration as to the general state of undergraduate education, with the book intended to be a wake up call on the matter.  This was years before I learned of other such critiques of undergraduate education and years before I started to write this blog.

The book went through a name change with the second and still title called The Rise of JCU.  About a year before I started in on this writing effort I read The New New Thing by Michael Lewis.  That book, a sort of biography about Jim Clark written in the wake of the Netscape IPO, captured my attention.  In the title of my book, JCU stands for Justin Carruthers University, and Justin Carruthers is meant to be a fictionalized version of Jim Clark.  Likewise, there is a character in my book called Martin Lenox, who is meant to be a fictionalized version of Michael Lewis.  The protagonist is Fred Garvin, as in the SNL sketch.  Garvin is a fictionalized version of me.  I chose the name deliberately as I've been plagued by my given name much of my life, so I wanted the character to bear that sort of cross.

This morning I started to read through it again.  I've gotten through the front matter and the first five chapters.  As I did this I converted the files to PDF and posted them in my campus Box account.  They can be read online at the link above.  Box does quite a good job with its preview of displaying PDF files.  As I read the subsequent chapters, there are 5 more of those, I will post them in a likewise manner.

In total that is about half of the book I originally intended.  I stopped for writing reasons.  It occurred to me that I really didn't have a clue about character development and had somewhat painted myself into the corner that way, but I only came to that realization around the time I stopped.  Also, and it is transparent to me on this rereading, while I had in mind a story that would be as breezy as some of the early fiction of John Grisham, and I think chapter 1 succeeds at this level, when I start to talk about the learning issues themselves in later chapters I get bogged down in what I call lecture mode.   Then the reading starts to become a slug.  As entertainment, nobody wants that.

Why write a book to its conclusion when people will put it down well before reaching the end?  Yet I found myself wondering this morning whether I should go back to it, finish what I started so I have a decent draft, then go back to the sections that seem particularly pedantic and see if I can rework them so they flow better.  There is also the issue that 15 years ago I was writing as if the action were happening in the present.  Some of it will seem dated now.  (For example, there is mention of the software that JCU develops and that it can function reasonably well with a 56K modem.)  If any of you who read this post are so inclined to read some of the book, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you about your reaction to it.  Sometimes it is difficult to take an objective view about your own work.

* * * * *

Getting to where my beliefs about learning were 15 years ago, the Introduction to the book is quite informative.  It provides a setup to the issues.  Except for the bit about my kids in pre-school (the younger one now is a junior in college) it could just have well been written today.  On that score, things have not changed much at all.  On the one hand I'm pleased with the fixity in my beliefs.  On the other hand it is surprising to me that given the changes with technology in the intervening years there hasn't been a larger change in my attitudes about learning.

There are some subtle differences between then and now and I want to discuss those here.  One is on the need to establish trust between student and (not yet) beloved professor.  In the book, I assumed that would simply happen of its own accord.  Now I've come to believe that it must be built with intention.  I thank Barbara Ganley for making that point clear to me.  Some years ago I wrote a post about her visit to the U of I.  This is the relevant passage.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

My own mechanism for doing this comes out of student blogging and the instructor comments on student posts.  This way manages the issue with quiet students, who don't voluntarily talk up in class, an increasingly prevalent phenomenon.  I've now come to believe that there should be a sequencing where in the first semester the students interact with the instructor via blogging and trust is established that way.  Then, after the semester concludes, the interaction can change to face-to-face conversation, either one-on-one or in small groups, where those conversations are buttressed by the trust asset that is more fully formed.

Another idea that has developed since the writing of the book is that the teachers may better be retirees than current research faculty, though I have to admit my sample is one (me).  The idea for this is that the interactions require time abundance.  Retirees who teach part time have that time abundance.  Current research faculty do not.  But, of course, the teachers need to be willing to put in this sort of time and have some understanding of the type of sympathetic interactions they need to have with students.  I know a few other recent retirees who have the right sort of mindset.  But I'm far less sure that the bulk of retirees could be educated and motivated to make this a useful suggestion.  The ones I have in mind cared a great deal about teaching when they were full time employees.  It's an open question to me whether attitudes about the importance of interacting with students on an individual basis can change for those who previously viewed teaching as largely a matter of delivering lectures and administering exams.

A third thing that has changed substantially since 15 years ago is the increased number of international students, to the point where their numbers are great enough to contrast them with the domestic students (the vast majority of whom are from Illinois).  Most of international students I've had of late are from China or Korea.  As a group they seem more receptive to the type of interventions suggested in The Rise of JCU than the in-state students I see, though I will admit the samples are small and there may be a kind of selection bias at work here because those international students are paying much higher tuition and they are following a path in college that was unlike the path their parents took.  Those factors may create seriousness of purpose that is absent from upper middle class domestic students whose parents are college educated.  The Rise of JCU was written with those domestic students in mind.  But it might be that the positive suggestions presented therein are better suited as a way to maintain the pipeline so international students continue to want to come to our campus and to other like campuses in the U.S.

Let me bring this discussion to a close.  Most of the current popular discussion about college revolves around the (tuition) cost issue.  There is actually much less discussion about the (learning) quality issue.  The best value proposition looks to find a balance along these two dimensions instead of going to extremes, which it seems to me much recent innovation with technology in learning has been doing.  In order to find a good balance, however, one needs to contemplate what the opposite extreme looks like - high cost and high quality.  In other words, if good balance were attained by having students take one low enrollment class taught in a seminar format each semester, with all other classes of the large lecture type, we should first consider what it would be like for typical students to take courses that were all small seminars and designed in coordination with respect to their learning goals.  Would typical students be transformed as learners by such a high cost approach?  If the answer to that question is yes, would it then make sense to look for the least cost way to achieve such transformation?   The alternative requires assuming ahead of time that we can't afford it and thus must conclude that typical students won't be changed very much at all by their education at public research universities.  It seems to me those are the sort of questions we should be asking.

No comments: