Sunday, February 22, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 4 - Team Teaching by a Tenured Faculty Member and a Graduate Student

This post will be a little different from the others in the Everybody Teaches series, because I'm less confident of whether the first issue it deals with is a systemic problem or not.  But it certainly was a big deal for me when I was a brand new assistant professor and I suspect it matters for more new junior faculty than we might care to admit. The second issue I do believe to be systemic and therefore justifies much of the approach discussed here.

At Northwestern when I was a grad student, you served as a TA during your second year in the program, after you had completed most of the core coursework during the first year.  (Econometrics and economic history were taken in the second year.)  For the first two quarters I TA'd in introduction to microeconomics.  I was quite a popular TA.  Theoretical micro was my area of interest and I had a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject.   I did two sections each quarter, which was the normal load at the time.  I don't recall getting any training on teaching whatsoever, but that didn't matter much or so it seemed to me at the time.  I got along well with the instructors to whom I was assigned.  And I was well received by the students.  In the fall quarter the class wasn't that large (maybe 60 overall) so I was the only TA for that instructor.  In the winter quarter there were a few other TAs.  If memory serves, we graded the exams jointly, each of us assigned one question to grade.  We also had some say in the final grades the students got.  I have a vague recollection of arguing to give an A to some student who had shown good intuition, but was a little shy on points from the exams.  Overall, it was quite a positive experience.

In the spring things were a little different.  I was a TA for statistics, which was not my focus.  The reason I was asked to do this, is that the grad student in my cohort who was excellent in econometrics was Vietnamese, with a French accent, and they were afraid to put him in front of a classroom.  So he ended up being the grader while I led the discussion section, which if I recall was one big section rather than two smaller ones.  It was useful to have the experience of teaching somewhat outside my area of expertise.  Stats is a course that some students really struggle with, so I got to see that in a few students.  I don't recall seeing that at all in the first two quarters. 

I did not teach again till I came to Illinois, though I did serve as a grader for Leon Moses in his intermediate microeconomics class during my third year.  My first semester at Illinois, fall 1980, I taught one course, intermediate microeconomics.  Going in I thought I was reasonably well prepared, given my prior experience as a graduate student.  But I bombed terribly and got horrible teacher evaluations.

I should add here that I never took as an undergrad any of the courses that I TA'd for as a grad student.  And I never took intermediate microeconomics either.  The only undergraduate course in economics I took was principles of macroeconomics. That lack of experience may have exacerbated the problem.  I'm not sure whether that is true or not, but it is worth considering.

The core problem was teaching a course that was over the heads of the students; it was way too difficult for them.  Let me get at a several reasons why this happened.  First, there is a tendency for recent graduate students to view undergraduate courses as preparation for grad school and then teach the courses accordingly.  Yet very few undergraduates in economics go on to do doctoral work in the field.  Further, intermediate microeconomics is a required course for every student in the College of Business.  So, in fact, most of the students weren't even economics majors.  (This part was unlike Northwestern, where there was no undergraduate business major.)   Second, I was very young when I first started at Illinois, only 25, and not that different in age from the students I'd be teaching.  So there is an issue of how to establish one's authority as an instructor and get past the question - are you the TA?   In that circumstance I've learned it is somewhat natural to amp up the difficulty level of the course so the instructor can show he knows what he's talking about.  Those first two factors are probably present with any new instructor, irrespective of discipline.  The third one is more specific.  I was a math guy and like to make arguments about the math models that are central to the economics.  The vast majority of the students were not comfortable with that sort of argument.  (This issue I still confront, all these years later.)  One last issue is that I had a sense of what Northwestern undergraduates were like in terms of their ability, but I was unsure whether the Illinois kids were essentially like the Northwestern kids that way or not.  Teaching a harder course tests the students more on the ability dimension.

Could much of my bombing in this course been avoided and if so, how?  Further, would the patient willingly have taken the cure?  In my particular case, where I was the grader for Leon Moses in the winter quarter, suppose I became an apprentice teacher with him for intermediate microeconomics in the spring. At the time I had started to work on a research project with Leon about Inventory Investment and the Theory of the Firm.  So we had a good and collegial relationship at hand.  Leon was a very popular and effective teacher.  He was not a math guy at all and was much more anecdotal in his approach.  Suppose I came to his lectures, was asked to give a few lectures to substitute for Leon while he would watch from the sidelines, assist him in writing exam questions, and have some conversations about goals for the teaching and how to set the difficulty level of what was presented.  That never happened, but if it did much of that poor teaching performance when I started at Illinois might have been avoided.  (I should also note here that Leon was not my adviser.  John Ledyard was my adviser, but John taught exclusively in the graduate program.)  I'd have done this willingly with Leon where I likely wouldn't have done this with another undergraduate instructor with whom I had no prior relationship, unless it paid reasonably well.

Illinois relies on TAs much more than Northwestern does, which is what you'd expect given the tuition differential between the two places.  So Illinois devotes real resources to TA training, both in the late summer before the start of the fall semester and throughout the fall and spring.  This training is mainly given by staff who are pedagogy experts, with a smattering thrown in from instructors around campus, who serve as exemplars.  That training, I believe, does a good job of readying these graduate students to become effective TAs.  But I want to observe that such training would not have helped me much if at all in setting the course difficulty level when I first started at Illinois.  Difficulty is cast within the discipline and must be determined by disciplinary norms.  It is not uncommon at Illinois for more advanced graduate students to teach stand alone sections of courses as the instructor of record.  Are they prepared intellectually to do that?   If so, how does that come about?  Perhaps they have more common sense than I did and don't teach a course that is too hard.  Do they otherwise provide good and correct offerings?

So there is a case to be made for apprentice teaching in courses at the undergraduate level, as a way to train doctoral students to teach well in the discipline.  Such an apprenticeship should come after being a TA for a while.  The apprenticeship is not meant to substitute for the pedagogy training that new TAs receive.  Rather it is meant to instruct the graduate student on the executive decision making that instructors make while planning to teach an undergraduate course, as well as to learn how to take feedback from the students and make adjustments in the course during the semester.  Doing this in a high touch section is probably best.  The students will be more accepting of the apprentice teacher and it will be far easier to see how the choices made while planing the course impact student learning, when the teaching is done in a high touch section.

* * * * *

I want to begin to connect the dots between the posts in the Everybody Teaches series.  It may have already occurred to the reader that each of these posts is not just a variation on a theme but also part of a grander scheme. You can begin to see that scheme by noting that each of the component pieces has been done toward a dual purpose, where the primary purpose was articulated in the piece but the secondary purpose has not been brought forward until now.  You can think of the secondary purpose as a readying activity for what is to come next.

For staff supporting faculty development, the co-teaching with adjunct faculty is meant to ready them to ask the following question.  Can they persist in a productive way offering faculty development that is generic across the disciplines or must they bring in disciplinary expertise as part and parcel of the process?  And if they did bring in disciplinary expertise, how would the components to faculty development fit together?

For the adjunct faculty themselves, the co-teaching with support staff and the further teaching of a high touch section in conjunction with their large lecture classes is meant to ready them for other conversations they will have about topic coverage and difficulty level of the courses they are teaching, how the students seem to be handling it, and potential changes to their courses based on needs articulated by instructors in more advanced courses for which their courses serve as prerequisites.

For the high level administrators, though the direct experience they will garner from co-teaching a small high touch class will at best give them a blindfolded understanding of the elephant (undergraduate education on campus) by touching their little portion of the beast, it will have provided them an opportunity to lead by example and then to send the following message to the tenured faculty.  You have a responsibility for quality assurance with undergraduate education, particularly with the majors in your own departments.  Are the students engaged in their studies?  As they near graduation, do they have a deep understanding of the subject matter in your disciplines?  As a first step in discharging this responsibility, you must develop a sense of the answers to those questions, one that is obtained directly by knowing some of the students.  Review of syllabi and exam performance may also be necessary, but the latter is far from sufficient.  Direct knowledge of the students is needed to make an informed determination.

For the tenured faculty who are co-teaching a high touch class with a graduate student apprentice teacher, the experience should give the faculty member some sense of the undergraduate major, just as teaching any upper level course gives the instructor a sense of how effective the classes that came before have been.  The co-teaching experience with the graduate student will ready the faculty member for like conversations with adjuncts in the department about the topic coverage and difficulty level of their classes.  These tenured faculty members will, in effect, be learning to use such conversations as a method of teaching, where absent such preparation they might be more prone to scold the adjuncts if given the opportunity.  Scolding will not do here.  Promoting learning is what's needed.

All of this activity constitutes a lot of effort, in aggregate.  One might reasonably ask whether the effort is necessary, since it hasn't been necessary in the past.  Let me give my thinking for why it is necessary and then close. 

First is the business side of the argument.  Tuition from undergraduate education is now crucial for the university to operate, where in the past it was important but not as important as now.  Recently we've witnessed the decline in enrollments in certain professional programs, at a national and perhaps even international level.  The MBA offers one example.  Law school gives another.  Those trends have threatened the particular colleges where those professional programs are housed, but they have not really hurt the university overall.  Weakness in the demand for undergraduate education, should it materialize, would be an entirely different matter. The university as a whole would suffer as a consequence, especially given the anticipation that General Revenue Funds (tax dollars as a university revenue source) will be in short supply from here on out.

How likely is it that the demand for undergraduate education may start to show weakness?   Nobody knows this with any precision.  But many lesser well regarded colleges and universities have struggled since the burst of the housing bubble for this reason, as the softness in the labor market made students and their families reluctant to pay the high tuition cost.  Clearly a stronger labor market would help, but that is outside our control.  What we can influence, however, is the quality of the education our students receive.  That too should affect earnings for graduates.  And to the extent that serious effort is put into assuring quality of that education, it should enhance the university's reputation as a good place for students to attend. 

Second is the internal process side of the argument.  Historically, many research oriented faculty members were heavily engaged in doctoral education, but largely uninformed about undergraduate education.  The model had been to have faculty in the public eye teach principles courses, then have very senior faculty or those no longer doing research teach the undergraduate courses, with a small number of adjuncts and visitors utilized to round out the course offerings.  The newer model has a much greater reliance on adjunct instructors.  But there has been little or no change among the research faculty in their engagement with undergraduate education.  At a minimum, adjuncts are often cut off from the intellectual/cultural life of the department, where senior faculty would still be part of that, though perhaps at an intensity level that is less than when they were younger.  Doesn't this difference in itself justify some other form of connection between the adjuncts and the research faculty?

There is also the question whether the nature and the quality of the teaching has changed as a consequence of the move to adjuncts, where here I'm referring to something other than that research faculty can bring their research experiences into their teaching while adjuncts can't.  Rather one wonders whether there has been a large drift toward a teaching to the test approach, something the students implicitly seem to want given their focus on grades.  If that has been happening isn't it something the university as a whole should combat? 

Third is whether the students are different now.  Many people write about generational differences - the always on technology, that sort of thing.  Here I mean something different, something that has also affected my generation especially since the housing bubble burst, namely a pessimism about the future that wasn't there when we were students, though we lived through a variety of serious problems - Vietnam, Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, etc.  In the 1970s when I was a college student here was a shared belief that things would get better, though there may have also been substantial nihilism at the time, fed by students wondering whether things would get better any time soon.  Now, however, the problems appear of a greater magnitude and we frequently seem to be shooting ourselves in the foot rather than addressing those problems head on.  These include climate change and its consequences, income and wealth inequality, and the scourge of terrorism.  As young adults, undergraduates are in a formative frame of mind with regard to their own beliefs and personal commitments.  The nihilism, evidenced by excessive student drinking, may be greater now.  The mercenary tendencies also may greater.  This has been a generation that grew up under No Child Left Behind.  Testing and accountability has been part and parcel of school for them all the way through.  What impact has that had?  Shouldn't the university be putting forth substantial effort to counter these tendencies?

The last decade has witnessed a general decline in trust in institutions.  Teaching our undergraduates is a core university mission.  We should be all about re-establishing the trust.  That, in a nutshell, is why this effort is necessary.

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