Thursday, February 26, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 5 - Retired and Very Senior Faculty in Discovery Courses

Intergenerational transfers of wealth have been a major social concern for the last decade or two.  The fear is that my generation, the Baby Boomers, are sucking the economy dry.  This fear is indirectly responsible for the parallel concern about mounting National Debt while not utilizing the debt to invest in the nation as we have previously done, at least since the Eisenhower years.  Bill Keller had a very good column a few years ago that describes the issues. 

Given this concern, one might think there would be a search for feasible income flows in the opposite direction, from Baby Boomers to Millenials for example; income flows that are real, substantial, and sustainable.  And given that research universities have as part of their raison d'être to innovate toward addressing societal issues, one might imagine that universities would be the focus of this search.

My experience over the last five years or so, since I started to plan my retirement when the university announced the VSIP plan and what has ensued since retiring, suggests this search is not on anyone's radar.  The university is fearful of exposure from highly publicized episodes of retired employees double dipping to excess (being rehired by the university while collecting their pension and being paid handsomely in both instances) so caps have been put into place to limit such behavior.  In contrast, there appears to be little or no strategic interest in utilizing voluntary contributions from retirees to advance the university mission.  Why not?

Collegiality by its very nature has an element of volunteerism to it.  That's what being a good citizen is all about.  Consequently, at the university there is a big gray area for faculty and academic professionals about what is just another task to take on, without any adjustment in compensation required to get acceptance of the responsibility, and overload work that demands an incremental payment.

Indeed, this collegial impulse exists outside of academe as well.  Peter Drucker argues that this should lead to people pursuing dual careers.  In a post entitled A New Progressivism? I described it this way:

Dual Careers and Second Careers - We should follow Peter Drucker in suggesting that all knowledge workers follow a dual career path.  The first career is the one that pays the rent and puts food on the table.  The second career is volunteer work done either via national service or through some not-for-profit organization aimed at doing good works.  The second career is there as a need to satisfy the individual's social conscience and to learn how to be effective in doing so.  At some point in middle life, if the individual has amassed sufficient wealth so the person can retire from the first career, the prior second career becomes the primary work.  The individual then can continue to make a contribution in this way and in the words of Albion Small lead a genuine life.

The, university by its very nature should enable the dual career path to happen and do so with the same employer.  Teaching, in particular, should fit with the notion of a dual career.  Supervising individual students who do independent study projects does fit, as does mentoring of students on an individual basis, when that is not done for course credit.  We seem to draw some line between this individual coaching and courses listed in the Timetable.  Why?

One possible answer to that question, an answer I'd like to take off the table, is to view the retiree instructor as scab labor, now that adjuncts have formed a union. If a course has been on the books for a long time and has been taught regularly in the recent past, the instructor of record for that course should get paid for teaching it.

Indeed in my own teaching, where I was personally sensitive to this issue of possibly displacing a junior faculty member or adjunct from my teaching, I opted to teach a course not on the books, The Economics of Organizations.  It was a fundamentally new offering when I first taught it.  (I've taught it 3 more times since.)  The department benefits from this offering as it increases the variety of elective courses that majors can select from.  And teaching this course, I do get paid, which I view as necessary in this instance to get me willingly to offer exams, which I would prefer not to do and which I don't believe are at all educative, and to deal with various student shenanigans - assignments turned in late, work done showing little to no effort, poor class attendance that shouldn't happen in a low enrollment course, etc. - without giving me tools to combat this lack of commitment.  If I have to manage this reality without being able to reform the situation in any way that makes sense to me, I need to get paid.  However, if I could teach a course based on creating this sort of reform, I'd happily do that for no pay.  What follows is a brief sketch of what this might look like. 

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As should be obvious, the reform needs to begin as soon as students arrive on campus.  For typical students, this would be in the fall semester of their freshmen year.  (If the results of such reform showed promise, something similar but targeted at transfer students might also be initiated.  Here I will focus on first-year students.)  The Campus already has on it is books a small class program for freshman.  It is called the Discovery Program and the program is now 20 years old.  From my eyeballing of the course list link (this is from last fall) there are few offerings overall, especially compared to when I taught such a course, in spring 2002.  I suppose that faculty and staff reductions on campus coupled with a substantial increase in undergraduate enrollments have taken their toll on the Discovery Program.  Also, it appears that most of the courses listed are special topics courses.  Back in 2002 I taught a section of Introduction to Microeconomics, which most students take in a very large lecture offering.  I am agnostic on whether the reform should happen in a version of a  Gen Ed class or a special topics class, except insofar as it might impact who opts to enroll in the class.  The experiment is less useful if it ends up over sampling eager beavers and under sampling drones and sluggos.  (Those categories were introduced in the first post of the Everybody Teaches series.) 

The course will have two distinct goals.  The first is the usual goal on producing subject matter knowledge.  The second is on developing learning-to-learn skills in a way that is overt, so the students understand up front this a key objective, though at that time they may not really appreciate what learning-to-learn skills are about.

The course will provide 3 hours of course credit but be scheduled for four hours a week.  That fourth hour is a scheduled office hour that is held in the classroom.  Students will not have the excuse that they can't make this office hour.  Indeed scheduled office hours will be an ordinary part of the class.  Some of that will be in small groups.  The rest will be done individually.  Students will also have the option for further individual consultation outside of normally scheduled time.

The course will be offered for S/U grading only.  There will be no letter grades.  The idea is to see if the students can experience an intensive school environment yet where the extrinsic motivation from letter grades is absent.  The hope is that this is possible and that students can tap into this same motivation in subsequent courses, even when letter grades are present.  Part of the idea is to dispel the myth that the student's purpose at school is to get good grades.  We want to replace that notion with the alternative that the student's purpose is to learn and that grades are not fundamental to learning. A related idea is to get students to appreciate the emotional side that goes along with working hard on their learning and see if they can develop a sense of satisfaction from that.

If a student appears not to be putting forth much effort, this will require some one-on-one time and some coaching/coaxing to get students past the blockage.  If improvement in effort does not occur, as last resort the student will be informed that the student will not receive credit for the course and it will then be suggested that the student drop the class.  This is not a desirable outcome, but this possibility must be understood up front.  If, in contrast the student does appear to be working hard but the quality of work produced is below par, the student will be given all possible encouragement to continue to struggle and thereby to raise the quality of what is produced.  A substantial goal in this respect is for the student to be able to witness improvement in the student's own performance, even if that progress is slow in coming and somewhat meager in magnitude.

There will be two writing assignments each week, each about 600 words.  The first will be prospective in nature, with the student making sense of the readings and/or other outside of class materials (TED talks and other video content, for example) and tying that reading and viewing to course themes.  It has been my experience in the past that many students don't make good meaning out of pieces from sources such as the NY Times.  So part of this will be both an assessment of how well students do read such content and a strong encouragement for them to find and read additional related materials that are not assigned but that help them to get context for the piece that is assigned so they can better understand it.  The other part is for students to begin to understand that they need to ready themselves for learning in this way in their other courses, even when such formative writing assignments aren't present.

This first writing assignment will precede the class discussion on the topic.  They will come to class prepared.  This is meant to counter the practice in many other classes the students attend, whee the lecture in class serves as introduction to the topic.  The second writing assignment will be be retrospective in nature and follow the in class discussion.  The goal here will be to show to the student that learning happens in stages and that one gets a deeper understanding over time.  The further goal will be for the students to tie the course content together and to begin to see how each assignment is part of creating a larger picture that comes from understanding the course as a whole.

Students will receive written feedback on all the written work they submit.  This is a lot of reading of student writing and a lot of feedback to provide by the instructor.  For that reason, the class can't be too large.  My suggestion would be an enrollment cap of 15 students.  When I taught that Discovery class back in 2002 I believe the cap back then was 20 students, or maybe a little higher than that.  But back then, class size was the defining characteristic of a Discovery class.  Here we want to make sure it is high touch and taught in a manner quite distinct from a lecture format.  Back then I believe some Discovery classes were really lectures, but done in a small class setting.

There may be other homework as well.  For example, if this class is an Introduction to Microeconomics section, then students will learn the basic model of supply and demand.  They then need to do assignments that both help them to understand the implications of that model and test whether their understanding is getting deeper over time.  It is my belief that for microeconomics, in particular, students need to have an understanding of the models as things in themselves and they also need to be able to apply the models to a variety of real life situations.  The latter is what the essays would do, while the former is what the other homework would do.  (I design exercises in Excel for this other type of homework.)

There would not be any exams whatsoever.  So there would be no need to cram.  Instead, students would keep up a more or less uniform intensity throughout the semester.  Students will likely still tend to cram for their other courses, which in that sense places a time tax on this course at around the time that midterms are given.  A student who misses class because the student has been cramming for other classes will have a one-on-one session where this is discussed and the instructor strongly discourages the behavior in the future.  One question that I hope comes out of this is whether students can task themselves in their other courses in a way that is more uniform in its time commitment, so that cramming is less necessary.  If students can see the benefits from a more uniform approach, perhaps they will embrace it across the board.

In class, I favor Socratic dialog most of the time, as I believe it best conveys the sort of thinking students should be doing for themselves out of class.  In the past I've asked students to raise their hands and would call on those who do.  Some students would chime in regularly this way.  Other students never would.  It may be better, given that there are no grades, to try calling on students who'd otherwise be quiet.  On this point I'm not sure.  It would be something on which to experiment and see.   Do the students overcome their initial reticence?   One related issue is the fraction of the class who are non-native speakers of English.  Many of the students whose spoken English is not so great tend to be quiet in class.  They seem to prefer the writing part, where they can take their time in forming their thoughts. 

An alternative way to get at that, and something I'd likely embrace as it has worked well in other seminar classes I've taught in the past, is to have teams of students lead the class discussion on occasion.  I would start doing this around the midpoint of the semester and have about one out of the three hours per week led by the students, coaching them ahead of time in how they should go about this.  Among the things to learn from doing this is what additional preparation must be done when you are leading discussion.  How do you anticipate questions that might arise in this case?  How much should you go with the flow of the discussion and how much should you force the discussion back onto the points that were planned for ahead of time?  Planning such a session and then leading it is something all students should experience.  If they find they learn in a deeper way when they prepare for leading a discussion, it might then occur to them to ask why they don't learn in this deeper way all the time.  That would be progress.

With the above, I hope the reader has gotten some sense of what might be possible in a high touch version of a Discovery class, one that is allowed to break some of the university rules (no exams and no course grades).  If it seemed to work, the instructor would be motivated to do it again in the future, to see if the results could be replicated.  Indeed, if several replications happened then the instructor might find it no longer necessary to make significant tweaks to how the class is taught and instead come to view the course offering mainly as a gift to the students, so they become better learners.  This is precisely the sort of income transfer I mentioned at the beginning of this essay.  Then, as long as the instructor has the energy to offer such a close, making such a gift should serve as motive for continuing to do so.

How will one know whether this works or not?  Let me suggest two possibilities, one that the instructor can readily do, the other that will require campus commitment and study to perform.  At the end of my course last fall I invited members of the class to join me in a weekly discussion group in the spring.  I got a few takers, so we are doing this.  It is the first time I've had such a group, though I did try for one the year before, but then I didn't get sufficient response.  My motive for having such a group was that I thought too many of my students were not approaching their studies in a good way.  I wrote up a longish essay to explain my concerns.  There are selection issues with forming such a group - the eager beavers in the class are the ones who most likely will take up the offer.  But if a drone student or perhaps a few of them are willing to participate in the discussion group, that would be strong evidence that the class worked.  Further, from time to time during the weekly discussion one might make comparisons between the class taken in the fall and the current spring classes the students are taking.  This comparison would be in regard to their outside-the-classroom coursework.  Then the students could self-report on how they go about things.  That too would reveal quite a lot about whether the fall class was effective.

Put a different way, many first-year students need academic mentors.  Here I'm not talking about departmental advisers, whose focus is on whether the students are taking the right courses to fit the various departmental and university requirements.  The academic mentors would concentrate, instead, on whether students have a good attitude and approach to their learning, and if not how they might improve in these dimensions.  It is not possible for academic mentoring to be effective unless there is a trust relationship between mentor and mentee.  A high touch Discovery course is a way for such a trust relationship to form.  The discussion group then is a way for that mentoring to play out.  It is too early for me to tell just yet whether the discussion group approach is preferable to one-on-one mentoring.  My first thought on that is students would find a group approach more welcoming and thus would be more likely to participate.  Further, many of the issues are common to the students so for me it would be preferable to have a single joint conversation on those topics.  I'm still making up my mind on whether this is really true.

The approach that requires institutional commitment would be to track the students who took the fall course longitudinally over their full time at the university and do so as well with a control group who didn't take the course.  The tracking could be both about academic performance, as measured by future grades, credit hours taken, etc., and student attitudes about their learning, which would be garnered via surveys and/or from focus groups.  Presumably, the institution has some interest in understanding whether such an approach can be effective and that would justify the cost of doing the study. 

Indeed, over the long hall the institution needs to show it cares and that must become self-evident to the instructors.  I have been scratching my head on this one.  Here are some early thoughts about how the university might do this.

First, though I've talked about this sort of teaching as purely voluntary on the part of the instructor, there might be some modest compensation for the first timers, some of which would be in kind, a faculty development workshop aimed at instructors teaching these Discovery classes, and the rest might be a modest stipend, perhaps for purchase of some computer equipment or to cover travel to a conference.  Then there might be some ongoing funds to cover payment to students who took the class previously and serve as assistants to the instructors in subsequent offerings of the course.  It is now pretty common to offer course credit to such students, and to the extent that enough course credit translates into a tuition reduction, because the student can then enroll in fewer semesters overall, that is essentially the same as a cash payment (though the IRS wouldn't agree).  But the semester savings are lumpy while the hours an undergraduate student works as an assistant in such a class are not.  So funds for an hourly wage for student assistants might be a better demonstration.  Then there is the overall size of the Discovery program.  Who will teach these courses?  Will it remain at modest size with only a few high touch offerings?  Or will it grow and, if so, what will enable that growth?

The purpose for including very senior faculty in my title, without explaining precisely what very senior means, is that tenured faculty themselves know when their research careers are winding down and when they'd like some other sort of challenges to keep them occupied.  These faculty are candidates to teach a Discovery course, in addition to their other on load teaching, with the Discovery course in essence substituting for time that previously had been devoted to research, and in this way readying themselves for continuing to teach the Discovery class when they do retire.

How many Discovery classes might be offered this way?  I have no way of knowing.  If they do prove effective and if the total number of students who can enroll in these classes is far below the number of entering first-year students, there will be reason to expand these offerings.  The university might then want to recruit clinical faculty from the ranks of very senior academic professionals, and from the business world too.  We already do this for adjunct faculty, on occasion.  Not that long ago a study was done at Northwestern that argued adjuncts are better than tenure track faculty for teaching undergraduates, particularly freshmen.  To my knowledge there aren't other studies that try to replicate those results.  One might want to do exactly that, particularly for these sort of Discovery courses.

It is time to wrap up.  To me, a push on Discovery Courses taught as I've described seems both reasonable and fairly obvious.  Yet it clearly isn't happening and as I said doesn't appear to be on anyone's radar.  My only explanation for that comes from implicit assumptions that most people maintain but that I believe should be tested because I don't think they are correct.  The first is that high touch teaching, done in a significant way, would be very expensive.  The second is that retirees who volunteer their labor can't be relied on to make a significant contribution.  Real social innovation comes from testing such veiled assumptions and proving them to false.  That's what we should be doing here.

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