Monthly Archives: June 2010

How to Teach Well, and is the State of Texas Helping Promote that Ideal?

A little over a week ago, I attended a set of micro-teachings by the faculty members enrolled in this year’s Baylor’s Summer Facultry Institute.  In it, each faculty gave a 15 minute “mini lecture” on some topic related to their field.  Following this presentation, each professor was commented on by his or her peers.  I was mostly a mere observer who peppered in a few comments, but the experience I gained from walking away from this session was invaluable.  Among the many things I learned, perhaps the most important thing I learned is this: every faculty must learn to teach in the way they do best, this method can (and inevitably WILL) vary for every person, and many different teaching techniques are all good techniques.  For so long, I have been trying to mold myself into the “best teacher I can be” based on how other professors teach.  While I can still learn a ton from other professors, I realized that I have to develop my own style as well.  More importantly, I have to accept that my own style will most likely be the best way I can teach.  That is, as long as I put effort forward and never stop being a learner of teaching.

On a a similar note, Texas has passed a “reform plan” focused on improving faculty performance.  Or is it?  According to a recent Opinionatory blog by Stanley Fish in the New York Times, perhaps not.  I tend to agree with him.  The new reform allows the State government to give out monetary awards to faculty members based on…get this…student evaluations.  For those of you who teach, you know how problematic this can be.  I can speak for myself as someone who teaches for a State university (Tarleton State University) that has been enrolled in competing for these awards.  The immediate thought I have is, “I’ll never get the money because my class is too challenging, I force them to learn, and I make them struggle to figure a lot of things out for themselves.  Thus, most of my students do not evaluate my course positively.”  Sadly, most of my students rate my very positively as a teacher and say they learned a lot, but everything else about the course gets bombed with low evaluations because it’s too difficult.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am there as there guide to help them, but I try to be little more.  I find that handing out outlines and giving students all the answers halts rather than promotes the process of learning.  But guess which method students love more and evaluate more positively?  You guessed it.  Generally, with the exception of a few students, the formula generally goes like this: 1) as little work as possible + 2) as easy of tests as possible (or preferably no tests) + 3) The more answers you just give them (full outlined powerpoints anyone?) + 4) the more classes cancelled + 5) the less “real work” you do in class + 6) no paper assignments = higher evaluations.  Now, why would our government be promoting faculty to aim for more positive student evaluations?  More importantly, can students properly evaluate what is good for them at the time they are receiving it?  Your thoughts are welcome.  And I definitely recommend you read the blog in the NYT.

The advancements and shortcomings of technology

Today was a day where I both hated and loved technology and its abilities to change my job.

  Let me break this down into two experiences I had with it today.  Experience 1 – I did video conferencing with some people from UVA (University of Virginia).  I love technology’s ability to connect me to people I would otherwise never be able to work with.  We used Tokbox to video conference.  You can see me it using it to the right.  It doesn’t look as sophisticated in this photo because most people were out of town, but Tokbox’s best feature is that it allows for multiple users to video conference together.  Although I am a huge fan of Skype, it is limited in that it can only connect two users at a time.  Tokbox, alternatively, has allowed myself, a professor from California, researchers from Europe, and other individuals to all come together and have a video conference call simultaneously.

  However, I really felt the limits of it today.  We went through some very detailed and complex statistical analyses syntax in SAS, and because I was one of the distant collaborators, this meant I could not see the computer screen that the person leading the meeting was using.  Translation – I felt a little bit lost.  I tried to follow along in my own screen with her verbal cues, but I could not help but feeling frustrated and behind the group.  It was, however, better than communicating solely through email.

  Experience 2 – I have collected data from 97 participants in less than 24 hours by using Amazon’s MTurk.  Ordinarily, this amount of data would take several weeks to gather if I collected it in a college sample.  MTurk is designed as a place to both get your projects done and to get paid to do other people’s projects.  You ordinarily pay about 5-10 cents for 5 minutes of work OR you can be paid to do people’s work.  A lot of the opportunities are asking people to comment on your blog or research a website, etc.  However, some social psychologists have started putting brief personality surveys up on it to collect data.  It’s a win for us – I can get 200 people’s data from a representative, varied U.S. (or International) sample for about $20 in about a day or two.  That is insanely amazing compared to the normal time lag involved in collecting data!

  Despite my excitement about these tools, it’s amazing technological advancements like this that make me worried that life will just continue to get busier and busier to a point where I can no longer keep up.  I already struggle with feeling behind in my field and possibilities like this sadly not only open doors but keep them so far open that everyone expects you to walk through a thousand of them.  Even if data is easier to collect, it’s still difficult to analyze and write them up into journal articles to get them published.  Nevertheless, I can feel the field is moving towards expecting more and more of myself and others (as far as publishing is concerned).  I ask myself – when is enough enough? 

 So I sit here thankful and hopeful for what technology is doing to higher education and research but leery of its limitations.  Only time will tell.

New steps in teaching and learning

Well, today (or rather a week ago) I am officially a graduate fellow for the Academy for Teaching and Learning.  I have to say – it feels good.  Amongst all the craziness and business that work life brings with it in the research world for me, it is so nice I have a place to go and think creatively and critically about my own teaching and the teaching of others. 

For those of you who are not familiar with the ATL, it is a branch of Baylor that focuses on utilizing technology in higher education (amongst many other things).  I am beyond blessed to work under Dr. Gardner Campbell, who is such an inspiring leader.  I hope one day to embrace the same type of optimism and encouragement that he has in the projects that I lead.  It is such a relief to work under someone who is always cheering you on and encouraging you to think outside the box.  It is one of the first times in my life I feel safe to throw anything out on the table and see where it leads me (something I, a huge planner, do not do naturally).  I am also blessed to work with 5 other graduate fellows who are each creative, brilliant, and interesting in their own ways.  The diversity of thoughts and opinions in our meetings just becomes a huge source of energy to encourage me along this sometimes exhausting journey of academia.

So be expecting a lot more blog posts about what I am both learning and teaching in this next year.  It will, as always, be the former while I am stumbling towards achieving the latter.  Hopefully you will glean some wisdom, insight, or encouragement along my journey.  I hope to share it with as many of you as possible!