Run You Clever Boy and Remember

When email first came to this campus, I had to walk from my office–then in Yates Hall–over to the computer services office in Kelce to check whether I’d received anything.  I did this every week whether I thought I was going to get an email or not.  If I had and if it had a file attached, then I had to use the special program Kermit in order to download it.

That was more than twenty years ago and a lot of things have changed.  But not the password I used to get into that account, it is the exact same one. I’ve gotten away with it because I am singularly unimportant, but the truth is my days are numbered.  The game has changed.  There are server farms in China and Eastern Europe which are at work trying to hack everything that can be hacked.  A million monkeys on a million typewriters will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. A server farm and advancing technology will eventually hit any fixed target.

This means you have to present them with a moving target, i.e. you have to change your password frequently.  “Frequently” is somewhat nebulously defined, but unless you are a Joshua Tree, it probably means more than every twenty years.  The issue with changing passwords frequently is that you have to remember them.  Frequent change can make you want to write it on your wall with a sharpie.  But don’t do this because it is bad.

The solution isn’t a sharpie, but rather, a mnemonic.  This is a trick for remembering, like a pass phrase.  In Doctor Who, the comely Clara Oswin Oswald, one of the Doctor’s companions, was challenged with remember rycbar, so she devised the phrase “Run you clever boy and remember.” That is one way, but not all of us are as creative as the comely Clara;however, this does point to another way.  Come up with the phrase first and make the password from it.

For example, “Run you clever boy and remember” can become rycb&r.  You can also choose to capitalize one or more of those letters in some fashion you can remember.  Inserting extraneous numbers in some memorable way is also good.

Of course, you don’t want to use the phrase that I just did. You need to come up with your own.  Be cagey and don’t let anyone know it.  People can be very clever how they get information from you.  Your phrase should also be longer than this and allow for putting numbers and special characters like &%# and so forth.

Bobby Winters

Associate Dean

Student Accommodations

 

Imagine the following situation. It’s the first of the semester.  The campus is bustling with activity.  Your classroom is chaos because there are half a dozen students who are trying to get your attention for one reason or another.  

You are surrounded by people.  Behind them, there is a person who needs to see you, but there is a wall people that separates them from you.  This person has a disability.  It might not be visible.  It might be the sort of thing they don’t like to talk about in public.  It might be something that hits them in the face every day of their life and they are just tired of dealing with it.

They look at you; they look at the wall of people; they decide to put the conversation off for another day when there aren’t so many people.  

But there never is such a day.

Accommodations are awkward.  We spend a lot of time organizing how we teach. We create systems.  We optimize those systems.  We get the system running smoothly, and we don’t always act in the most positive way when we are asked to make exceptions.

Students sense this and they don’t like being the exception.  It is just a fact of their existence.  It is very easy for them to walk away.

We all have our teaching philosophies and our classroom strategies. Many of you have created mechanisms for this particular situation already, and if you have, you are welcome to share them in the comments below.  But one thing you can do is simple.  On the first day of class, after you are satisfied most of the students have arrived, call the names of the students in your class about whom you have accommodation letters and ask them to come talk to you after class.  

You don’t have to say why; they will know.  It’s not a difficult thing to do, but you have helped them over the wall.  Once you speak with them, then you can work out what will work best with them.  Find out what they need, and tell them what you need.  Create a relationship with them.  Doing this as a part of your regular routine, puts you in the driver’s seat…and helps the student meet his educational needs.

--Bobby Winters

Course Design

 

I don’t know how many of you came into the university without any teacher preparation, but I will own up to it.  Beyond a one hour seminar I took as a first year GTA, I never had any formal preparation for the classroom.  I taught my students the way I was taught.  I used the structures and techniques from the teachers that I liked.  I taught the material that I had been taught, or that I had learned on my own, but I did it without any planning. It never occurred to me that I should plan.

This changed during my first sabbatical.  I went for an entire year and taught one course to pay for the other half of my salary.  I taught engineering mathematics and as a part of that I was given a syllabus.  I also was told about the testing center:  If I told the folks in the testing center ahead of time, I could have them proctor my exams and not worry about having to make special allowances for make ups.  How cool is that?

But to take advantage of this, I had to set exam dates a semester ahead and divide up the topics my students were responsible for, so I could teach them within those dates.  I discovered that this was absolutely liberating.  When I brought this practice back to campus, I discovered that my students here loved it.  My student ratings went up, and it made teaching easier.  

It was so much easier that I was able to continue teaching even during the semester when my third daughter was born.  My students remarked on how well prepared I was even though I was not able to do any preparation that semester; I was barely able to stay awake.  I had organized it all the year before.
I do not look back with pride on the fact it took me until my first sabbatical to discover this, nor am I particularly proud that I only recently discovered the name for this sort of thing:  Course Design.

Let us take it as an axiom that knowing your academic subject is essential.  However, as a teacher knowing your subject is pointless if you are not able to transmit it to your students.  Intentionally designing your courses with the needs of the student in mind is a great aid to that transmission.

It’s just a good thing to do.  Students who are already organized will be able to plan their study better.  Those who are not will benefit from seeing organized behavior modeled for them.  In addition, if you begin the design of your course with your goals in mind, i.e. your student learning outcomes,  that makes your personal assessment of the course easier.  If you’ve planned what you are trying to do, you will have a better idea if you are achieving your aims.
In short there just isn’t a bad thing about it.

Quite frankly, I consider the hard part of the class to be over after I’ve got the dates for the assignments set.  This is a few weeks before the semester begins.  After that, it’s  just a few hours a week talking to enraptured young people and a little grading.  Okay, maybe they aren’t enraptured, but at least they have a chance to prepare for what is coming.

I would welcome comments, public or private, on techniques/structures you use designing your courses.

Bobby Winters

Shared Governance

Throughout my administrative career I served in two colleges that include the Military Science Department.  Both colleges have regular weekly Department Chair meetings and often entail discussions of shared governance topics such as faculty evaluation, establishing policy, making decisions concerning resource allocation, or other factors affecting working conditions for faculty.  I always find it interesting to watch the Military Science Chair when these discussions occur.  I now have worked with four different Military Science Chairs and I’m convinced their reaction is not a matter of personality but one of organizational philosophy.  It is humorous to see the looks of disbelief, amazement, and downright skepticism as the rest of us openly negotiate and include faculty in discussions of how they will be evaluated, what their workload looks like, along with other policies and conditions impacting the working context.  Apparently, and it really does not need to be said, the military looks at organizational structure and function from a different paradigm.

 

I also have friends working in the private sector.  Many businesses and corporate entities do not practice or value input from those on the front line.  In fact, shared governance and responsibility is neither a priority nor practice in many, if not most, sectors of our economy.  Working in academia, particularly in a tenured or tenure-earning position, is unique for many reasons, one of which is the basic principle of shared governance including the right, privilege, and responsibility for faculty involvement in many aspects of fundamental decision-making at a university.

 

I often am asked to find faculty to serve on various department, college, and university committees, task forces, and work groups.  While most faculty willingly accept these requests, it is not uncommon to hear other faculty resist service and balk at being on yet another committee. 

 

While shared governance through university service might be considered drudgery or the work of others, I think it is important to remember the unique nature of our occupational structure in contemporary society.  We primarily are governed by ourselves and colleagues.  We all have the privilege, as well as responsibility, to provide thoughtful input on policies, procedures, evaluations, and other elements having profound influence on the quality and condition of our work environment and university organization. 

 

Faculty workloads are expected to balance teaching, research/scholarship, and service.  We need to realize university service is not only an expected part of our workload, but represents participation in a shared governance paradigm that is long-standing, valued, and a unique characteristic of a university.  While contemporary higher education is rife with problems, issues, and reasons to be disgruntled, there also is something very exciting, rewarding, and special that comes with working in a context where we share and explore ideas and intellectual stimulation.  We have the opportunity to work with young (and not so young) students in a teaching and learning context, continually experience the thrill of discovery inherent in research and scholarship, and provide meaningful input on the policies, structure, and processes impacting the quality of our work environment through shared governance.

 Karl Kunkel

One Piece at a Time

I love that old novelty song “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash in which he describes the process of stealing a Cadillac from the GM factory in bits over the course of years.  The folks at the factory didn’t even notice it happening because it was being snuck out in lunch boxes and the like.  When he sat down to put it all together, however, the pieces didn’t fit.  The design had changed over the years, so there had to be some modification.

The classes we give our students are sometimes in a similar situation.  Even the traditional students come to us from many different high schools.  Their teachers have received their educations from different universities at different times.  The non-traditional students have often received their education piecemeal before coming here.

There is a problem with a lack of uniformity to be sure, but even if all of our students took all of the same courses with all of the same teachers, they would have different levels of preparation because, well, people are different.

This presents a challenge for us as teachers.  We would love to have uniformly prepared students from well-funded schools.  It would also be nice if they were all straight-A students with 30s on their ACTs.  

The reality is far more interesting. Our students are unevenly prepared and many are the first generation from their families to go to college and are having to figure out the process without help from family.

What I say next I have to say carefully because learning is always the responsibility of the student, but we as teachers have an important job in helping our students to bridge the gap.  This shouldn’t be interpreted as lowering standards; a diploma from PSU should mean something.  It is much more difficult than lowering standards would be.  We have to maintain standards while helping the students to find their ways toward them.  

This may be by establishing relationships with your students.  It might be by providing them structure.  Over the years I’ve been impressed with a large number of our faculty each doing a great job in his/her own unique way.  There is such a diversity of excellence that I can’t pick out a single one of them to say, “There! Do it that way!”  

The commonality is in caring. I can only follow their examples by caring the way they care.  We care about our students so we care about our teaching and this leads us to work on our teaching.  We can help them put the pieces of their education to get a Cadillac at the end.

–Bobby Winters

Demystifying the Assessment Boogey Man

Conducting assessment is a common and pervasive theme in contemporary higher education.  Based on my experience, this word can strike fear, apprehension, and sometimes outrage in the minds of many faculty.  A common question is “why should we engage in assessment?”

Unfortunately, many faculty believe assessment only is necessary because some external entity expects or demands it.  The outside entity could be an accreditation body, a state legislature, or central administration at the University.  While this tendency to blame assessment on outside forces exists and essentially makes assessment a “boogey man,” I believe it is important for faculty to demystify the process by embracing program assessment as an intellectual, empirical, and scholarly activity designed to provide us with feedback on what we are doing well as well as indicate areas we can become better at fostering student learning.  Assessment should be about our teaching and scholarly habits, and not about vulgar accountability.  The basic question really should be are our students learning what we think we are teaching them.  I believe this basic curiosity should be at the core of every faculty member who takes teaching seriously.

The assessment process should begin with program faculty having an honest discussion of what they believe students should learn in their program.  Then, the academic methodologist in us should come out as we derive techniques to gather data to determine how well our students are learning what we want them to know.  If analysis of these data shows students are indeed learning what we believe important, we have validation for current pedagogical techniques and curricular offerings.  On the other hand, if data demonstrate areas for improvement, we should use our knowledge of both the academic discipline and teaching approaches to improve the student experience, ultimately benefitting our students since they more effectively will be learning and doing what we value as a result of this principled inquiry and reflection.

Assessment should not be seen as an interrogation or threat.  It should not be framed as a “spotlight” intended to expose our weaknesses, cut our budgets, or otherwise be an enemy.   It should be kept fairly simple and straightforward where faculty in the program ask for answers to empirical questions about program outcomes using an intellectual and scholarly search for truth consistent with the manner we conduct our discipline-based inquiry.  We should avoid “assessment elitism,” understanding that almost all of us suffer from the “imposter syndrome” when it comes to leading and conducting assessment.  This is not about finding fault, it is about gaining traction by collectively striving for honest attempts to empirically evaluate the effectiveness of student learning in our programs.

If done correctly, assessment can be something owned by the faculty, conducted with a scholarly search for answers to interesting and important empirical questions, and involving the ultimate benefit of allowing us to become more effective at teaching our students what we deem important for them to know.  Let’s confront this boogey man and make the reflection process center on what we value while doing it for us and not for the external forces.

Karl Kunkel

We Have a System

 

A while back a student came into my office in order to complain.  I listened, and then I asked, “Is there anything else?”

He then launched into a far-ranging an disjointed tale of how he was being followed, photographed, and that his microwave oven was talking to him.

There were a variety of thoughts that went through mind at that point, the details of which I will leave to the gentle reader’s imagination. What I did was to pick up a phone and put the student in touch with the university’s counselling center and they were able to help him.

While I’ve always been aware of the strengths of the faculty at this university, as I’ve worked with a broader spectrum of our students, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of the system we have at the university to support our students.

Counselling is only one part of the picture.  The folks over in Career Services can help students put together a resume.  In the Writing Center,  they can help your student with–get this–writing.  And I could go on, but my purpose is not to give you an exhaustive description of the system in place to help students at this university, but rather to tell you there is one.

As they said in Close Encounters, we are not alone.

We are a part of a system and it is part of the job to learn about that system and the ways it can help us do the job better.  Yes, this is in addition to actually teaching classes, doing  committee work, and, heaven help us, do some scholarly activity.

While the university does provide orientation for new faculty, there are limits to what can be done in that setting.  We are independent, self-directed learners and must apply that to learning about the structure of the university.  One way of doing that is by asking questions.  Ask your department chair; ask fellow faculty; heck, ask me.

Although, there is nothing more important than what goes on in your classroom with respect to student learning, you are a part of a larger community.  By learning about that community and availing yourself of the resources it provides, you can do your job even better than you do now.

 

Bobby Winters

Scholar as Teacher

I will begin this as a confession.  My inspiration for becoming a college professor, my founding ideal against which I always measure myself is a character from fiction: the Professor on Gilligan’s Island.  That guy knew everything.  He was a scientist, a historian, a master of technology.

Of course that is silly.  The program had virtually no intellectual content, and I include “virtually” there as simply a wiggle word.  We also know that college professors specialize.  Physicists don’t teach history; philosophers don’t teach statistics.  Indeed, even within departments specialties make us distinct.  We aren’t content with a historian; we want who specializes in the history of Asia or East Asian or even Japan.

Yet I find that many of our minds wander beyond a narrow focus. I do know a physicist who is interested in history. I know a Professor of English who is interested in mathematics.  Quite frankly, I am sure that many of you who are reading this are identifying interests–profound interests–that you have that are beyond the narrow focus of your discipline.

That is because the university is a gathering of scholars.  We have minds that not only inquire deeply but range far and wide in our interests.  We are curious and have been educated in ways that help us to feed our curiosity.

Beyond being begin scholars, we are teachers.  We are called to take what we learn and share it with others.  This can be done in a variety of ways and at a variety of levels.  One important way, of course, is in the classroom.  We share the things we learn with our students, but I will offer my opinion that there more we do beyond that.  I think that it’s important that we share ourselves, our interests, our curiosity.

One of the word wars I fight is “education” versus “training.”  At the university, we must provide an opportunity for education.  Our students must be able to have the knowledge to succeed when they go out into the world, but they should also be able to re-equip themselves as the world changes.  They should become independent learners. They should be curious.  They should have the tools in hand to help feed that curiosity.

In my opinion, we learn this sort of thing from a model.  While I said in the first paragraph that I wanted to be like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, in reality I found other models among my teachers in high school and college and among my colleagues when I came to the university.

Like it or not, you are a model.  You will have influence beyond your life.  You are a scholar and a teacher.

Bobby Winters

Tenure-Earning Faculty Should Receive Frequent Targeted Feedback

How much feedback is necessary and important for tenure-earning faculty?  Procedures vary quite a bit across the country on how often, and in what form, faculty in a tenure-track position receive feedback on progress towards tenure.   According to the Pittsburg State KNEA contract, at a minimum tenure-earning faculty receive a second year letter providing an overall evaluation of their performance during the first couple years and guidance for the next three or four years on expectations for earning tenure.  In a number of cases there is no additional “progress towards tenure” report until it is time for the actual decision.

I believe maximum transparency is best, especially in the high-stakes tenure process, and favor a system with annual specific “progress towards tenure” letters from the Department Committee, Chair, and Dean outlining the candidate’s accomplishments to date and providing guidance in areas deemed falling short of adequate progress toward meeting tenure expectations.  Annual targeted letters from committees, chairs, and the Dean, each directly involved in the ultimate tenure decision, make it very clear to everyone how a tenure-earning faculty member is progressing.  There are no surprises in the end because a paper trail formed with feedback specifically tailored to assessing the candidate’s progress.  This approach protects tenure-earning faculty because it is extremely difficult for a department committee or administrator to provide yearly positive feedback and then reach a negative tenure decision.  On the other hand, annual feedback protects departments in cases where an underperforming probationary faculty member consistently is informed of areas needing improvement but does not take necessary actions.

The tenure-track process by its very nature is anxiety-producing for both junior faculty and departments/universities.  For junior faculty, there are profound implications for career and livelihood.  For departments and universities, there is a long-term, often permanent, commitment to continued employment and inclusion.  Further, contentious tenure decisions are some of the most unpleasant events in academic life should be avoided if at all possible.

It makes sense that providing annual feedback from all decision-makers is a clear method for both developing life-long productive autonomous colleagues, a primary goal of the tenure-track period, and creating a transparent process, which I believe we continually should strive to achieve in a university context.

 

Karl Kunkel

Student Ownership

Teachers are under great pressure for their students to learn.  On one hand, this is what education is all about: students learning.  But, on the other hand, those of us who teach find the pressure misplaced.  It’s like the old joke.  A parent is talking to the teacher and says, “If my son misbehaves just spank the kid next to him and that’ll do the trick.”  This action is somewhat misplaced.  The student has to be the owner of his education.

As teachers we were first students ourselves.  We know how we learned: by working.  There were late hours reading novels, struggling with papers, or pouring over equations.  But before we did all of this we had to take ownership of our education.  We had to decide learning was our own responsibility.

This having been said, let me start over.  As we were all first students ourselves, we all know there were teachers who reached us; teachers with whom we identified; and, dare I say it, teachers who inspired us.  These were the teachers who helped us to own the learning process.

Many of our students have taken ownership before they arrive on campus.  They are easy, and we would almost teach them for free. The rest are where we earn our pay.

Very rarely do we get the satisfaction of being the one person who will transition any particular student from the illusion of being a passive receptacle for knowledge into being an engaged learner.  Each of us plays a part.  I think that we play that part more effectively if we approach it intentionally.  This is to say that we must realize that there are students who are not engaged in their own learning process and to apply methods that encourage engagement.

I must say there was a time when I would have heard this and thought about those who learned to swim by just being thrown into a pool.  That is one way to approach the problem.  The trouble is that you might lose someone who with a little coaching might’ve made it.

How do we do this?  My approach is to provide a transparent structure.  I try to organize my lower division classes to be predictable so that my students can plan and be rewarded by planning. My idea here is that good behavior should be rewarded.

I would like to know whether others have thought along these lines and, if so, what they have done to promote student ownership.

 

Bobby Winters

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