Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dialog, Discussion, Debate - What's in a Word?

Before today's class session - Dave B., Joe, Tyler and I met with Professor Clancy in what I thought was a very interesting session where I learned that in other units undergraduate students mentor/TA first for course credit and then, if they show their worth in some serious ways the reward switches to a tuition and fee waiver. This model has been embraced in some of the sciences and engineering. But it hasn't been embraced much if at all in the social sciences or humanities. Instead, they've relied exclusively on using doctoral students as TAs. If you think of doctoral education as primarily about preparing the graduate students for lifelong work in that field of study, then one measure of success of such programs is how they place students into jobs in the field. By that measure, there are too many doctoral students in many of these fields. Quite a few of those with a PhD don't find positions in their field of study and have to go into some other line of work.

The question then is why the system persists. One answer is that the undergraduate teaching obligations are so great in these departments while the revenues are comparatively meager that the only way they can make it work is to have lot of inexpensive teachers, i.e., TAs. Another answer, more cynical than the first, is that the faculty prefer to teach doctoral students rather than undergrads, so they can teach about their research. In this view the doctoral students are around so the faculty can teach them, which means somebody else has to to teach the undergrads.

The system has been breaking down for a while and budget morass is speeding it up. Professor Clancy said that her department is committed to a smaller doctoral program and one where students get their degrees in a timely fashion. (This is a related to the issue of having too many doctoral students.) Lets say they are successful at doing that and that similar changes are made in other social science and humanities departments. What happens then to the undergraduate teaching burden? Some of it will be met by having fewer course offerings in the doctoral program so faculty spending more of their teaching time with undergraduate courses. Does that offset completely the reduction in the number of graduate students? (It doesn't. It was a rhetorical question.) So an alternative models is needed.

I wish the entire class had heard that conversation. We hashed through how peer mentoring might work as part of that alternative model. I thought it was a very interesting conversation. There are a lot off hoops to be gone through to get something that flies, among them that many of the mentors would likely be in MCB not Anthro, so how would you give a tuition and fee waiver in this case?

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I thought our discussion on reflections was interesting, in significant part since there was substantial variation in response from among those who spoke. When we discussed adhering to the prompt or not, it occurred to me that this was pretty much Senge had in mind when he talks about giving the assumptions some air during dialog. Applying Senge's analysis to what we said, my interpretation is that I come off to some of you as either unclear or as quite defensive (or both) so you respond with compliance qua adhering to the prompt. Especially when you are not personally invested in what the prompt is about, this leads to writing that is "going through the motions" only, not something that gets your motor running.

I also thought the part about not knowing how to comment was very interesting and here, while I won't claim to be an expert, the stuff we read about experts and novices is worth reconsidering, especially on the part where experts don't understand what is difficult for novices. Earlier in the semester we did have a post where we talked about whether you can give good criticism - there was a lot of dancing around that topic - and most of you ultimately concluded you couldn't. So here is a bit of an aside about how I learned much of what I know about this.

Faculty write research papers that are then subject to peer review. So they gain experiences of what its like to receive a review on their paper and they also write reviews of other papers. There is learning by doing in this. You learn as an author what you'd like from a good referee report (of course, you want the referee to say that the paper is brilliant, but since that won't always be the case, you want the referee to explain where the referee struggled with the presentation, what the referee disagreed with, and any out and out mistakes that were found). So in the language of today's class, you'd like the referee's report to be part of the discussion. The author wants to win and the referee wants to win too. They both win when the referee likes the paper enough to recommend it for publication. My experience is that this often is iterative with the first referee recommendation of the form - revise and resubmit - meaning there are some interesting ideas in the paper but it is not publishable in the current form.

On the other hand, I've received referee reports that are very far from the standard. Sometimes they show they didn't read the paper. Other times they show they didn't understand what they read. But this isn't always the case. Referee reports can be good an useful to others, with good suggestions on how to improve the paper.

I learned from the experience. I also came to conclude that new Assistant Professor are still learning how to write a paper that will get accepted for publication, so the review process is part of their professional education. I came to feel responsible for writing reports for them in a way that would help them along.

When you do enough of this you may not be an expert, but you are pretty accomplished. With the blogging it is similar, but the comments are meant in part to help with the writing of the subsequent post. You won't revise and resubmit the current post, though you might very well respond to the comments.

The vexing question after all of that is - you learn by doing, but some of you were reluctant to do so because you didn't know how, so how is this vicious cycle broken? I could have required comments to coerce you through that reluctance. But do note that I did require the posts and yet all was not rosy on that side of the street. Consider some of the remarks during the discussion about when the prompt didn't excite you. If I had made commenting required too, wouldn't some of you have reacted that it was even more make work?

We did talk a lot in the course about motivation so I wonder whether there is some way to tap into intrinsic motivation that would encourage commenting that was good and insightful. If you have thoughts on that, I'd love to hear them. During the semester there were posts and comments on posts about being form an immigrant family and the implications of that. Some students shared a bond that way and we got some empathetic commenting as a result. That particular bond was coincidental. It couldn't have been planned for before the course started. But perhaps the creating of some other bond could be designed into the course.

I'll close with one last point. There is learning in struggle and failure. The fruits of that learning may not be realized till sometime in the future. While it is happening, the struggle and failure may not be much fun, either to participate in or to watch. I think one reason why so many instructors are very directive in what they ask from students is that it makes it easier for them. I'm not sure, however, that it makes it better for the students to be so directed.

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If there are masochists in the crowd who want to struggle and flail with the blogging even after the course concludes, I'm happy to keep reading and commenting - no prompts and no grades, just ongoing conversation.

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