Making Sense of the Transition to College

Big Fish Little Pond

“Big Fish Little Pond”

Making Sense of the Transition to College

Perhaps not surprisingly, it really matters what we ask students to write. As instructors, and support staff, one way we can help students with the transition to college is to encourage or even demand that students respond to specific prompts that focus their writing and subsequent thoughts on their transition experiences. A rough comparison of FRO 1000 and the SEEK Freshman Seminar blogs shows how different prompts supported students in different sense making processes. As Toby Fulwiler points out in a foundational WAC text, “writing makes thoughts visible and concrete and allows us to interact with and modify them”  (1983). It is this process of making thoughts visible and interacting with them that sense making happens.

As instructors we can use writing prompts to direct students to work through specific thoughts and challenges like the transition to college. For example, the Freshman Seminar directed students to interact with the following prompt:

Create a two-minute video, an eight-image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write a post of no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

The prompt encouraged students to reflect on the self, and the student responses – again not surprisingly – did just that. They worked through questions like “who am I” and “how do these songs or slides represent me”.

The first few sentences from one post convey a sentiment that a number of students’ communicated:

When initially given this assignment, I thought creating a blog post about myself would be easy. Though I was not necessarily happy about it, I thought it would not be a problem because, generally speaking, I like to believe that I have a decent grasp of who I am as an individual. However, as I sat down to select pictures and craft my slide show, I realized just how difficult it is to effectively convey who I am as an individual in only eight images.

In this excerpt the student articulated the struggles and the process of making sense that many of her peers engaged in as they composed written and pictorial representations of themselves. After the above introduction the student wrote about moving from Florida to New Jersey and “the impact this change had” on her life. Her final paragraph included a quote from Vonnegut and her explanation of the purpose of the quote:

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” I included this because it accurately describes how I aspire to live my life — taking risks and engaging in new experiences, in order to continue to flourish as an individual.

The first FRO 1000 prompted students to look inward and make sense of their self and then present a narrative about themselves outward in concrete and visible text on their FRO 1000 blogs. It created an exercise of literally constructing a representation of self in Baruch’s digital space.

In contrast the prompt that the SEEK Freshman responded to directed them to reflect on the relationships they were developing in their first weeks at Baruch:

I invite you to tell a story about your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College.             Research has shown that during the first semester students often worry about whether or not professors and other students at their college will accept them, and how eventually students become comfortable there and find a family of people with whom they are close and feel they belong. Please describe how you have experienced your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College…

The prompt was adapted from a Walton and Cohen (2011) article published in Science that showed how writing about the transition to college helped freshman make the transition to college and subsequently improve their graduation rates and overall GPAs. In this excerpt from his first post Almightybrou (a pseudonym) reflected on his experience meeting new people at Baruch:

After we went to the library, we were just standing in the lobby with other people in our             class and we were all just having light conversations about our common interest, such as sports and intended majors. This was the case in most of our classes since the main concentration of all the professors was to have us do ice breakers. This helped us get familiar with each other and made conversations that much more easier. For me it was both an interesting and exciting week for me. Even though it has been such a short amount of time, i feel that it will only get better as we get used to the people we are around.

Almightybrou used this post to make sense of his relationships with the other students in his cohort. Writing about this experience was an opportunity for Almightybrou to interact with and make the experience visible and concrete.

A quick comparison of the FRO 1000 and the SEEK freshman posts provides a window into how different prompts direct students to write and subsequently make sense of themselves and their college context in distinct ways. The FRO 1000 prompt asked what – “represents who you think you are to your classmates” – directing students to make sense of their self. While the SEEK prompt directed students to think about their relationships with others and in light these relationships asked the students to reflect on how have they experienced their first week at Baruch? The differences in the prompts and subsequent student responses call attention to the ways that writing functions as a critical tool for making sense of the transition to college.

Deep learning in business education

I was introduced to the concept of deep learning a couple of years ago when I attended a Baruch faculty development workshop on effective teaching methodologies. Studies conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that students in schools with deep learning reforms show boosted achievement in various assessments, as well as their enrollment and choices in higher education. Overall, benefits of deep learning are: higher test scores, more positive interpersonal and intrapersonal outcomes, higher rate of graduation, higher enrollment rate in higher education (AIR, 2014). So we see the benefits of implementing deep leaning regimes, but what is deep learning exactly? Can we implement it in our own classrooms? How?

I did some digging around and found a good definition: Deep learning (or deeper learning) is The combination of (1) a deeper understanding of core academic content, (2) the ability to apply that understanding to novel problems and situations, and (3) the development of a range of competencies, including people skills and self-control (AIR, 2014). Based on my experience in observing and teaching management classes at Baruch, I believe that experiential learning might be an effective way to induce deep learning.

Base on my understanding on this topic, deep learning can only take place when students are actively solving problems or answering questions that are important and interesting to them. In each class, the instructor should engage students in experiential learning by having them directly participate in activities such as simulated workplace scenarios (negotiating for salary increase, making firing/hiring decisions, choosing benefit packages for employees, etc.), case studies, small group discussion projects, and in-class debates. Through these activities, students are able to put themselves in real life situations that are closely related to their interests. While working through problems by using theories taught in lectures, students can reinforce their learning and gain a deeper understanding of how and why their newly acquired knowledge can be practically applied. Learning through a variety of experiences also creates a welcoming and engaging classroom atmosphere, which better addresses the diverse learning needs of Baruch’s student population. In addition, I believe that instructors should take advantage of the technological tools available to facilitate the delivery of knowledge. Doing so enables instructors to provide students with the opportunity to customize and design their own learning environment. Commonly seen methods include using movie clips, TED talks, business leader interviews, game show type quizzes and interactive online activities, which visually demonstrate management theories and stimulate students to think outside the box.

At the moment, from what I can gather, I sense that Baruch students do not always experience deep learning and most seem to view their business education as a mandatory path to acquire standard validation in preparation for the “real” world. It is not common for students to break away from the idea that simply memorizing and reproducing knowledge is doing themselves a disservice, they also need to be able to sought personal meaning by transforming information in terms of their own understanding, and in time, undergo rewarding personal transformation and development. As scholars and educators, I think we should do more to promote a culture of deep learning and make our teaching more impactful and meaningful.

What is a Freshman Seminar?

The Freshman Seminar here at Baruch has long been a mystery to me.  Although I’ve been a Freshman Learning Community leader twice, this has never afforded me much insight into the required but not credit-bearing class, taught by mostly non-faculty, that first-year students attend to learn about Things Freshmen Need To Know.  Entering college is a profound transition for many first-year students at Baruch, including those fresh from their senior prom and Regents exams, those who spent the last decade running their own small business, those whose educational experiences up to this point have been outside of the U.S., and everyone in between.  This semester I’m working on developing a communication-related enrichment workshop to be offered in conjunction with the Freshman Seminar program, which afforded me more knowledge about the program.  Taking a closer look at its structure piqued my interest in the larger freshman seminar movement around the country.

I wondered, what is a freshman seminar, and what is its purpose? What forms does it take at different kinds of colleges and universities? Who does it really well? A bit of research led me to this observation: the form that a freshman seminar program takes at a particular school can communicate a great deal about how the school views its primary institutional function.

The first thing I noticed was that while many universities use the term “freshman seminar,” they use it to designate quite different things. There are two main forms that the seminar takes (and yes, this is a generalization that surely overlooks much diversity).  At most “elite” (ranked as highly selective) private colleges whose websites I skimmed, the freshman seminar refers to a series of very small, highly focused courses designed and taught by faculty according to their specialized research interests. These courses are discussion based and often writing intensive, functioning as an opportunity for first-year students to experience the intimate and rigorous setting of an upper-level seminar at the start of their college career.  A few examples are the programs at Harvard, Princeton, and Bard.

At many other schools—trending in the direction of public and less “elite” institutions, although there are exceptions to this—the freshman seminar is a non-academic program for first-semester students that orients them to the institution’s resources, helps them navigate new challenges of college life, and integrates them into the larger social body of the school. Here are a few examples, from SUNY Stony Brook and New Jersey Institute of Technology.  The brief description of the Freshman Seminar at Baruch has more in common with this second group than with the first.

At first glance the two models may seem entirely different, but I think they attempt to do similar work from different angles. Both models share central aims of integration into a community. In the academic seminar model, the student is integrated into an intellectual community by developing a close working relationship with a professor and a small group of students bound by an interest in a particular set of questions or themes. In this model students often choose or even apply to particular seminars. This kind of seminar is meant to introduce freshmen to the intellectual work of college learning, in relation to a community of thinkers. In the orientation model, the student is integrated into a social community united by the process of managing new challenges and making use of the resources presented by the college institution. The emphasis is at least partially on professionalization and career planning.

Doug Brent’s article Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy draws a chronology in which the orientation model (what he calls the non-credit bearing “transition” model) preceded the newer “academic content seminar” model. He argues that such academic freshman seminar models resonate particularly with WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) pedagogy, because they affirm the idea that learning how to learn, like learning how to write, happens when learners are deeply engaged in discipline-specific inquiry, not prior to the inquiry or in a vacuum where learning is considered in theory.

If the pattern I detect is accurate, why does the orientation model persist more often at public and less elite colleges, while the most elite colleges have adopted the academic model?  Can an academic content freshman seminar also sufficiently cover the kinds of skills that are covered in a not-for-credit orientation model seminar (and perhaps even do so better than the orientation model can)? What do these different models communicate to freshmen about their primary role as students?

Citation:

Brent, Doug. “Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 57, no. 2 (Dec. 2005): 253-76.

Start by imagining everything in the universe

I have a problem as a writer: I’d want to talk about everything at once. At a recent meeting of Schwartz Institute fellows, the editor of this blog tried to convince us to write smaller posts, pieces that don’t necessarily take on huge subjects or heady academic arguments, but instead simply muse or riff or chat for a little while about what we’re interested in as scholars, teachers, internet trolls, Beyonce fans, whatever. Keep it simple, he said.

To prove that I’ve taken this message to heart, I will share my musings on a little topic I find myself contemplating more and more these days, the cosmos. That is, all of space and time laid out on the grandest scale. Or rather, on Cosmos: A Personal Journey, the 1980 mini-series created by Carl Sagan and the recent reboot of the series currently airing on Fox, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Cosmos sets out to explain complex concepts from physics, biology, and astronomy to a popular audience, using stories, metaphors, and stunning visualizations to impart to non-scientists the wonder of the universe and the power of science. In essence, the series tells the story of the universe as revealed through developing scientific theories over human history. Taken together, we see how human life emerged as one small part of the cosmos and how human cultures learned to use the tools of science–rational thought, experimentation, careful observation, exchange of knowledge–to build ever-more sophisticated understandings of the universe in which we live.

I won’t go on here about which version of the series is better, especially as we’re only six episodes in to the new series at the time I’m writing this. (Obviously, Sagan’s original version is better, as originals tend to be.) Instead, I want to think a bit here about what Cosmos has taught me as someone who thinks about broad, invisible social and cultural systems like race, class, and disability as revealed through the tools of critical cultural theory. While I study broad theoretical concepts about social and cultural identity, I work in real-world colleges and universities, institutions that deal with practical things like grading rubrics, administrative policy documents, and student transcripts. While I like to talk about everything at once, contemplating vast invisible systems of resource distribution and social privilege, I need to be able to communicate my ideas to administrators, service providers, fellow faculty, and even students who might not share my vocabulary or my fascination with abstract, invisible systems.

I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about here: the way Cosmos teaches us to think about time. As humans, we tend to measure time in units that make sense to us–hours, days, years. These units are helpful for organizing time in the scale we actually deal with it: how long it takes to get to Brooklyn or to write a dissertation or to live a life. The problem with communicating scientific ideas about the universe to non-experts is that the real scale of the cosmos stretches out over billions of years, a scale far beyond our comprehension in everyday terms.

Cosmos uses a visual metaphor to help us make the tricky conceptual leap from common-sense time to cosmic time: the Cosmic Calendar.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand twelve billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the big bang occurring  on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand thirteen billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the Big Bang occurring on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here we see over thirteen billion years of cosmic development represented as a single calendar year, beginning with the Big Bang on the first second of January 1st and ending (sort of . . . ) with our current moment, the final mili-second of December 31st. In between, we see all 13.2 billion years of cosmic history broken up into months, each representing a bit more than a billion years, allowing us to visually represent events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (around “May 15th”) or the development of the first living organisms on Earth (“September 21st”) within their proper historical scale.

Visual metaphors work especially well for chronological information. While time is clearly abstract and invisible, most of us have been well trained to use visual tools comprehend it, tools like timelines, calendars, and daily chronometers (remember wrist-watches?). The Cosmic Calendar works because we recognize the tool of the monthly calendar as more or less universal — kind of like the way news anchors like to measure big physical distances in the number of football fields could fit there.

For my work thinking about colleges and universities, the time scale is much smaller, only a few hundred years.  My challenge comes when I try to think about space.

We are used to thinking about institutions of higher learning in spatial terms. If I want to talk about what Baruch college is like, for instance, I can talk about physically walking around the 14-floor Vertical Campus building, I can see it sitting there beside Lexington Avenue made out of bricks and glass, I can spot it on a map or draw a floor plan of the building.

But representing Baruch on a physical map renders invisible and abstract many of the important features that define universities as institutional systems: you can’t tell by looking at a floor plan which spaces are used by faculty, administrators, or students; you can’t acknowledge that Baruch is experienced different ways depending on your status in the institution. Since I’m interested in the experience of people with disabilities in higher education institutions specifically, these subjective conceptions of space are important to how I map institutions — space as it is experienced from person to person, depending on cultural or social identity. And here’s where I start to need visualizations like the Cosmic Calendar to explain what on earth I’m actually talking about to folks who don’t live in my personal world of theory.

I’ve taken a few stabs at making this kind of visualization. A few years ago I tried to create a map to represent the institutional forces linking me as a first-term graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center to the geographical spaces I moved through as a teacher at LaGuargia Community College. In this diagram, made in Prezi, I tried to represent institutions as rectangular brackets, which contain both physical spaces like classrooms and offices (represented as green rectangles) and institutional forces (represented as circle frames). Forces either emanate from particular geographical spaces or link them together.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this visualization, I was trying to communicate how I, as an inexperienced teacher in a PhD program, relied on a series of invisible administrative programs and policies in order to access the geographical spaces at LaGuardia (including my classrooms, where I got to deploy my authority as “instructor”). Without those programs and policies in place, my experiences of the CUNY geography would have been considerably different. I wanted a way to map the administrative programs, to show the institutions and their forces together in one visual map as I had experienced them given my peculiar status as a first-year PhD student making use of the practicum program to secure employment as an adjunct teacher.

I’ll conclude my musings on space and time with an admission that I’m still no expert at using visual metaphors to teach my audiences about complex, abstract systems–not yet. I’m still limited by my abilities with the kind of digital visualization tools that could help me get my ideas across in more dynamic and straightforward ways, for instance.

Cosmos inspires me to be ambitious in my communicative aims while also being inventive in my tools for communication. See the series for yourself at http://www.cosmosontv.com/ where you find the first six episodes streaming in full for a limited time.

So You Want a Rec Letter?

There were a few things I wanted to write about for this week’s post, but I decided to settle on one: writing recommendation letters.  When I was teaching, I always told my students that while they were taking my introduction to cultural anthropology course that they needed to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected their intellectual and academic abilities so they could get the best return on their investment—their education.

I also reminded students that there will come a time when they will request a recommendation  letter from me, and that letter will not be a standard form letter comprised of a short paragraph that basically provides little to no information about the student and her academic performance.  My letters will contain at least 3 paragraphs discussing the student’s performance and the qualities that will make her  an ideal candidate for the programs she is seeking to gain admission to.

There is one caveat, I told students not to ask me for a letter if one is applying to doctoral or Masters programs because my status as an adjunct won’t really count.  The nation’s recent economic downturn sent many unemployed back to school, with many people seeking graduate degrees as a way to enhance their employment opportunities in anticipation of the rebounding job market.  With many students recognizing that their bachelor degrees are insufficient to compete in today’s economy, students are beginning to think long term and that means obtaining post-secondary degrees.  Adjunct instructors recognize the importance of undergraduate students planning for post-secondary degrees because many adjuncts are struggling to complete their doctoral degrees on minimal adjunct salaries or have completed their degrees and still earn a paltry salary.

Nationally, higher education institutions are becoming more reliant on adjuncts to teach their courses with some adjuncts having little success obtaining full-time positions once their Phd is granted. With more institutions becoming dependent on adjunct labor, there is high likelihood that undergraduates will spend more class hours with adjunct faculty than full time faculty, yet only letters by full-time faculty are considered sufficient to bolster graduate applications.  Adjuncts provide students with in-class instruction, office hours, and in some cases counseling, yet these interactions aren’t enough to support a student’s graduate application.

I receive at least 3-5 recommendation letter requests from former students each semester.  Some are for graduate programs and others are for study abroad programs, internships, and scholarship applications.  Depending on the rank of the institution/program that the student is applying I assess whether my letter will hurt or help their application.  If it is highly competitive, I politely decline and tell students to ask a full-time professor, if the program is not highly competitive, I usually say yes immediately and commence to writing.  However writing a good recommendation letter is a lot of work, and although I am not currently teaching, I still put in the time to craft and fine tune my recommendation letters for undergraduate students despite the fact that my efforts may be fruitless.  I mainly write these letters for one reason, and it’s the reason I force myself to sit at the computer no matter how much of my own work I have to complete:  I remember being an undergraduate eager to apply to African American Studies graduate school programs almost twenty years ago and asking my adjunct instructor for an African literature course to write a letter for me.  He obliged, and thankfully I was admitted into a program, I can’t remember his last name but we all called him Chiji.  

I can’t imagine that seventeen years ago Chiji’s salary as a doctoral student at a public university was better than the paltry salary I received as an adjunct, but having taught for many years as an adjunct, I have a great respect for what he did for me.  Now I can see that he might have mustered up some strength to sit before his computer to write a recommendation letter for me amidst writing his dissertation.  I haven’t gone back to my transcript to get his last name, but I do imagine it would only read-STAFF beside the course, as it still does in many online course schedules taught by adjuncts.  I don’t know if it was Chiji’s letter that helped or the letters from a full time professor, and tenured professor that helped.  All I can remember is his willingness to write a recommendation letter for me, and with that memory and energy, I write letters for my former students too.

Notes on Writing Across the Curriculum at BLSCI

This piece serves as a reflection and elaboration of my current work as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow at BLSCI. I would say that the WAC principle of scaffolding assignments in the classroom—that is, breaking work into smaller, skills-specific exercises that link together as a meaningful whole—holds true for developing and rethinking curricula. During this academic year, I navigated the various (and exciting) pedagogical initiatives at BLSCI by identifying a small set of questions to think about across different contexts and learning communities (i.e., faculty members as a group, one-on-one development with a professor over a semester, one-on-one sessions with students, in-class workshops). Specifically, my inquiries and energies were directed towards experimenting with ways to get CUNY undergraduates to simultaneously synthesize course content while exercising a skill that develops and sustains their individual, intellectual interests. This is an extension of what I try to do with students who work with me: students simultaneously rehearse the skills of the discipline and (ideally) gain familiarity with practices that would encourage them to continue producing knowledge that’s meaningful to them, beyond the space and time of a class. What follows, I hope, is a contribution to the ongoing conversations that my BLSCI colleagues have maintained—conversations that inspire me to actively integrate into my own work the value of syncing the uniqueness of one’s voice with a personal commitment to a learning community.

 1. FACULTY DEVELOPMENT

I helped facilitate the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable in October 2013. Professor Louise Klusek and Professor Stephen Francoeur led an informative discussion on how to teach undergraduates the structure of and the various approaches to academic research. They illustrated the importance of stressing to undergraduates that academic research is an exercise of multiple skills over a period of time. For example: strategically identifying keywords, locating the proper databases, evaluating the quality of sources, and synthesizing those sources are all constitutive of the research process. The roundtable discussion left me with this question: how do we get students to creatively, critically engage the source materials of their chosen discipline, whether that may be a passage in a novel or a set of numerical data? This inquiry became the motivation behind my pitch for the “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable.

The “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable, which I co-ran with Professor Bill Ferns about a month ago, is informed by my experience as a student and instructor at CUNY. I developed variations of teaching a tripartite structure to critical thinking. The three parts include: a claim, evidence to support the claim, a narration of how the selected evidence relates to the claim (the analysis). This is a version of my own approach to research writing and it is an approach that I learned from reading Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations before I started my doctoral studies.

I developed “Writing About Numbers” from my experience in teaching content-heavy courses while modeling for students techniques of argumentation. During class, I frequently ask students to engage directly with the course content, the evidence if you will, and then we build claims together based on an assessment of the evidence (i.e., its textures, effects, and utilities). The evidence and methodology varies from discipline to discipline, but there is an obvious overlap between the disciplines: a shared value of teaching our chosen discipline’s techniques of synthesis and critical thinking. My sense that writing and mathematical reasoning as mutually reinforcing skills comes out of this notion and Toby Fulwiler’s observation that: “Writing and arithmetic provide general tools for manipulating and expressing ideas and information.” The citation for this source and the outline of my presentation can be found here.

Working and co-presenting with Professor Ferns has been generative, especially in opening up a conversation about how instructors can guide students in clearly narrating and effectively visualizing data through communicative models (i.e., graphs, maps, charts).

 2. FACULTY SUPPORT

I provide support and collaborate with faculty in developing writing assignments for their courses. In the fall, I helped a Great Works instructor in preparing students for their term papers. I gave an in-class workshop on how to draft for papers on literature.

I’m currently working with David Gruber, who is a professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and we’re collaborating on scaffolding a few assignments that relate to symbiosis and microbes for his upper-level course “Microbial Ecology.” Two weeks ago, to prepare students for their final research project, I gave an in-class workshop where students and I discussed the structure of scientific prose. Professor Gruber had assigned a chapter from Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. Microbe Hunters is a stylishly-written, narrative-driven popular press book and I walked students through a conversation about how de Kruif’s style is reflective of his research content. We talked about writing to different audiences. We also discussed how to strategically position, and reposition, the topic of a research paper in order to develop ideas. George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing” was instrumental in my framing of the workshop.

3. STUDENT SUPPORT

Throughout this academic year, I meet with students for one-on-one sessions.  For an hour, I work with a student on an assignment from their Great Works course. These sessions are incredibly instructive in getting me to think about my own pedagogy. Because I frequently work with faculty at Baruch, these sessions serve as a reminder that each student’s learning process is characterized by a different set of particularities and struggles.

These sessions give me a sense of what works (and what doesn’t work) when creating an assignment or essay prompt (specifically in how questions or prompts are framed). Additionally, last semester, when I joined BLSCI Director Suzanne Epstein for a grading session of student writings in aggregate, it was useful to think about my sessions with individual students in connection to Baruch’s English Department’s rubric and standards.

4. BLOG WRITING (AS PROCESS, PEDAGOGY, AND SCHOLARSHIP)

I just want to note that participating in the ongoing conversations at BLSCI has pushed me to think more broadly about public humanities, the various genres of scholarly labor, and the technologies that shape those forms of scholarly labor. In particular, I’ve been thinking through Tressie McMillan Cottom’s blog and Brooklyn College’s Professor Corey Robins’ piece on Aljazeera.

Please Open (Your) Textbooks…

Seems that at the beginning of every semester, I see another blog post or news story about the skyrocketing prices of textbooks and how renting or subscription textbooks are the answer.

There have even been studies that show students are refusing to buy textbooks (whether because they can’t afford them or because they think the prices are outrageous), despite the inevitable hit to their grades.

just the ones i'm getting rid of

A pile of expensive paper, never to be read again (image by plutor CC BY)

In my class, I decided to confront this problem by matching my practice to my subject. I teach a section of a class called “Principles of New Media.” One of the topics we cover is Creative Commons licensing.

I decided to choose all of my required readings from those available under Creative Commons licenses.

The basic tenet of Creative Commons is that the default license should be permissive of sharing, rather than restrictive. Of course, there are different levels of permission. At the core, all CC licenses require attribution. This is the most permissive license, known as CC BY. As we tell our students: you must cite your sources.

But different CC licenses also permit or restrict various forms of reuse.

“No Derivatives”, or ND, restricts the creation of works based on a CC-licensed work. Therefore, the work can only be reused as-is.

“NonCommercial”, or NC, means that you cannot charge for reusing the work.

“Share Alike”, or SA, requires that any work derived from the licensed work must be released under the same licensing terms.

These four attributes can be combined in any form to arrive at the six possible Creative Commons licenses: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, or CC BY-NC-ND.

For the texts in my class, I start with the CC BY-NC-SA text The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg and published by NYU Press.
I then add readings individual readings that are available under various CC licenses, like Lev Manovich’s new book Software Takes Command (ironically, at the time of writing this post, the book is currently unavailable at that official address due to a software problem) and whitepapers by Tim O’Reilly and others.

And if students want to buy a copy of any of the books, they are available in physical copies. Most of my students, however, read on their tablets, computers, or print out their own copies.

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (image by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

And if I continue teaching this class, my choice to use CC licensed texts will allow me to remix and add to the texts. I can find and incorporate newer articles by the books contributors, like Jay Rosen, danah boyd, Lawrence Lessig, or Clay Shirky, among others–as long as the newer writings are also CC licensed.

I cannot prove that students are more likely to do their readings than if they had to buy a textbook for my class. But at least now if they do decide not to do the reading, I know it is not because of the outrageous price of textbooks.

Preferred Gender Pronouns

Two years ago I joined a musical project whose meetings begin with participants sharing their names and preferred gender pronouns (PGPs). PGPs are terms like “she/her,” “he/him,” “they/their,” and “ze/hir”—gender identifiers many people don’t spend much time thinking about. One of the ideas behind having people introduce their PGPs is to create as inclusive and welcoming a space as possible for all members of the group, and especially for transgender and genderqueer folks—those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and which much of society expects and sometimes forces them to embrace.   Activist and Seattle University law Professor Dean Spade has argued that the frequent use of pronouns associated with trans people’s birth genders, birth names, and surgical statuses is a manifestation of transphobia. (On the other hand, cisgender people—those who present as and identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—usually have the privilege of being referred to by the gender pronouns with which they identify.) The members of the group I’m involved with try to avoid making assumptions about other people’s gender identities and ensure respect for all by allowing each person to name their preferred, rather than assumed or assigned, pronouns.

If making space for PGP introductions can be a tool for fighting transphobia, how can such practices—and the ideas upon which they are based—be brought to the attention of students and faculty in higher education? What would it look like for students in small classes to share their PGPs at the beginning of the semester? (Well, actually, it might look like this.) Just last week a number of newspapers picked up on an Associated Press report about PGP usage on American college campuses. The version published in The Sacramento Bee (“Redefining gender: ‘Preferred’ pronouns gain traction at US colleges”) opens with a profile of a PGP go-around at meetings for an LGBT group at Mills College. Despite the fact that only women are admitted as undergraduates at Mills, many of the group’s members prefer to be identified by gender-neutral pronouns like third-person singular “they” and “ze.” Besides for the role that PGP awareness can play in complicating gender binaries, as we see in the Mills case, the article makes clear that the issue of pronouns ties in to other fronts on which transphobia and cis-centrism can be fought at universities:

At the University of Vermont, students who elect to change their names and/or pronouns on class rosters now can choose from she, he and ze, as well as the option of being referred to by only their names. Hampshire College in Massachusetts advertises its inclusiveness by listing the gender pronouns of its tour guides on the school’s web site. And intake forms at the University of California, Berkeley’s student health center include spaces for male, female or other.

But here at CUNY, a friend who has taken several courses on gender and sexuality at the Graduate Center (GC) told me that instructors in those seminars have never asked students if they wished to state their PGPs. As far I know a Doctoral Student’s Council (DSC) proposal to provide gender-neutral bathrooms at the GC—an effort intended to reduce discrimination of gender non-conforming and transgender students, faculty, and staff—has been sidelined. (The DSC resolution for this proposal does state that other CUNY colleges have created gender-neutral bathrooms and mentions relevant policies at other universities.)

Of course, the issue of pronoun usage is also central to student writing. This is a can of worms worthy of a separate entry, so I’ll just say here that it seems like writing support programs and faculty should be thinking about it systematically. As described in the above-mentioned AP article and is evident from other online forums, many professors are grappling with how to deal with the growing presence of gender-neutral pronoun “neologisms” in student papers, but they seem to be dealing with them in mostly ad-hoc ways. Furthermore, comments responding to web postings about this issue (as well as articles about PGP usage in journalistic writing) betray a fair amount of cis privilege. Clearly, deeper discussions about “trans-anxieties”—the kind of discussions driven by queer and critical pedagogies that have been advocated for over a decade—are still needed throughout the academy.

Some Resources (most already linked to above)

Interns! Know your rights!

Source: OWS artsandlabor.org

Source: OWS artsandlabor.org

 

A few weeks ago I met with other fellows and our mentors at the BLSCI to talk over the semester so far.  Before the meeting began, we celebrated the awesome achievements of two of my cohort, one a Marketing Ph.D and the other an Accounting Ph.D, who have been snapped up by top universities for tenure track positions.  This is the kind of news I like to hear—it’s the antithesis of what’s happening right now in the Humanities, if we believe the hype and the headlines.  Contrary to this doom and gloom, my two newly-minted Ph.D colleagues said that, in their fields, hiring was strong and opportunities pretty plentiful.  This discovery—job prospects do exist for some at the end of the Ph.D!—has coincided with me writing a short op-ed for Museum 2.0 on the issues surrounding unpaid (and, in my view, unethical) internships in the arts.*  For, unlike those in Accounting and Marketing fields, students of art history and in other non-profit areas have rather grim job prospects.  What does that mean for those of us advising them, and writing their letters of recommendation?

Is it ethical to recommend our (humanities) students undertake unpaid internships? In my field, art history, the road to career success is paved on free labor.  This means that to gain experience students are often asked to undertake hundreds of hours of unpaid work experience at museums and nonprofits in order to stand a chance of securing even the most meager entry-level position upon graduation from either undergraduate or graduate programs.**  (Yes.  You read that correctly.  Ph.D students with a TON of experience are still solicited for unpaid internships.  It makes me very angry that these types of job descriptions still get posted and forwarded.)  One of the most poignant signs I saw during the Occupy Wall Street movement was a young woman holding a placard that read “F**k your free internships.”  Quite.

As an emerging teacher, I am now often asked for recommendation letters by students who are applying for unpaid internships or, worse in my eyes, internships that “give” college credit (you cannot “give” something to someone that they have already paid for themselves, but hey…).  This particularly cruel invention was one I discovered only when I came to America.  The thought that someone would pay tuition fees to their academic institution for the privilege of working unpaid and often full time at another institution or corporation in order to gain college credit is positively medieval.  Given we’re a city college with students who often have two or three jobs outside school and family commitments, we have a duty to agitate to change this system.  Instead, we are actively complicit, playing our students into it and hoping they make it.   (I keep feeling I’m missing some vital piece of background on the “for credit college internship” – I just can’t see how it is an equitable solution for students!)  I’m from Glasgow and at least when I was a student, union organization and labor rights groups would have had a field day if the suggestion had been made that someone would have to pay their university in order to work somewhere else for free in order to complete their degree.  There are a few rather choice Glaswegian “responses” to that kind of suggestion, none of which I can share with you in print here.

So what is our ethical duty as (humanities) teachers when we’re asked for a recommendation letter, or to “circulate widely” an unpaid internship?  Do we write the recommendation letter and tell the students to look for alternative paid opportunities if possible?  Do we refuse to support the culture of unpaid internships and refuse the recommendation letter?  Should we be refusing to circulate unpaid internships?  I’m genuinely interested in how others think about this issue, and how they approach it with solutions.

I have taken to hitting the reply button and telling the sender that it is my policy not to circulate unpaid internships.  Am I doing my students a disservice?  It is possible to ask a larger body like the AAM (American Association of Museums) to institute a policy that demands at least a modest stipend for all internships?  If one’s internship wage is $0, then the entry-level wage in the first and second jobs don’t have to be much higher to supersede the previous salary of $0.  Agitating for a basic compensation foundation would therefore benefit all (what’s the reverse of “trickle-down economics,” because that’s what I’m describing here. Does it work?)

It’s a complex issue, but one thing is very, very clear: it is an issue.  As teachers, we’re not just offering academic knowledge, but professional advice.  We also have greater possibility to shape our fields that we did when we were unpaid interns.  What can we do?  What is already being done?

 *For full disclosure on my past involvement with arts internships, please see my Museum 2.0 post. 

** FYI, an entry level museum salary is c. $32,000 – 40,000, and an adjunct lecturer is probably hovering around the same if they’re one of the lucky ones who get paid decently. 

The Cohort System

Recently, Josh wrote a post about TBL (team-based learning), in which he highlighted the number 1 design principle of successful team-based learning: a strategically-formed, permanent team.  The idea is that team-based learning is most effective when teams are formed strategically in size (5-7 members) and makeup (allocating the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among the teams).  This type of model involves placing students into teams at the beginning of the semester based on their backgrounds (e.g. one quant-heavy person per group, one humanities background, etc.).  The groups then work together for the entire semester on various assignments.  I wanted to expand upon this topic to discuss semi-permanent groups in particular and the cohort system more generally.

groupwork

I did my MBA as a part of Baruch’s full-time honors MBA program, class of 2009.  While Baruch has a particularly large MBA program overall, the full-time honors program was developed for students seeking to complete an MBA on a full-time basis in about 22 months, and in a small cohort group.  The cohort is generally about 60-90 students with whom an MBA candidate takes all of her core curriculum classes over the four semesters.  In addition, in the first two semesters of the MBA, when most core curriculum classes are taken, each cohort is put into a semi-permanent group of 5 students each.  This group works together for projects across all core classes (typically 5 classes in the first semester).  Especially in the first semester, a common joke is that this group ends up being your family: you work together for 15-20 hours per week on assignments across the curriculum.

The philosophy behind team-based learning in a semi-permanent group is the same philosophy behind the cohort system.  For group-based learning to be most effective, the group must foster “co-creation of knowledge through collaborative learning and experiential knowing.”  Pivotal to this experience is the group’s acting as a sort of community for the participant.  A group or a cohort becomes a community through sustained long-term communication, commitment, and interaction.  As group members get to know one another and develop an appreciation for each member’s strengths and weaknesses through work on a variety of projects, that group becomes a community that each member can learn from and rely on.  This is only possible through long-term interaction on multiple diverse projects.  This is the educational philosophy behind the cohort system.  Especially popular in adult education settings, the cohort system has the ability to create an educational community where team-based learning can be extremely effective.

As a professor, I ask how I can best implement this model in my classroom.  The cohort model is often impossible to replicate when you teach an undergraduate class in a large university.  These are students who have usually never met one another, and will never see each other again, except in passing around campus.  Our students also tend to be extremely busy:  they take 4-5 classes per semester, work outside of school, and live a great distance from campus and from one another.  The only possibility of sustained work in a semi-permanent team would be to assign multiple small projects over the semester that comprise a substantial percentage of each student’s grade.  Then, if you can form a team at the beginning of the semester, the students will at best have a few opportunities to work together and gain mutual respect and trust.

In addition, as Josh pointed out, the type of assignment matters.  It may not be appropriate to team-based learning to simply take an individual assignment (e.g. a traditional essay assignment) and force students to do the assignment as a group.  In my own experience as an MBA team member, team work tended to produce the best learning outcome in case studies or creative project assignments.  Students collaborating on these types of projects will learn to work as a group and build on each member’s strengths to produce the best creative or strategic outcome.

As an instructor, I still struggle to see how writing skills can be improved in a group assignment.  In my MBA experience with group work, 95% of the time a “group” writing assignment meant that each teammate would separately research a specific area and one teammate would be responsible for the actual writing by synthesizing each member’s input.  In some cases, each team member would write a separate portion of a paper, a process that almost invariably yielded a poor outcome in terms of writing quality.  Would peer review help in this setting?  I open this up to other educators and students.