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’ll write more about this in my final post for this semester, but for now 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.

A Babel Mixtape

Adrian Tomine, "Society Dictates" (2001).

Adrian Tomine, “Society Dictates” (2001).

Rewind. A context When I was in middle school, I didn’t realize that I was witnessing a shift in communication. The shift seemed ordinary. Our neighborhood mail carrier, whose mouth gripped a lit cigarette and hands skillfully shuffled through envelopes between houses, facilitated a steady flow of free-trial AOL discs to my home — discs that were later tucked in dust behind the tower of my family’s shared desktop. The discs gradually disappeared. They belong to a period in my life when the U.S. postal system didn’t seem so fragile and my best friend left me coded messages, gibberish to my parents, on the answering machine.

Fast forward, to high school. I live in the same house, on the margins of suburbia, but now I instant message in the evenings. One night, as I type in the dark, I notice that many of the AIM screennames, mine included, share one common adjective, one common unit: “azn.”

Fast forward, to November 11, 2013. Play: It’s November in New York City and, with warm breaths clutching the cold air and the population of shopping bags booming, all signs point to winter’s arrival. Though summer seems to be at a distance, a scene from this past August lingers still on my mind.

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, "In the Mood for Love" (2000)

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

 

Rewind, August 23, 2013. I was at a retrospective screening of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a movie I’ve seen many times before. This viewing experience was different, not only because it was the first time I saw it projected on a screen. This time I couldn’t immerse myself in the Cantonese script, so I straddled between reading the English subtitles and following, whenever I could, the dimming warmth of the Chinese language. There is a scene where the female lead, Mrs. Chan, makes an observation to the male lead. Mrs. Chan’s words sound familiar, but conjure a strange image in my head. I imagine a glistening net of golden honey threads, formed like a three-dimensional word bubble. Then, clunky and literal, words crystallize: “You’re like my husband. Your mouth is sweet and your thread is smooth.” The white letters, the subtitles, tell me: “You’re like my husband; he’s a sweet talker too.”

Pause. A reflection on the form and content of my cac.ophony blog posts: I try to maintain the formal expectations of voice and brevity, of personal tone and notation of  (my writing, thinking) process. Fragmentations and serialities mark the varying tempos of learning, an ongoingness of learning shaped by a historical present. Realizations, to invoke Mrs. Chan’s emotional articulation, can “sneak up on you,” catch you off guard, at a later time. The posts also depict my unfinished thinking with Lauren Berlant, Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, and Raymond Williams. The links embedded in each post are citations of the texts, online resources, and images I’ve been thinking through.

In terms of content, I’ve been trying to cohere some thoughts about the relationships between labor and exposure, between culture and capital, in a digital age. How do these relationships inform the shifting languages of the internet and the communities created around varying idioms and practices? The question that I’m formulating here is one that relates to my academic interests in race and labor:  how do the conditions produced by internet communication affect communities tangled, or aligned, along the coordinates of race, gender, class, and sexuality?

In terms of pleasure, I confess, I delight in the tentative thrill, the brush of potentiality, that comes with being derailed, reoriented, by the simple acts of scrolling down a newsfeed, swiping through images, and clicking on embedded links. Play.

Team-Based Learning… and Teaching Communication Skills: Incompatible?

Last spring, while serving in my last semester as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, I attended a workshop introducing faculty to Team-Based Learning (TBL), a pedagogical approach that has been gaining steam in the academy over the last couple of decades. I had just completed my first few years of university teaching, during which I had tried—drawing on piecemeal sources and largely following my own intuition—to find alternatives to the “sage on stage” teaching model with which I was most familiar. Although I thought that I had had some successes in restructuring many components of my courses to promote a more participatory environment, I still felt frustrated by the concentration of participation among a relatively small number of students, and by the haphazard-seeming quality of some of my group activities (not to mention the outright hostility with which some students reacted to group projects).

Kasia’s recent post discussed the concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students get their initial dosage of “content” outside of class and then spend in-class time doing the higher-order cognitive work of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and discussing the material. The same basic philosophy underpins TBL, although the touted benefits of highly structured teamwork are obviously a key aspect of the latter. According to the TBL literature, the worst teams typically outperform the top students in TBL classes.

There are four key design principles to TBL:

  1. Strategically formed, permanent teams: Instructors form teams of five to seven students and distribute the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among them. This can be achieved by administering a survey early in the course that asks about work experience, previous course work, number of credits being taken concurrently, intercultural experience, etc. Groups work together for the remainder of the course.
  2. Readiness Assurance Process: As with the “flipped” approach, students are expected to acquire the foundational knowledge for each class unit before it starts, usually through readings. Students’ preparation to engage closely with the content in subsequent activities is tested at the beginning of each unit. First, students do a short multiple-choice test individually; they then do the same test in teams with the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique—a type of “scratch-and-win” card where students keep trying until they uncover the correct answer. Teams are then encouraged to appeal some of their wrong answers with evidence from the readings. The process concludes with a mini-lecture by the instructor to review particularly difficult concepts.
  3. Application Activities: Activities in which the course content is applied are supposed to take up the majority of class time in TBL courses. Application activities are guided by the “4 S’s” principle: they should heighten student interest by focussing on a significant problem; promote inter-team discussion by assigning all teams to the same problem; ensure comparability between team answers by requiring a specific choice; and require simultaneous reporting of answers by all teams—this can be done with voting cards, or now with numerous technological aids—as a way for both the instructor and students to gauge contrasts in student thinking and use them as starting points for discussion.
  4. Peer Evaluation: One of the most significant drawbacks to group work is that one or two better-qualified students often end up carrying the group while others get a “free ride.” While the collaborative structure of TBL application activities is supposed to eliminate the possibility for individuals to do all of the work, integrating peer evaluation into the grading scheme will also help motivate students to contribute to their team.

My main concern with TBL at this point is about how to include an emphasis on developing communication and writing skills in the course structure. The FAQ on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative site is unequivocal in its stance on group writing and presentation projects:

In many ways using “good” in relation to “writing assignments for groups” is an oxymoron.

It goes on to say that while group presentations might be somewhat beneficial to the groups doing the presenting, they don’t foster dynamic learning for the whole class the way “4-S” activities do, and are therefore, it is implied, out of step with the overall approach. I agree with TBL advocates that much of the group work we assign students is little more than individual assignments requiring minimal student coordination. But surely there is educational value in having students build “lengthy products,” something TBL philosophy proscribes. Of course, it’s not like entire departments are switching over to TBL en masse, so plenty of opportunities remain for implementing writing and communication strategies in other courses. But are substantial written assignments and oral presentations really incompatible with teamwork, as TBL guidelines would have us believe? Is the only way to include these important educational aspects in a TBL course to disrupt the conventional course design—and potentially compromise its pedagogical benefits—to make room for them? Learning about TBL made me look forward to getting back into the classroom to try it out, but working in a communication institute makes me wonder if TBL needs to be adjusted to meet broader academic goals.

I-Phone, I-Pad, I-DontRemember

More research is coming out that suggests that new technologies may impact the way people remember and process information. Technology is moving at a rapid pace with more and more students owning a smartphone, a tablet, or both, and almost everyone connected to the internet.

Electronic book readers have got immensely popular in the last few years and many think that they will become the main way people read text in the future, whether for school, work or pleasure. However, research suggests that on-screen reading is actually measurably slower than reading on paper. The study conducted at the University of Leicester finds that people who read on paper develop an understanding of the material significantly faster and in greater depth than e-readers users. Also, tablet users need to re-read the same paragraph more often. The researchers concluded that associations, such as positioning of the information on the page, whether top or bottom, left or right, or near the graphic, so called “spatial context”, plays a role in remembering and understanding the material. What is more, they find that the smaller the screen, the less associations can be made. For example, reading on a smartphone results in the loss of most of the context and therefore brings the least value.

Moreover, new technologies seem to make writing by hand outdated. Anna, in her recent blog entry, stresses the importance of handwriting. Research suggests that handwriting is important to the learning process beyond the “writing” itself. Handwriting facilitates learning since the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain. By writing by hand, we stimulate the part of our brains responsible for abstract thinking and visual perception. Nevertheless, when I taught courses at Baruch College, I noticed that many students prefer to take notes on their laptop in class. This practice seems to be becoming the new norm, since more and more elementary school students are currently being introduced to tablets and computers for everyday use in school. There is an ongoing debate among educators whether teaching cursive should be made obsolete and some states are removing cursive instruction from curricula and focus on typing instead. Needless to say, this research weighs heavily in favor of continuing to teach cursive handwriting.

Admissions officials at Waterloo University, Canada, have attributed a recent increase in the failure rates of a standard English language exam to students’ use of electronic social media. The university has seen an increase in the use of emoticons, truncated or abbreviated words in formal exams and applications. This suggests that people who text and tweet extensively are more likely to overlook the misspellings, punctuation and grammatical errors in their professional correspondence.

Another study, conducted by a researcher at Columbia University explores how the internet changes the way we handle information. The study finds that we treat internet search engines like our own instant external memory system. The researcher, Betsy Sparrow, explains this phenomenon using the rather old concept of transactive memory. In any long-term relationship or team, people typically develop a group, or transactive, memory. This is the combination of information held directly by individuals and information can access because they know someone who knows that information. Therefore, people are less likely to remember what they read online, but they could remember where they read it. This sounds efficient – as long as we have access to Google. However, the question remains whether the educational system and the economy will evolve to deemphasize the importance of the personal retention of information, or whether these young people will find themselves disadvantaged in a society with higher expectations with respect to their knowledge base.

Ding!

On a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, I ventured to the South Bronx to conduct a college admissions essay writing workshop at a church.  A high school classmate of mine contacted me on Facebook and asked if I could teach a workshop for her church’s annual college fair.  I jumped at the chance to give back to these students just an ounce of what I had so fortunately received as a high school honor’s student twenty years ago.  Loaded down with handouts and sample essays, I bummed a ride to the train from my sister to brave the onslaught of weekend service changes.  As the train meandered from the Northeast Bronx where I live, to the South Bronx where the workshop was being held, I wondered if I would be able to convey the importance of writing as a process to the high school students.

This was the first time I would be teaching a college admissions essay writing workshop, and for the most part I made no assumptions about the high school students, except that based on past experience teaching Verbal SAT courses, I was sure they would ALL be afflicted with “senior-itis.”   How does one get teenagers who’ve been in church all day to focus on writing an admissions essay?  How does one get teenagers to focus on something besides their electronic lovers (ipods, mp3s, phones)?

Luckily, my self-absorbed tendencies require undivided attention when I teach, so I began the workshop with getting the students to write a good hook.  I read my nephew’s draft college essay which left a lot to be desired, especially since he spent less than an hour writing it, and it showed.  Most of the students came to the same conclusion I did after reading my nephew’s draft, BORING.  After our collective symbolic yawn, I told them to write a hook.

One student wrote that she had overcome sooooo much and that she had accomplished a lot.  When I pushed her and made further inquiries as to the specific circumstances she overcame, I realized that for this young lady, her success was indicative of just being able apply to college.  No illness, no hardship, no impoverishment, no violent surroundings.  Nope, she was successful just because she was young, beautiful, and black and going to a college she had yet to apply to.  Don’t you just love the youth?

After pushing her and some other students further, I realized that it was the first time many of them recognized that writing was a process.  Then came the lightbulb moment for me, I was trying to convey to these students in less than an hour, practices that normally takes years to cultivate.  I pushed one energetic male student in particular, to come up with a hook and he just couldn’t do it.  Then I asked him what he loved to do, and he replied with his eyes and body lighting up like he was seeing fireworks for the first time: “Drums! I LOVE playing the drums!”  I asked him what the first sound his drums make when he plays.  He said: “DING!”  My last question to him was, “how does playing the drums make you feel?” He gave me one of the best hooks I’ve ever heard:  “When I play it’s like I’m creating something beautiful for the world, something magical that everyone can feel. It’s amazing!”  I said: “Well, there you have it, you have a hook and it begins with Ding! Congratulations!”

What followed was a strange few minutes of watching this creative young soul try to conform his great hook into an even more boring version of my nephew’s essay. This young passionate drummer questioned whether he “could really start his hook with, the word Ding?” After watching him try to ‘standardize’ his hook, I reminded him that he was applying to colleges specifically to be able to continue playing the drums during his collegiate career, and perhaps earn a music scholarship.  These admissions officers needed to be wowed by his essay, which should reflect his passion for music.  These students were uncomfortable writing for different audiences and writing different genres.   He didn’t realize that he wasn’t the typical college student applying to a liberal arts program, his writing had to be tailored to the musical interests he would continue to pursue in college.

I only had a few minutes to left to teach them about a good closer, and as usual there wasn’t enough time.  As I walked back to train station for the slow subway ride home, I could only hope that these students continued to work on their essays on their own time, and work through the process of writing.  How great would it be to come across a college essay that begins with a “ding” to take to a reader into the mind of this young man’s passion for drumming?  I hope he was brave enough to embrace his creative writing style.

Tomorrow I’ll meet with Baruch College students who have literature reviews due in two days.  I will consult with them on their papers and help them tailor their papers in way that their anthropology professor will find acceptable.  Hopefully, these students will embrace the different writing genres in the discipline and both they and their professor will be open to my advice.  When I sat down to write this blog piece, I only gave myself an hour to finish writing it.  Let’s just say I didn’t meet my time requirement.  Writing is a process, and in my struggle to write a good closer right now, I am reminded of my train ride to the workshop two weeks ago.  Sometimes the journey can be a meandering slow ride, especially when MTA isn’t going your way, but when I can express my passion for writing, teaching and helping students and be moved by one “ding!”  It was worth the ride.

 

The Accounting PhD: What? Why? How?

Matthew Broderick in The Producers (Sony PIctures, 2005)

Few people are as unpopular at a cocktail party as an accounting PhD student.  Okay, I jest.  But to anyone who has ever worried that their awkward attempts at networking chit-chat will bring a happy hour conversation to a screeching halt, please rest assured:  few things you come up with to fill the gaps in the “get-to-know-you” conversation will elicit a response that parallels the dull and confused stare that follows the statement, “I’m getting my PhD in accounting.”  It has happened to me time and time again.  People are simultaneously utterly bored and somewhat horrified that such a profession exists.

Lucky for me, the joke’s on you, cocktail party goer! Because the accounting PhD is, in my opinion, a rare gem of a profession.  It is a diamond in the rough of the working world:  a position that offers intellectual stimulation, opportunities to work with intelligent students and faculty, incredible autonomy, and an excellent job market offering competitive salaries all over the world.  So lest you too be left in the dark, like my fictitious (but all too real) happy hour chit-chatter, allow me to enlighten you, oh readers, on the what, why, and how of the accounting PhD.

What?

A doctorate in accounting is in most ways similar to the doctorate path in other disciplines in the social sciences.  Just like in other disciplines, accounting curricula require accounting professors:  the teacher/scholar model of the professor who teaches and researches in order to expand the body of knowledge in a particular area and educate the next generation.  Accounting research is not dissimilar from economics research, and (and here I generalize greatly for the sake of brevity) tends to examine such topics as the effects of accounting information on capital markets or the impact of recent accounting or auditing standards.  So, just like in any other discipline, a PhD in accounting is focused on preparing students for a career in academia where they will teach and conduct research at a business school.

The PhD is most often completed in 5-6 years for students entering the program with a masters’ degree.  This consists of 2 years of coursework, followed by comprehensive exams, both written and oral, and finally the dissertation.  The coursework covers many of the same areas as an economics PhD – microeconomic theory, econometrics, and applied economics – as well as research seminars in accounting and finance.  The latter may be the biggest shock to a PhD student coming from the public accounting world, as much of the research in our field is empirical quantitative research, and focuses heavily on an audience with a strong econometrics background (translation: it is a little bit hard to understand if you’re not used to all the math).

Why?

Over the past decades, fewer accounting professionals have chosen careers in academics, and the current population of accounting professors tend to be approaching or at retirement age.  The result has been a shortage of accounting PhDs and a substantial growth in salary.  In addition, enrollment in accounting programs at the undergraduate and graduate level has grown substantially over the last decade, largely as a result of the increased industry demand for CPAs.  This means more accounting faculty are needed to teach the growing student body.  The New York State CPA Journal estimated that, from 2005 to 2008, the new supply of accounting PhDs was only able to meet about 50% of the demand.  The failure of business schools to produce sufficient PhDs to meet demand has caused a spike in salaries.  The average salary for a new assistant professor at an AACSB-accredited business school was $118,500 in the 2005-2006 academic year.  This salary covers the 9-month academic year.  There is typically additional compensation available in the summer for either research or additional teaching.

In my experience, many self-motivated individuals enjoy a career in accounting academia for the autonomy it offers.  Unlike other accounting professions, which tend to require rigid time commitments, a strict hierarchy, and little autonomy, academia allows doctoral students and professors to work on topics they find interesting and to work with the colleagues of their choosing.  This is a great opportunity for self-motivated students: no one will stand over your shoulder and force you to be in the office at certain hours.  However, you are expected to produce research, and the work involved is time-consuming and competitive.  If you are the type of person who thrives when left to your own devices, this could be the career for you!

How?

The minimum requirements for admission vary by institution, but tend to include a B.A., M.A., or M.B.A. in accountancy and GMAT scores.  Only about 73 universities in the U.S. have granted PhDs in Accounting since 1999.  It can be competitive to gain admission into such a program, as substantial financial assistant is usually involved, including 4-5 years of tuition support, a living stipend in exchange for teaching or research work, and health insurance.

References/for more information:

http://www.nysscpa.org/cpajournal/2007/307/essentials/p66.htm

http://www.journalofaccountancy.com/web/pursuingaphdinaccounting