Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Seeing the forest...and the trees

We call them Instructor and Course Evaluations and I just received the latest ones.  I tell students that I separate the feedback forms (we are in the midst of a transition to electronic feedback, so this is the last time I'll be able to use this process) into three groups based upon the pattern of responses to the 21 computer-scored statements on the front.  The three groups I use are (1) Walks on Water, (2) Spawn of Satan, and (3) Other.  I glance at the Walks on Water data to see where I could do better, I ignore the Other pile, and I study the Spawn of Satan pile to see just how many students were dissatisfied and in what areas.  I realize (and explain to students) that I am neither good enough to walk on water nor bad enough to be a true spawn of the devil, but I understand how the process works when student feedback is limited to a one-shot event.

So, after reviewing the front sheet, I turn all the forms over to the section for student comments and pull out the forms with writing.  Then I read the comments carefully, trying to understand the feedback and glean what I can for the next semester.  This is my favorite comment from the latest group:

She presents the material from the book effectively, but the assignments that we do that supplement the simulation are ambiguous and it's hard to know exactly what she wants.  Then she grades somewhat hard so that makes it difficult.  The grading system has changed in some parts and I'm still confused on what I'm actually being graded on.  But she is a good lecturer and does care about the students.  She enjoys teaching and is passionate about the subject so I respect that.  She is a little sassy but keeps it tolerable most of the time.  Overall, she is better than most I've had in (the department).

What I like is the student's ability to provide constructive, useful feedback...and how accurately my challenges and successes for the semester were evaluated.  I did struggle with grading this required course taught by multiple instructors.  I'll struggle with it again next semester, as I try to balance the content we are all expected to teach with the content I think is more useful and interesting to the students.  And, in the midst of that balancing act, I'll wrestle again with how to evaluate (aka grade) both the common content and the unique content.  Clearly, I have room for improvement.

But what I like even better is the student's ability to see both strengths and weaknesses.  We talk in class about how giving and receiving feedback is often challenging, both in professional roles and in personal roles.  The tendency to allow one or two areas of difficulty, disagreement, or disappointment to skew perception of the whole is far more prevalent than the ability to see both the parts and the whole.

I can't take credit for this student's ability to provide useful feedback, but I can certainly gain from it.  I'm not at all opposed to some ambiguity in assignments, but I can provide more clarity and a bit more consistency when it makes sense to do so.  I'll continue to be passionate...and probably won't worry too much about being a little sassy.  Some days, it's the only coping mechanism I have.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Though I generally try to take both the high road and the optimistic perspective, it's harder some days than others.  As I begin my personal transition from several months of full-time project management back to teaching next semester, I am struck by the stark contrast between academia and what we'll just call The Real World.

The contrast is not just in my own line of sight, but also in the communication I receive from former students.  And it may the academic version of iatrogenesis.

Colleges and universities are both institutions of higher learning and institutions of hiring.  And it's the hiring part that seems somewhat quaint and curious, when compared to other employers.  In what may very well be a historical relic, colleges and universities strive to protect academic "freedom" through a process of granting a tenured or hired-for-life (essentially) status to those academics who devote themselves to studying and writing about their chosen discipline or subject.

The unintended consequence of a search for someone willing to start early, focus on a subject matter (researching, writing, publishing), and provide value to the university in return for the hiring investment is the early identification of potential tenured faculty members while they are finishing their own doctoral programs.  In fact, the last year of the doctoral program is understood to be heavily focused on interviewing with hiring institutions of higher learning.  And this is where the disconnect begins, I think.

The brightest doctoral students become the most-sought-after junior faculty members.  They continue to delve into their chosen fields, standing upon the shoulders of the learned who came before them, and adding to the body of knowledge through their research and writing.  And they are entrusted with teaching in their chosen field, the field in which they are experts.  They become specialists who teach what they have studied.

What seems missing in this equation is the practical application of a subject matter or expertise, since the majority of the students in a four-year undergraduate program will be hired by non-academic employers.  And it's those non-academic employers who are seeking problem solving ability, critical thinking, teamwork, innovation, and a nimble responsiveness to change.  Today, this does not appear to be a workable  model.