About Me

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Policy provokes me to think and write. I currently work in ivory towers inspiring people to engage in their world. I am a student of the human condition and my classroom is the world. I don't need credentials to have an opinion but I've got paper to prove I know a few things about public health, social welfare and economics. I'm coming out of the tower and taking the words to the people and hope you will send some words back at me.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Ye Old University
The library at Trinity College, Dublin
I went to the old university. A place where professors gave midterms and finals or 100% finals and you did not complain unless your case was airtight. And you only went to see the professor if you had worked on the problem for hours on end and now your headache would not go away or if you needed a signature to drop out of the class. I also saw my advisor once a year. Tops. If I had a question. Otherwise, I followed the course listing for my major and got about it.

In this old university, I was given a long list of books to read and if I did not read them I would fail because I could not answer the questions on the really challenging final. (Or if I was really on the ball I would analyze one paragraph for 12 pages so someone thought I read the whole thing. Don't think I finished reading Durkheim but got an A in my sociology class on Durkheim: Writing is a really, really useful skill:). Or at the very least I would sound stupid when I got asked a question. In my quant classes I had to spend hours upon hours doing problem sets (and I'm real good at numbers) that made some of my colleagues cry or surrender to the help of a tutor.

In the old university, we could find most of our books in the library if we could not afford to buy them, and our tuition could be earned in the summer and paying for living expenses could be mostly handled by a job off campus. (Note: I did go to school in Canada but in the same period a public university in the USA was also 'affordable').

In the old university, I did not evaluate my professor probably because noone thought I was qualified to do so given s/he had a PhD and I was some little twerp who only knew what it was to be a student and nothing on how to be a teacher. Also it was assumed, I suppose, that if I passed then I had learned.

The New University

But I teach in the new university: a place where students AND THEIR PARENTS (another topic altogether but intricately tied to this one) expect that there will be lots of 'support' for their learning. And exactly what they are supposed to be learning seems to be better articulated in terms of charts and tables and fancy terms such as 'learning objectives' and 'learning outcomes' that are tied to accreditation and the university's outcomes and it all links together with lines going in every direction and in every color and yet, I still teach the same stuff I was taught. However, now I must measure their learning in a multiplicity of ways so that I spend almost as much time grading as I do teaching.

MacEwan Student Center, University of Calgary
In the new university, everyone is worthy of an A if they achieve the targets of the 'grading rubric' that tells them how to get an A and should they not get an A, they can challenge that grade all the way up the chain of command, usually with Mommy and Daddy pitching in on the whys and wherefores of Johnnie's worth for an A. I dared to tell a class that if they all got an A then it was a meaningless A, and the traumatized looks on their faces told me that they did not give a care for what a bell curve means.

Of course, should they not get their A with the 'regular' assignments, there are lots of ways to get 'extra credit' - a concept that somehow creeped into my classes but are scheduled for an exorcism. As for the concept of a 'study guide', I am not sure how these got started but somehow after reading the books, doing the assignments, and coming to lectures I am supposed to tell them what to study. I am still unclear on this point despite numerous attempts on my student's behalf to explain to me the point of a test of which the contents are known. Even the notion of an 'open-book test' is still very confusing (oxymoronic?) to my rigid post-colonial (British) concept of 'exam'.

And this new university is a university in which student failure reflects badly on those ratings by US News and World Report , Princeton Review and whoever else is measuring how quickly we graduate students, how they feel about us, blah blah.... so we must do everything to not let Susie fail. This includes alerting advisers to the fact that Susie has not been in class for days or failed the last assignment etc. which is clearly a sign that Susie needs "support" to facilitate her graduation; as if $30k a year in tuition and $thousands in books is not enough motivation. And as I refuse to take attendance, remembering the last day Susie was in class is a real problem for me. (Attendance is not a proxy for any adult learning outcome that I can think of so why measure it?)

But my most favorite part (NOT!) of the new university is that student's rate my teaching. People who do not know the subject or pedagogy get to decide who gets a raise and how much or whether someone gets tenure or a long-term adjunct contract. What makes a 'good course'? And do students know what that is? If I make the course really hard, is it good that they are challenged even if they fail because it was so hard? Does a student know what 'active learning' is? What is an 'effective' instructor? One that makes your head hurt with really hard questions? Or one that has pretty pictures and orderly bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation that follows along the textbook so the student does not really have to read? Is it the professor who takes you on a rambling intellectual journey through stories or gives you an agenda for each class? Or is it the one who evaluates at midterm and then tweaks the class to suit the students so that a good review is assured?

There are teachers that get outstanding reviews from students and absolutely horrible reviews from others who sat in the same room. And in the new university, our job is to 'contextualize' our evaluations from our students (though I'm beginning to think of them as 'consumers' given how much they drive 'production') should we not get great ones. And given that our merit increase is partially based on the student's evaluation of our pedagogical skills, we exercise our intellectual abilities to theorize why Johnny and Suzie thought us wanting. So what if Susie thought she learned nothing and yet did advanced statistics after 10 weeks? Or if Johnnie thought he learned no policy at all but just got offered a policy internship because of the great policy work he did? What matters is if Johnnie or Susie THOUGHT they learned something. My A or B is not enough validation of their learning.

The Future University

I spent several weeks at the London School of Economics and Political Science during the summer of 2011 in the company of a much younger cohort of economics students from all over the world and there I got a taste of the old university again. How wonderful it tasted: harsh, anonymous grading, no return of assignment, no challenging of grade, lots of hard reading. I even failed a writing assignment for the first time in 5 degrees: A 3-page writing assignment on the US welfare system. Ohhh the crushing pain of that given that's what I teach back here in the good ole USA. But hey, no challenging of the grade. And the comment on the grade page said I was a poor writer and my first 2 pages should be tossed. Of a 3 page assignment. Ouch!!!! Doesn't matter that I'm a budding economist learning a new language (same concepts different words) and trying to repath my neurons and have my dendrites fire differently. It was crushingly humiliating to be the failing professor of social policy in a public finance class!!! But I sucked it up. Had no choice. My students have no notion of suck it up.

But I also got a taste of the new university because to get one's grade or Certificate of Attendance, we had to complete an on-line evaluation; no evaluation? No grade. Effective use of coercion to get 100% return of evaluations.

So it may be that the future university lays somewhere in-between the old and the new. Or perhaps we in the USA will exhaust ourselves on ever expanding maitrices of interlocking objectives that serve as our instrument of 'factory inspection' that says we reached  objectives 1 through 6 even though our 'product' may still be faulty. Maybe then we will return to the beautiful simplicity of a mid-term/final dynamic duo or the unitary 100% paper still so common across Europe. Or it could be that the whole mess ends up online and I stand in front of an audience scattered around the world. Or maybe I just write the stuff and facilitate in the cybersphere as students' avatars practice counseling virtual clients.

Or maybe we can be like Coca Cola: never changing the formula, just the packaging and the marketing.

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