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May 29, 2008

The wheel reinvention factory

How long does it take to develop a course syllabus? For a course you taught for many times, it still takes a couple of days: to change the calendar, to tweak assignments and grading rubrics, to update reading lists, to order books, etc. If it is a new course, or a significantly revised one, it can take weeks. That is exactly what I did this week: revised a graduate course I taught once before. It is a labor-intensive process, and results of it are often imperfect. It took me at least five years to get my undergraduate Social Foundations class where I wanted it to be, and I had more time to play with curriculum back then. For this course, I do not have all the time in the world, and simply cannot invest two weeks in it. Considering I may or may not teach it in the future, this might not be a vise investment of time.

Of course when I see something takes too much time or effort, my brain starts churning. After all, every time we do it, we reinvent the wheel. The mental process of an instructor follows more or less the same patterns: What do I want them to learn? (Learning objectives). What kinds of activities and assignments can work to help them learn? What sources have the main concepts and fact? How can I make sure they learned what they need to learn? How to make grading system clear and fair? How to space all of this throughout the course in a logical manner? And finally, how to explain it all in a syllabus? Those are fairly common, repeatable questions, which from a semblance of an algorithm. Moreover, there are only a limited number of answers to each question, and each choice narrows the choices in the next step. For example, most courses' learning objectives include mastering certain concepts, and certain facts, as well as development of certain skills. While the number of concepts is unlimited, the skills are limited: those are skills of reasoning/thinking, and performance kinds of skills (how to present information, to speak, to show, etc.). The facts can also be broken down into, say, dates, names, statistics, cases. But then, if your course is heavy on concepts and their applications, there are only limited choices on how to help people learn concepts. For example, you can give a case, and show the concept at work. Or, you can define it. Then you always want people to use concepts in context different from the original example, so you can be sure students learned to use the concept. Then you can test how sophisticated is their use of a concept by asking to use it in a more difficult case, etc., etc. Class schedule narrows down the choice of activities. A 3-hour class cannot contain only lecture or only discussion; it must have some combination of various activities. Also, there are really a limited number of activities, and they are all good for a specific task. Let's see, there are lectures, demonstrations, large class discussions, small group discussions, debates, simulations and simulation games, skits, teaching segments… OK, probably about a dozen more. Still, not unlimited. Those can be classified by engagement level, and focus on content, by instructor-led vs. student-led. I am just giving some examples, so do not expect complete lists.

This really does look like an algorithm. Can a computer program take guesswork out of this, so I don't forget any important steps? For example, imagine smart software like this: You want to design a course?

  • Step One: Please enter the key concepts you want to teach (it looks for definitions, so you only need to pick one out; it also looks through Goggle Scholar to suggest key readings). OK, which skills from this list are the most important? Great. Which facts do you want students to know and understand: Enter names (it churns out an internet search on them), historical events (does the same). Will they need to know any demographic, economic or other facts? Or copy and paste appropriate profession standards, so we can analyze them for concepts, skills, and attitudes.
  • Step two: it tells you your course is overloaded with concepts and facts; please reduce to make it appropriate for sophomore level.
  • Step three: Identify your time budget: contact classroom hours, homework hours, grading hours. Here is a list of appropriate activities. Each takes so much time from classroom contact time, so much home work, and so much grading time. If you select one, it reduces the budget until you exhaust it all.
  • Step three: here is the recommended mix of activities and assignments, based on your schedule. And here is a list of suggested assessments; select from the list.
  • Step four: check your course, click here to print the syllabus. Click here to generate and edit classroom activities handouts.
  • After each class, rate activities and assignments, so the system learns which ones actually work, and which do not. Share the learning curve with other professors teaching the same course.

The point of automating tasks is that more time can be spent on actually creative, deep thinking about teaching. It is also to minimize omissions, miscalculations of time and effort, poor grading practices, repetitive activities, vagueness of objectives, mismatch between objectives and assignments, between what we teach and what we assess. This is no more complicated than the TurboTax; it uses the same level of algorithmic complexity.

Anyone wants to go in business with me? We can pitch this to a venture capital firm, raise 2-3 mln, and pay ourselves nice salaries for 5 years, waiting for this to succeed. Or fail.

May 23, 2008

The language regime

Over the last weekend, I attended my son's graduation. On Monday through Wednesday, I spent a lot of time on a grant application. On Thursday I drove by Windsor that was hit by a tornado, and saw the destruction on TV. I also got rid of weeds in our yard, cooked myself a meal, read a book, and answered a few e-mails. How do you put all these events next to each other? We are always forced to distinguish important from unimportant, to rank the events in our lives according to some obscure principle. But what is it? The tornado is of course, the biggest news story. Some 200 homes and businesses are damaged; one person died. Nothing can be more important than that at the moment. However, human brain is a peculiar thing, and the smallish, unimportant thoughts and concerns will pop in and crowd out the most important ones. The mind wonders in different direction, and does not seem to care what we acknowledge to be more or less important. We hide it of course. When a tornado hits the town next to you, you do not share with other people the concern about yard weeds, and how to get them out without killing your good plants. Sharing such a thought would appear to be callous and inconsiderate of others. I remember in the days following 9-11, all conversations not related to the tragedy dropped for a while, and comedy shows were cancelled for about a month. In fact, we always carefully censor topics of our conversations, bringing up what looks appropriate, and hiding silly, insignificant, or strange thoughts we have. The appearance of normalcy is heavily dependent on our ability to project an appropriate image through words.

This is how we operate, and not just in time of the disaster. Most people underestimate the degree to which we all self-censor our speech. This is one reason it is so difficult to figure out what people really think. In fact, we don't really want to know what others are thinking. A device that actually reads minds would have been a social disaster, because we all are so used to the barrier between thought and speech. We would be shocked and disappointed at the mixture of inappropriate, bizarre, random, and trivial thoughts in other people's minds – because we are not fully aware of the mess inside our own heads. I am writing this as a blogger; as someone who needs to constantly organize his thoughts for public consumption. But all of us edit our thoughts all the time, and this editing, in a larger sense, constitutes social norms. The inner censor is so strong, it can push the entire levels of thought completely under the level of awareness, which creates the subconscious. The most serious taboo thoughts are so unspeakable, they also become unthinkable (yeah, Freud again, but also Bourdieu and Voloshinov, if you're curious).

We also have mechanisms of thwarting the inner censor from time to time. It is very important to do so, because much of creativity stems from our ability to hold off the censorship. Humor is one such mechanism. When you say something everyone else thinks but does not dare to say, that's funny... up to a certain degree. And laughter is probably just a social signal to let people know they violated certain social norm, but not too much. So, laughter is the first warning, anger is the second warning. A mental illness diagnosis or a prison sentence is the third and final warning. These are the society's lines of defense against its members' chaotic brains.

I am thinking about language: which discourse is permissible, and which is not. I was recently told that at least some of my colleagues are offended by my use of "Jesus" as an emotional/humorous expression. I had no idea and am thankful to friends who let me know. And I am sorry if it offended anyone. However, I just watched the news, and don't believe the level of policing the language applied to our political candidates is healthy. They are now not only expected to heavily police their own speech, but also be responsible for things their supporters say. Where is the line that separates the good censor from the bad one?

It is my hope that we, in our School, will have a language regime that is teetering between common decency and certain tolerance. This is not just because I am particularly attach to certain expressions, or want to make my life easier, or impose my language regime onto others. No, it is simply a concern for the spaces of humor, creativity, and tolerance to remain open. We are a rowdy bunch, with many interesting, diverse personalities and beliefs, which is what makes me so happy to be here. To make our little community work, we must both be sensitive to each other's rules of discourse, and be very tolerant to those who violate them. Some of us find the casual usage of the word Jesus offensive; others are sensitive to verbal indications of sexism, racism, classism, and ableism. There are many other nuances, such as who is from where, who has been here longer, who went to which school, and who is a more productive scholar or better teacher. It is very easy to offend someone inadvertently. However, one can always refuse to be offended, and laugh instead. So, let's use the first warning signal often and generously, and hold off the second warning as much as we can.

May 1, 2008

Flexible but sticky

At the end of the academic year, I reflect on what worked and what did not, and if there is any pattern that separates the two kinds of projects. Unfortunately, my little self-analysis does not bring that many generalizations. No discernable pattern emerges. For example, projects that I thought were well thought out, and on which we worked really hard, did not materialize (for example the off-campus cohort in Alamosa), for reasons beyond our control. Others I considered to be risky, worked out just fine (both the checkpoint system and the new student teaching placement database). Where I did not expect any complications (our scanning project), such complications occurred. Things I thought really simple and doable (the study abroad in Siberia project) did not work. Most of our projects are still working themselves into something definite, the jury is still out. For example, we are yet to see if the massive revision of the Elementary program will bring real results. We don't know if our Secondary Postbac program will work or not. Some projects appeared from nowhere, they were simply opportunities: The Jordan Early Childhood grant project, or the Content Reading project, or the partnership with Association of Retired Educators. Many other things though worked out about as expected and did not create major surprises one way or another. We worked hard on NCTATE reports and State reauthorizations, and both went well so far. I wanted to sign a book contract, and it took longer than expected, but it happened. I worked on my last PES conference, and it went on as planned, more or less. Many of my colleagues did a lot of great things, and I am sure they all have had a successful year. But not everything worked as planned.

OK, this is getting tedious. But all I want to say is that there is not a lot of predictability in what we do, and good planning and good effort do not guarantee success, although make it much more likely. The world of a university like ours is not all that stable; it has much fuzziness, and changes fast. What shall we do in a world like this? My strategy is to diversify efforts. We should always pursue slightly more projects than we are able to maintain. This is simply because not all of them will succeed. However, it is also important to identify priorities, in which if one attempt fails, we should get back on our feet and just start over again; try something new. For example, there might be temporary defeats, but no failure in three areas (there are probably more; this is just an example):

  • We must work on improving curriculum and pedagogy. It does not work as fast as I would like, and perhaps it should go slowly, but we will be doing it until we all are dead. This is what business people call our core business, and everything depends on our ability to train teachers as good or better than anyone else in the world. Whatever else is going on, whatever budget crises or economic collapses, we need to do our thing well.
  • We must have a little extra money to have some sense of self-respect. Although we are relatively low-paid, we should always be able to travel to conferences, to have comfortable chairs, and working computers. If the civilization ends, and everyone goes back to the Stone Age, we should have decent stones to sit on. I just think it is important; small but important.
  • I think we should constantly work on fairness and morale. This includes evaluation processes, many big and small decisions, and the climate in which we work. Again, it does not just happen without constant, multi-year effort.

The challenge is to be opportunistic and adventurous, but still stick to the most fundamental concerns, and never lose sight of them.

Of course, this is a bit of wishful thinking. The reality is such that problems and successes come and go. Every day brings something different, and we all forget about something, we drop the ball, ignore that memo, etc. In truth, some of the projects (not listed above) did not work because we screwed up; OK, I screwed up. Flexible but sticky is just a phrase, perhaps it is my understanding of the ideal. This is how organizations should work, not necessarily how we work. My hope is that we will develop that style eventually. We will be highly mobile, creative, and opportunistic, but will cling doggedly to what is really important to us, and never let it go.