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Feb 22, 2013

Scholarship at a teaching college

Institutions like RIC face a dilemma. On one hand, we are a teaching college. Despite a few kinks, the culture of quality teaching and advising is extremely strong here. The absolute majority of faculty members take teaching very seriously; they spend enormous time and effort on getting better at it. They expect and demand much from each other. Our graduates would recommend RIC to their family and friends at the rate of 3.35 out of 4 (3 is agree, 4 –strongly agree). On the other hand, the institution needs a mechanism to ensure that faculty keep current in their academic fields. The only known way to do it is to check if they write and publish; preferably in peer-reviewed journals. The institution is interested in your writing only as much as it makes you stay relevant. It is especially important in graduate education: one has a very hard looking credible without a record of original scholarship.

With teaching, there is a powerful structure and incentive; your classes are scheduled, you have to show up, and look competent to your students. With scholarship, there is no schedule; it is entirely self-paced and self-motivated. When the time is precious, it is very easy to put it off for another day or a week, or a month – until after I am done with my SPA report, after I am done with grading, after I revise that course, etc. Just like with exercise or any other discipline, rewards are distant, and sacrifice is immediate. It is also ethically complicated, because teaching, advising, and most service make visible impact on lives of real people. Publishing may feel abstract, remote and not that consequential. Google tells me all my writings in both languages over quarter of century were cited 425 times. For comparison, Eric Hanushek’s scholarly writings were cited 30,462 times. Let’s admit it, most of us aren’t influential scholars. Even this very obscure blog had 64,822 page views since 2006. Give me just one motivating reason to keep writing scholarly papers and books.

Organizational needs often conflict with people’s life circumstances, psychology, and interests. Organizations and people adapt and accommodate. For example, RIC/AFT Agreement allows for a great variety of evidence of professional competence. While peer-reviewed publications are still the gold standards, it is reasonable to expect faculty integrating their teaching, service, and scholarship in many different ways. Publications for practitioners, certain forms of grant writing, service to professional communities – all these count. More can be done if we listen to some of the behavioral economic advice; see for example the Nudge blog and book. They basically say that small tweaking of rules and incentives can sometimes produce significant changes in people’s behavior. It happens when we consider the actual circumstances in which people live and work, and are not trying to change them. Here are some possible ideas:
  • Syllabus, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes good course syllabi. Oh, wait, this has been done already :)
  • “What I am working on” web page. It makes one’s work more public and less isolated. 
  • Encourage/incentivize writing groups among faculty. Even a small nudge here could make writing more fun, more engaged, and more visible. 
  • Encourage class projects that result in publications. In general, co-writing with students may feel like great service to them, and allows one to stay current. 
  • More specific tracking and accountability (to include publications) after new faculty reassigned time, AFT research reassigned time, and sabbatical leave. 
  • Serving as a reviewer for scholarly journals can be a great way to continue reading current research, because it does have deadlines, and expectations of quality. We should learn value and acknowledge it more as a form of real scholarship. 
And finally, I wonder if we can shorten the logical chain: Reading new literature->writing one’s own papers->using new knowledge in teaching. The middle link is there only because we could not figure out another way to prove that one is keeping up with one’s field. What if instead of publishing a paper, one would curate an on-line resource that reflects the new development in one’s field, for example with, or with a libguide – something that our Adams Library encourages people to do anyway. I know this sounds risky and won’t work for all academic fields, but still, why not rethink the whole problem within the new informational world we live in now? The trick is to figure out an equivalent of peer review – the only known way of controlling for quality of scholarship. But curating in general emerges as more and more important knowledge activity. I would rather read a well-curated secondary source than a mediocre piece of original writing. 

Feb 15, 2013

Selling student teaching and the communicative ecosystem

For the last two years, we have been worrying about student teaching placements. The new teacher evaluation system is making it harder with every semester. Teachers worry about student achievement, and are reluctant to give up control over their classrooms even for a few weeks. Many also feel stressed about the new system and don’t have time and energy to give to student teachers. They are especially disinclined to spend time bringing them up to speed on their immediate worries – SLO’s, teacher evaluation artifacts and rubrics. District officials further restrict our options, rightfully worrying that for some schools, student teachers would be a distraction.

We saw this coming for a while, and planted some seeds. Eileen Sullivan and Rainy Cotti, with quite a few of our colleagues from HBS and some other partner schools have piloted the Co-teaching in Student Teaching model; something we adopted from St. Cloud’s University in Minnesota. The Blackstone Valley School pilot is another version of the same idea. We kept talking about it, accumulating ideas. What if student teachers brought something with them, like a resource or a cool PD idea? What if we could guarantee that they know something about SLO’s?

There is a time when you have to collect all the smaller ideas and assemble them into one larger package. Why? Because what we need to do is to send a simple and clear message – a student teacher is not a liability, but an asset. You do not lose anything, but gain something. That’s the thing with messaging – sometimes you cannot get across a series of small incremental improvements; you need to make a case that we’re qualitatively changing the whole concept of student teaching. So this week, Karen, Eileen, Kim and I went to Donovan for lunch and tried to assemble the package. Here is the resulting draft.

The act of collecting a number of small ideas, trying to see a theme, a pattern – this is an increasingly important method of our work. We live in the age of hyper-effective communication. Thoughtful messaging is very important, simply because the communication space is so crowded. Our audiences are slowly developing the skill of message triage: if they suspect that someone did not work hard on making the message effective, they will tune out. In the past, the investment into communication was measured by expensive paper, good print, glossy photos. However, as these old signals become less and less expensive, it is the quality of the message itself that begins to play this role. Did you assemble small messages into one? Did you address my needs? Do you know me? Do you care enough to edit your message to the essential? Does it look good? Is it skimmable? Most of us by now have learned to ask these questions of the communications directed at us, but we’re long way from being able to answer them when we’re the messengers.

We live in the world where every communication becomes an act of advertising. It may rub someone in the wrong way, but I would argue this is going to a better world. It is a world where more and more people will learn to be better communicators. Teaching is better when we carefully craft and edit our messaging. Working with colleagues is better if we respect each other’s time and attention spans. (I am still being copied on two colleagues’ attempts to set up a meeting for just the two of them J). The ecosystem of human communications is definitely evolving. The species of smaller, purer, more powerful messages is evolving, and it is the survival of the fittest out there.

So, we need your wisdom and your help. We need this draft to be perfect. For example the name of the re-branded student teaching is terrible. (We briefly considered Teachers-In-Training, but disliked the acronym). The whole thing is still too long and confusing. We need to tailor it to superintendents, to principals, and to classroom teachers; all with different needs and agendas. Please edit, comment, brainstorm!

We have not yet considered if we can actually add these new requirements to students, but that is a parallel, and important conversation. Don’t worry, we will go through it item-by-item with chairs. But it is also the feature of the new world that we must weigh our actions not only by their internal merit, but also by how communicable they are.

Feb 8, 2013

Things to do during storm

To do 

  1. Watch bad movies out of Red Box 
  2. Play board and/or video games 
  3. Snack 
  4. Drink tea, then wine, then whisky 
  5. Look out the window 
  6. Remember previous storms’ stories 
  7. Wear pajamas all day 
  8. Play with the dog and/or cat 
  9. Watch nice houses on coastline flooded 
  10. Catch up on Facebook 
  11. Fantasize about the end of the world and your survival strategies 
  12. Write a very short blog 

Not to do

  1. Any kind of useful work 
  2. Walk the dog 
  3. Drive anywhere 
  4. Answer work-related emails 
  5. Clean the house 
  6. Watch good movies 
  7. Wear nice clothes (skip the shower, too) 
  8. Exercise 
  9. Shovel driveway 
  10. Stock on food, water, and batteries 
  11. Watch the Weather Channel 
  12. Grade

Feb 1, 2013

Peripheral awareness

I don’t know much about most of the things that are going on in our School. Each course is a little novel, with its plot and character development; every faculty committee is a think-tank or a management team, with its own dynamics. We have many projects, big and small, successful and so-so, long and short. I cannot know about all of this, and this is just fine. The only problem with not knowing –I cannot thank and recognize everyone and learn from their work. 

There is a class of things I am directly involved with, know many details, and sometimes help plan and execute. It is not always a rational choice, and I should definitely learn to be better at delegation. Sometimes there is simply no choice, because no one else can do it, or there is no time to delegate.

And then there is a vast area in between – things that I am peripherally aware of. That means I simply know the story, but not in any detail. It is an incredibly important sort of knowledge. What it allows me to do is to match various people’s interests, resources, experiences, precedents to problems we are trying to address. And this belongs to the core function of academic leadership – the ability to match problems with solutions. The trick is to know enough to see a possible connection, but not too much to be overwhelmed by the information. The half-way, vague awareness of what people are doing or are capable of doing has its own specific nature, probably its own laws of memory we do not quite understand.

Here is a small example: last night I was at the School Support network fair RIDE put together for turn-around schools. We were offering just three packages: TESL, Ed. Leadership, and the Restorative Practices course. However, a principal asked if we have something for parent support. I said no, nothing in a form that we can offer. However, a couple of hours later I finally was able to remember – yes, we have a PD project proposal Andres submitted on last year, which is about a workshop for Latino parents. Now I can reach out to them and make a match. And things like that happen quite frequently. If I can’t make a connection, I will reach out to A-Deans, chairs – people who are also aware and peripherally aware of many things.

People tried to solve this problem with the help of technology, and in some cases, it can be done. However, a problem and a solution often do not recognize each other even when they meet; they describe themselves in mutually incomprehensible terms, and the potential link is lost to a computer. A human brain is still the best machine for identifying loosely defined patterns, or for connecting seemingly dissimilar things. I wish I knew a way to get better at peripheral awareness. I would also like to get more essential updates from people. Like anyone else, I hate being copied on messages where people discuss something that is their business. However, I always truly appreciate “I think you should know what we’re doing” messages; I’d like to have more of them, even though it is a little more work to summarize what happens than to forward me a 20-page long e-mail string (of which I am also guilty of, with respect to my superiors). But ultimately, it is my job to be aware of many things, if only vaguely.