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Jul 28, 2023

Rethinking the Dissertation: Moving Towards Authenticity and Career-Relevance in Social Sciences

Higher education's traditional forms of assessment and instruction have long been the subject of critique, discussion, and reform. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than the capstone dissertation – a mainstay of doctoral studies in the social sciences including education. There is an increasing sentiment in academia that the traditional dissertation may not be the most useful or authentic form of scholarly work for students in these disciplines.

The dissertation is an unauthentic genre, as it often represents an academic exercise that a student is likely to engage in just once in their lives. This poses an interesting problem for social science students, as the disciplines they study tend to communicate primarily through papers, not monographs or books. While in humanities, a book is a conventional and widely accepted medium of communication, it is different in social sciences. Although there is an abundance of books in social sciences, they do not typically follow the structured format of a dissertation. Consequently, students learn to work with a genre that does not reflect the true nature of scholarly communication in their field.

As an alternative to the traditional dissertation, some institutions, particularly in Northern Europe, are embracing the "publishable papers" model. This model requires doctoral students to write three to four related papers of publishable quality. Some institutions even require that at least two of these papers be published or accepted for publication. The student then writes a brief overview detailing how the papers relate and the overarching point of the project.

This approach has several key advantages. Firstly, students acquire skills that are directly applicable to their careers, improving their academic writing and research abilities. Secondly, it enhances their publication record, increasing their competitiveness in the job market. Finally, the model benefits the institution, as published papers contribute positively to the reputation and ranking of the university due to their doctoral program affiliation.

In practice-oriented programs, like Education Doctorate (EdD) programs, the dissertation can feel especially incongruous. Students in these programs are learning to apply research skills to improve the organizations they lead, and neither a dissertation nor a traditional research paper truly reflects the kinds of documents they will be expected to produce in their careers.

Rather, these students should be writing reports, strategic plans, grant applications, accreditation reports, and papers for practitioner journals - the genres of communication that are native to their future careers. An academic approach that values these authentic forms of assessment is likely to be far more beneficial for students, better equipping them for their professional roles.

Resistance to changing the dissertation tradition often stems from faculty who believe that the way they were trained should be the standard for all students. There's an element of academic hazing in this attitude, an idea that you must "suffer through" dissertation writing to become a better scholar. But the truth is that academia is always evolving, and clinging to tradition for tradition's sake can hinder progress.

In summary, it's time for academia, particularly in the social sciences and education, to reconsider the traditional dissertation. We must ask ourselves: does the dissertation truly prepare our students for their careers, or does it simply perpetuate an outdated tradition? Is this the only genre where research skills can be assessed? Adopting an approach that promotes publishable papers or career-relevant genres of communication can make doctoral education more authentic, career-relevant, and beneficial for all stakeholders.

Jul 24, 2023

Every Exception Tends to Become a Precedent

A common saying in the legal world goes, "Hard cases make bad law." This proverb warns us that unique or extreme circumstances can lead to decisions that set undesirable precedents. When transferred to the academic setting, it takes on a similar cautionary tale: every exception tends to become a precedent. And in universities, as in many other organizations, flexibility is indeed an expensive luxury.

Universities are institutions governed by rules, regulations, and policies that establish a predictable and equitable environment for all. They are designed to ensure that everyone understands what is expected and how to achieve success. These rules aren't intended to stifle innovation or creativity but to create a fair and level playing field. 

However, the urge to accommodate exceptional circumstances or individual needs can sometimes lead us down a path of creating exceptions. Whether these exceptions are made out of empathy, a desire for inclusivity, or to facilitate academic progress, the result is the same: a divergence from the rule. And once an exception is made, the challenge begins: how to explain to everyone else that the rules still apply?

The dilemma becomes more complex when we consider that the criteria we thought were exceptional might turn out to be more common than anticipated. Perhaps a request initially deemed rare becomes increasingly frequent. Should everyone then be allowed the same leeway? The idealistic answer might be a resounding "yes," but the practicalities of running an educational institution often dictate otherwise.

Moreover, keeping exceptions a secret does no one any good. Even with the best intentions at heart, such hidden variations can create an atmosphere of mistrust and perceived unfairness. Suddenly, the act of kindness towards one individual morphs into a source of discontent among the masses. Compassion and good intentions can, paradoxically, damage group morale.

Yet, it would be unrealistic and even inhumane to argue that exceptions should never occur. Life is messy, complicated, and unpredictable. Exceptions will inevitably be needed and made. The challenge then lies in how we handle these exceptions.

To navigate this conundrum, it is crucial to establish a transparent process for exceptions. Such a process should have clear and consistent criteria, ensuring that exceptions are not arbitrary but based on well-defined circumstances. This approach does not merely promote fairness but also allows for flexibility where necessary without undermining the broader system of rules and expectations.

Each exception has the potential to become a precedent. Be mindful of the rules you bend today, for they may become the expectations of tomorrow. By handling exceptions with care, transparency, and consistency, we can maintain the trust and respect of our academic communities while still attending to the unique needs of individuals.

Jul 21, 2023

When to Get an 'A' and When to Settle for a 'C'

The thing is to differentiate between two key types of tasks in our work: let's designate them as Type A tasks and Type C tasks. Type A tasks are those where striving for excellence is mission critical. These are areas where you genuinely want to outperform, not merely because of the inherent satisfaction but primarily because the institution's success hinges on these tasks. Examples of Type A tasks include real program improvement, student recruitment, and initiatives aimed at enhancing student success. These tasks directly impact the quality of education offered, the reputation of the institution, and its overall success.

Conversely, Type C tasks represent those functions where the objective is to meet the requirements without investing an enormous amount of time and effort. Essentially, you're looking to get a C grade. Think of it as compliance or box-ticking tasks such as accreditation, program review, required training, and various other regulatory compliance tasks.

Herein lies a potential pitfall: attempting to get an A in every task. On the surface, it might seem like a commendable ambition to excel in all we undertake. However, in the context of higher education administration, it can be a dangerous distraction. By devoting resources, time, and energy to strive for an A on a Type C task, you are invariably sidelining a real Type A problem that warrants that dedication.

This brings us to a widespread syndrome I call "compliance disease." This is when compliance becomes the main focus and overshadows real growth and development. It's characterized by an individual or institution deriving a sense of achievement and satisfaction from excelling in tasks that should have been merely "satisfactory."

Afflicted by the compliance disease, people often forget that these tasks were actually intended to be on the C list. Excelling in tasks that need not have been prioritized at all is not an achievement; it's a misallocation of resources.

This isn't to belittle the importance of meeting compliance requirements; it's essential to any institution's survival. Feeling relief when an accrediting body gives your institution a clean bill of health is OK. However, considering it a significant accomplishment and a source of pride distorts the balance of priorities.

The core challenge in higher education, like many fields, lies in discerning the truly important tasks from the merely urgent or mandated ones. The most important tasks often go unsaid, unlisted, and undefined. They're the tasks we instinctively know are necessary but might hesitate to undertake due to their complexity or because they don't come with a neat set of guidelines.

In essence, the key is to know when to aim for an A and when to be satisfied with a C. A strategic allocation of efforts will ensure that the critical tasks, the real Type A, receive the attention, resources, and excellence they deserve, driving meaningful growth and progress in the landscape of higher education.

Jul 17, 2023

The Irony of the Irrational Ire

You know what's both fascinating and utterly bizarre? The tiny tempests that brew in teapots within the academic realm. People in these hallowed halls are supposed to be the vanguard of rational thinking and empathy, right? But how often they stew, steam, and explode over trivialities, maintaining grudges for years, even decades, is somewhat of an ironic riddle.

A tenured professor, holding onto a grudge like it's the last piece of chalk in the lecture hall because someone, ages ago, didn't get them the class schedule they wanted. It's like a performance of "Les Misérables," but instead of being about the plight of the French despondent class, it's about who got the cushy 10 am slot on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Where's the melodrama around the profound disagreements on the ontological nature of being, or intense debates about structural inequalities? They are replaced with seething resentment over who put and did not put with item on the meeting agenda, and who was thanked publicly, and who was not. Someone said a harsh word to me three years ago, and I cannot just get over it.

Surely this is just being human, right? We are, after all, a species both blessed and cursed with intense social emotions. But there's something particularly stinging about the persistence of these grudges within academia. Our supposed intellectuals, are so blinded by fury, they fail to see the common ground, the shared aspirations, the similar visions for making the world a better place. The inability to forgive and move all can be utterly astounding, and past offenses keep regenerating new ones automatically.

And isn't it paradoxical that this rage flourishes precisely because universities are, relatively speaking, fantastic places to work? There's no impending danger of being fired, no scarcity of resources threatening survival. Maybe it's that evolutionary itch to form cliques, assert dominance, protect territory, with no 'real' enemy to direct it at, that fuels these petty conflicts.

Here's the thing: We humans have this knack for identifying 'us' and 'them,' even when 'us' and 'them' are colleagues working in the same department, teaching the same courses, making the same little money.

Sometimes, the fallout from these academic wars is so severe, it begins to spill into student life. The classroom turns into a battlefield, with scholars enlisting partisan followers from among their students. Mutual complaints are launched with HR urging to investigate supposed crimes that sometimes are so tiny, one needs a microscope to see them. Suddenly, the pursuit of knowledge becomes secondary to navigating the social maze of these tempests in teapots.

I find myself dreaming of a world, or at least an academia, where people could muster the strength to behave just a smidgen better. Where disputes were settled through respectful dialogue and not through vendettas carried out across semesters. It's a small dream, a trivial thought, really. But imagine the difference it would make, the ideas that could bloom in an atmosphere stripped of resentment and filled with collaboration.

Jul 9, 2023

We have no right to hide from students that AI is a great tutor

AI platforms have presented us with an array of applications in education, some of which might invite controversy. Yet, one application stands out with its near-universal endorsement: AI-powered chatbots serving as personal tutors.

In medical research, some lengthy trials are occasionally suspended because the benefits of a new medication are so overwhelmingly apparent that it becomes unethical to delay making the new drug available to all. The same reasoning applies here. You may need time to consider whether writing with ChatGPT is justified, or you might feel uneasy about using AI to generate class assignments. However, we have reached a point where failing to encourage students to use chatbots for individual tutoring could be seen as an ethical lapse.

For educators, providing individual attention to students is both the most valuable and the scarcest commodity. Yet, AI chatbots like ChatGPT offer an abundance of it. The quality will never match human tutoring, but it's better than nothing. AI encompasses every subject and exhibits infinite patience. Its unique capacity to generate myriad examples and exercises tailored to a student's needs further underscores its unmatched utility in facilitating personalized learning.

Of course, speedy adoption doesn't equate to thoughtless adoption. The shortcomings of AI become apparent in advanced studies or when navigating the frontier of new theories and methodologies. Yet, even within these limitations, AI chatbots prove superior to existing alternatives, particularly in foundational subjects where students often struggle. This technology has the potential to bridge the socio-economic divide in education, providing universal access to a resource that was previously exclusive to those with substantial financial resources.

However, the responsibility of educators extends beyond simply providing students with this tool. Guiding students to use AI chatbots responsibly and effectively is paramount. Here's what I suggest for inclusion in most course syllabi:

"The instructor strongly encourages students to use ChatGPT as a personal tutor. Ask it to explain concepts you're having trouble understanding. Ask it to explain differently, using different examples. Ask it to test your understanding of difficult concepts. Ask it to provide feedback on your paper. DON'T ask it to do the work for you – you'll learn little from that."

I would also encourage every instructor to hold a demo session in class to show how to use ChatGPT as a personal tutor.

Jul 3, 2023

A university is not a kayak

It is summertime when university administrators like me, retreat into quiet reflection. We sift through the rubble of the past academic year's accomplishments and mishaps, tallying up gains and losses, and laying down steppingstones towards the future. Today, my thoughts stray towards the nature of progress in higher education.

By every standard, our progress is slow. It's a ponderous march, not a sprint. Despite the leaps and bounds in technology and the world around us, no radical shifts occur. The wheel of progress turns, but it turns slowly and persistently. It's like an age-old clock, marking time in rhythmic, unhurried ticks. We experience growth, we take strides forward, but invariably, there are setbacks that stem from external forces like budgetary constraints, pandemics, or shifting demographics.

Perhaps this pace is inherent to our institutions' nature. Each fresh wave of students that sweeps through our gates demands teaching, mentorship, and support. It's as though we're forever swimming against a strong current, keeping our heads above the water, straining against the powerful pull of the new generation. Our tasks are cyclical, with a heavy focus on organizing classes, staffing them, maintaining standards, ensuring accreditation, among other responsibilities. Balancing this perpetual whirlwind of activity, keeping the lid on chaos, is a mammoth task in itself.

Of course, all universities have their developmental agendas, their grand visions, strategic plans, and ambitions of leaders eager to usher in change. We make plans, we chart paths, we aim high, and yet, being completely realistic, the pace of change is excruciatingly slow. It's hard to pin down the tangible effects of a specific leader or strategic plan. The progression of a university, in many ways, is more akin to natural evolution than a well-defined construction project.

As I sit here planning for the next year, I ponder which levers to pull, which buttons to push, to guide our ship in the right direction. A university is a colossal entity, a behemoth that moves of its own accord, resistant to swift, sweeping changes. You cannot steer it like a nimble kayak, making sharp turns at a moment's notice. You have to coax it, gently, persistently, and with a considerable amount of patience.

We must be realistic about the challenges we face and curb our expectations of quick victories. Navigating the ship of higher education requires patience, foresight, and a deep understanding of the institution's intricate workings. It's about applying the right amount of pressure at the right time, about steering this mammoth ship on its predestined course, against all odds. It's about embracing the slow march of progress, for slow and steady, as the old fable reminds us, does indeed win the race.