Teaching with My Whole Palette

All told, I have probably spent 20 full person-years in college and university classrooms. I’ve taught courses in sociology, public policy, information science, design, philosophy, and geography. I’ve taught studios, labs, lectures, workshops, and seminars. I’ve taught in small liberal arts colleges and public and private R1 universities. If you commission me to teach or design a course, I bring to the task a lot more than just my experience and “domain expertise” and (hopefully) wisdom. I bring to the task a whole lot of STUFF. An attic and garage and toolbox full of STUFF. Time was that stuff was in filing cabinets, notebooks, and stack of paper in my university and home offices. Now it’s mostly on the hard drive of my computer or stored in the cloud.

That stuff is the palette from which I can paint a course.

I’ve got syllabi and draft syllabi, bibliographies, annotations of readings, outlines of readings, PDFs of readings, diagrams of the argument logic of books and articles, lecture notes, scripts for videos, exams and problem sets, solutions to problems, catalogs of learning outcomes and course and program objectives. I have instructions for assignments, examples of student work on those assignments, and rubrics for evaluating that work. I have descriptions of classroom activities, examples of important concepts, and agendas for class sessions. And I have slide decks, countless slide decks, multiple versions of slide decks, decks of slides removed from other decks of slides. And I have stuff that’s out there on the net. YouTube videos I’ve made and videos of others that I’ve curated. And Sound Cloud files. And bookmarks in my browsers that are more or less (mostly less) well organized according to a system that sort of looks like what I teach and sort of looks like what I write about and sort of looks like the institutions I’ve worked for. And then there are the courses I’ve put on my institutions’ learning management systems (LMS); most of the material there is the stuff I’ve already mentioned but sometimes the LMS copy of something is the only one I have. And the question banks I’ve developed, hundreds of problems and solutions inside of courses on Canvas or Blackboard that are basically unretrievable. And I have course evaluations that occasionally have good ideas for subsequent iterations of courses and smart ideas that I’ve committed to paper when proposing new courses or applying for course development funding of one kind or another.

It’s a giant trove of stuff. To go through it all would probably take as long as it took to develop it in the first place. To find particular things can take even longer – the thing you want is always the last thing you find.

When you commission me to teach that course, all of this stuff is the raw material from which I will, in theory, compose a new masterpiece. Except probably not really all of it because the primary mode of organization of this material is, for all practical purposes, “the pile.” Even when it’s filed alphabetically in drawers or arranged in hierarchical directories on my computer, most of it is out of sight and even further out of mind. You hire me for the breadth and depth of my palette, but what you get is pretty much constrained by my ability to remember where things are and actually find them once I do. And that ability does not correlate with how smart I am about other things. Call it recency or availability bias or just poor housekeeping, most of my stuff is not really available and I spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel.

Now that kind of reinvention is not always a bad thing. Sometimes the essay your re-write, in tears, perhaps, after losing an entire draft is better than the original. But it is always time consuming and the result is often no better than before and thus represents a missed opportunity to iterate and improve. “What is to be done?”

Analogy: Bibliographic Software

Long ago accomplished scholars were keepers of troves of index cards. They read books and articles and scoured archives and processed interview transcripts and committed each tidbit to an index card along with keywords and citations. The workflow of scholarship was arranging and rearranging index cards into sections and chapters and books. Among other functions, this practice allowed the scholar to rigorously cite their sources.

Modern scholars are apt to have bibliographic software like EndNote, Mendeley, or Zotero to fulfill this function (along with eliminating the tedious task of writing footnotes and typing up bibliographies). It’s not unusual, in fact, for a scholar’s bibliographic database to contain a record of every article, book, and website they have every consulted. Over the course of a career they might catalog tens of thousands of references.

Teachers should have a similar tool, but not just for references.

What If There Were a….

What if there were a platform – be it digital technology or just a disciplined way of doing things – that afforded me a synoptic (def. “affording a general view of a whole”) view of my stuff along with any conceivable subset or slice or abstraction of my stuff (show me every problem I ever wrote that has anything to do with learning outcome #distribution or show me all of my slide decks on APIs or which course syllabi include Foucault’s Discipline and Punish?).

Moreover, what if there were a platform that would allow me to create a draft syllabus by tagging items in a bibliographic database or the rough draft of a lecture by tagging annotations and/or slides? What if problem solutions automatically knew about related problems or good review material to recommend to a student who’d found the problem challenging? What if learning outcomes knew what class activities or lecture sections they appeared in? What if problems knew that students who had trouble with this problem also had trouble with this other problem? What if slides knew about alternative examples of the concepts they described? What if sample problems were as easy to embed in a slide as in a homework problem set as in an exam? What if a code notebook example could be tagged for inclusion in a slide deck? What if lecture notes and slide decks and videos were synced and cued to one another? What if any pedagogical artifact that I’d be willing to share with a colleague were accessible to them without me having to be involved?

These are a few of the affordances I imagine for a pedagogical information system worthy of the 21st century.

Platforms for Pedagogy I

First Installment in a Month-Long Project “Information Systems for Pedagogical Productivity”

Are you like me? A college or university instructor whose computer storage is littered with multiple copies of syllabi and lectures and slide decks? “SOC101-Lecture5-2021F.pptx,” “Lecture 7 Slides,” “Lecture 7 Slides – OUTTAKES,” “API Diagram (1),” “API Diagram (2),” etc. Is part of your brain used for remembering which files for your courses are the currently authoritative ones? A teacher proud of how you manage to integrate your references on Zotero, your slides in PowerPoint, your lectures in Google Docs, you screen captures from Snagit carefully cataloged on MyMedia, YouTube playlists for each class you teach?

There’s often real brilliance in the systems we come up with. And many of us are continually improving our workflows as we live and learn and find out about new products and gadgets. And then we have directories with names like PPOL Intro Materials (NEW). And the thing is, everyone has their own system; I don’t think I’ve ever heard an instructor say that their “system” was the same as or derived from that of some other instructor. A million instructors have a million different systems.

As brilliant as our solutions are, in all likelihood, some of us have solved some of the problems, and some have solved other of the problems; most of us still have lots of problems.

Our Pedagogical Palette

A teacher is simultaneously an author, a performer, and an experience designer. What repertoire of materials do teachers draw on in that work? At the core are two things: domain expertise and a sense – innate or learned – of pedagogical technique. But in addition to these there are a lot of things: syllabi, slide decks, videos and transcripts, images and diagrams, references and bibliographies, annotations and summaries, outlines, assignments, whole quizzes and exams and banks of questions, practice problems and solutions, lecture notes, feedback boilerplate, handouts, descriptions of learning outcomes, workbooks, simulations, stories, illustrations, and examples.

How do we keep track of all this stuff? Most of us store things in hierarchical directories. If we’re good, we name things wisely making them easier to identify without having to open them and all our stuff is on one machine or perhaps in the cloud and synced to all our devices. But even if we pull that off, there is ample opportunity for consternation. Is the top level organization in a course the weeks or modules of the course or do we organize by genre (slide decks in one directory, videos in another? Is it redundant for the names of all objects include a course identifier if they are stored in a directory that names that course? Should directories contain only materials that are actively in use to remain uncluttered or should they be full archives of what I have produced for this unit? How to account for the fact that some things are files on my computer, some things (e.g., videos) are on my account on platforms like YouTube, other things are just links to things on other people’s accounts or bookmarks of websites? How do I keep track of documents I have PDFs of and and bibliographical listings for? DO I have a PDF of that?

The question here is not merely one of archival integrity, but also of creativity and performance. By performance I mean me teaching a course right now. By creativity I mean me conceiving, designing, and building a course. The painter who has an enviable array of tubes of paint in their storage room does not have an enviable array of colours with which to paint. The colours they have to paint with are the ones squeezed out and mixed on their palette. The question is not one of archiving, but rather of making the archive as fully available to the creator as possible. And I need to use as little of my brain as possible for the keeping to hand and mind of the contents of my pedagogical palette.

Seeing What You are Doing

In a video lecture from long ago (2012) Bret Victor enunciated a principle: creators need an immediate connection to what they create. He goes on to show some tools he developed that allow coders and visual designers to have an immediate connection to what they create. I’ve interpreted Victor’s principle as arguing that the creator should not use their brain to simulate the medium in which they are creating. A painter would not think up a set of brush stroke instructions, fully imagine what their effect would be, and then implement these on canvas. A programmer should not have to simulate the computer and compiler they are using as they write code. And designers should not simulate the world and the users for the things they design; instead, they build prototypes and let the world have its say.

This is the world I imagine for the teacher. We should have synoptic access to our repertoires, our pedagogical palette, and have an immediate connection to the things we are creating.


Pedagogical Omissions

Subtweeting a few days on academic social media. Did we forget to teach that “I found this interesting” is not the same as “it is interesting”? That “I just found about this” does not imply “this is a new thing” or “no one knows that…” or “no one is talking about….” That I managed to find someone who said something is not the same as “people say” or even, really, of “there are people who say.” That people who follow me on Twitter liked something I said is evidence that I am empirically correct. And when did we teach that is critical thinking when you find some ignorant asshole that maybe most of us have never heard of and shout them down to the cheers of your peers? Lastly, and this is a different point, really, when did we start applauding illogical and fallacy-laden arguments and bogus analytics as long as they were supporting a position we believed in?

To Grade or Not to Grade

My musings when a friend asked about my thoughts on whether we ought to switch to credit/no-credit for this semester.

At the law school here we are having an advisory faculty vote on this – as I understand it, some law students petitioned for change to credit/nocredit. They tend to be a very anxious bunch. At the Faculty of Information, my home faculty, a few discussions about doing this in particular classes but otherwise current plan is business as usual.

When I think about it, much lands on the side of switching to pass/fail. There’s the fairness of changing horses midstream when students had been marshalling their resources and work habits in light of what they know as their strengths and weakness and such. Maybe I’m banking on acing the final after mediocre midterm, but now I might be thrown for a loop. Or maybe I was struggling to participate, but now I find participation by chat suddenly frees my voice. In short, there is so much unintended, and out of people’s control, movement in factors that can affect the thing we think we are measuring with grades, and so much measurement error introduced by the untested methods we are about to use that the error bars on the grades we come up with will be so large that A might overlap with C and so on.

Counter to this, especially in the case of first year law students is that no small number of external things are keyed to first year grades. It could be argued that credit/no-credit would be a real disservice to the students who were destined to get higher marks. ON THE OTHER HAND, if this crisis forced employers and scholarship providers to look beyond the GPA, that might represent a sizable social good.

And then there is the mindset we are all in which is “adapt and be pro-social.” It’d be nice not to be contradicting that with incentives to maximize one’s own grades in the midst of turmoil.

Selfishly, perhaps, I find myself thinking how much of a nightmare headache it is going to be as I try to be fair at semester’s end. I will be adjudicating a whole bunch of personal situation information that’s below the threshold of official requests for accommodation. There’s always a bit of this, but I expect a lot this round. Is that really what the school wants me to be spending my energy and time on next month?

The employer issue raised above relates to the question of the external utility of grades: are any employers or graduate schools going to apply strict scrutiny for grades earned this semester? Or are they going to know full well that extraordinary circumstances render those grades perhaps a less reliable signal than they are usually taken to be? In a sense, both students and professors would be investing a whole bunch of time to come up with fine grained measurements that nobody is ever going to pay attention to. (WE certainly shouldn’t when it comes to cumulative GPAs if we are honest – course to course variations are wide in the best of times).

Maybe I can get a handle on this with some analogies: sometimes in a restaurant when they mess up your order or have to substitute things they just comp you the meal or part of it.

In the tour-de-france if there’s an accident in the last 3km of the race they just give everyone involved the finishing time of those in the group who make it to the finish line. The point is to avoid dangerous behaviour at the finish AND to not give people time bonuses simply because they avoided getting wiped out by the falling cyclist on the last turn.

Then there is a part of me that thinks we should always be “pass/fail” with a bar that’s a lot higher than D. I’m inherently skeptical that there are meaningful small differences that we can well characterize with things like B+ vs A-. My current grading practice is something like 85-87 (the lower boundary on an A – this is Canada) means competently completed as assigned and then the numbers over that signal impressive extras and numbers below deficiencies and things missing, but I don’t manage much more fine grainedness than that. Since I’ve been grading assignments like that all semester, I’ve done all the “this is great, do more of it!” and “this is short of expectations” formative assessing along the way. A summative “done well enough, let’s wrap this up and move forward” would probably be a smart and responsible move for my professional students in the current circumstances.

Taking Note of Taking Notes on a Laptop

From Harvard Business Review


What You Miss When You Take Notes on Your Laptop

Maggy McGloin

JULY 31, 2015

Even in my relatively short foray into office life, I notice that few people bring a pen and notebook to meetings. I’ve been told that over the years, the spiral notebooks and pens once prevalent during weekly meetings have been replaced with laptops and slim, touch-screen tablets.

I suppose it makes sense. In a demanding new age of technology, we are expected to send links, access online materials, and conduct virtual chats while a meeting is taking place. We want instant gratification, and sending things after the meeting when you’re back at your desk feels like too long to wait. It seems that digital note-taking is just more convenient.

But is longhand dead? Should you be embarrassed bringing a pen and paper to your meetings? To answer these questions, I did a little digging and found that the answer is no, according to a study conducted by Princeton’s Pam A. Mueller and UCLA’s Daniel M. Oppenheimer. Their research shows that when you only use a laptop to take notes, you don’t absorb new materials as well, largely because typing notes encourages verbatim, mindless transcription.

Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted three different studies, each addressing the question: Is laptop note taking detrimental to overall conceptual understanding and retention of new information?

For the first study, the researchers presented a series of TED talk films to a room of Princeton University students. The participants “were instructed to use their usual classroom note-taking strategy,” whether digitally or longhand, during the lecture. Later on, the participants “responded to both factual-recall questions and conceptual-application questions” about the film.

The students’ scores differed immensely between longhand and laptop note takers. While participants using laptops were found to take lengthier “transcription-like” notes during the film, results showed that longhand note takers still scored significantly higher on conceptually-based questions. Mueller and Oppenheimer predicted that the decrease in retention appeared to be due to “verbatim transcription.”

Read rest of article at HBR

New DropBox Feature Might Make Grading Easier

DropBox has introduced a COMMENTS feature that lets you look at a shared file in your browser (Microsoft office docs and PDFs all seem to work) and make comments in a sidebar.  Anyone who can see the file can make comments and you can notify folks that there are comments just by mentioning them.

Potentially useful for feedback on student papers and for group work or committee work where downloading document or group editing in something like Google docs is either too intrusive or too slow a process.


New Genres for Teaching and Learning I

I’ve been thinking recently about new genres for teaching and learning. Frankly, I’ve grown bored by thinking in only terms of lectures, class discussions, slide shows, participatory exercises, and the like. I want to put some of my creative teaching energy into practices that have legs, that will engage and be effective in various contexts including when I’m not there. 

What’s out there? My previous post of an animation created to accompany the audio of a TED talk was one example. Here is another from Kindea Labs a startup that produces short animated videos it calls “conceptual animation.”

One reaction is that this is a creepy mad-men-ification of intellectual life. But what if these work to motivate people to have a look or to get a student interested in something she would have otherwise ignored?

I find myself thinking: could I make one of these for each of my courses? For each section? For each session?  The exercise is useful quite apart from whether I’ll ever do it: what is the gist that justifies the cognitive attention I am hoping to motivate? It forces me to do some hard thinking and that’s a good thing.

What would a 60 second spot for your favorite course or your research look like?

Promo for Article by Two Carnegie Mellon Professors

Ancient Economies: Promo for Yale Classics Professor

Part of the Gender Gap in Majors May Lie in Intro Courses (Sort Of)

The following describes an interesting morphing of memes on the web and something that might be especially relevant to me and my colleagues at Mills College in our role as advisors.

Harvard Economist Cladia Goldin posted a piece back when Janet Yellen was first nominated to head the Federal Reserve. She wondered whether this new “role model” might increase the number of women who major in economics. She wrote about some of her own research as well as that of others relevant to the question. In particular she discussed some work in which she discovered that
Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the “gateway” courses is steeper for women than for men.
In other other words, on average (assuming lots of things are equal) women may take a stronger “you can’t do this” signal from not getting an A in intro courses than do men. Evidence shows it happens in economics and some STEM fields too.
This does NOT, of course, imply we should pursue gender equity through grade inflation, but it does suggest that those of use who teach and mentor young women might focus on this particular point of leverage. Not unrelated is research by Chambliss and Takacs on how important intro courses are for influencing college major and career decisions. We should, perhaps, stop focusing our energy on distribution requirements and instead focus on what goes on in intro courses and in the first year advising context that surrounds them. It’s not unrelated to the message of a graduation speech I gave a few years back.

One can imagine that similar effects might exist in connection with other demographic differences.
The internet meme part is that the blog post was picked up the other day by a Washington Post writer, Catherine Rampell, and mixed in with some other research (finding that disciplines with lower grades had higher career payoffs) in a piece titled “Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later.” On Slate the headline read “Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They’re Too Concerned With Grades” but the article went in the direction of saying maybe it’s not all about wanting to find a major where one can do well grade-wise but rather a rational assessment of the likelihood of career success in various fields.  I’m sure a little googling will turn up even more morphs.

Will more of our daughters grow up to be economists?

Likelihood of Continuing in Major by Intro Grade and Sex

Claudia Goldin: Bloomberg View
Published: October 17, 2013 – 07:13 PM

Cambridge, Mass.: The nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve is an important milestone. But will her appointment as the central bank’s first female chief draw more undergraduate women to the field of economics?
Yellen’s emphasis on the human toll of recessions, along with her humanity, brilliance and intellect, could spur a greater number of women to become economists. But if history is any guide, there still is a long slog ahead.
Economics is an extremely popular major — for men. Ten percent to 20 percent of all male undergraduates concentrate in the field at the top 100 universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.
Nationwide, however, for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex. Among the top 100 liberal arts colleges, there are 2.6 males for every female economics major; there are 2.5 males for every female at the top 100 research universities.
Worse, these differences have widened over the last two decades.
Students often realize too late in their undergraduate studies that an understanding of economic concepts, modeling, statistics and econometrics is a helpful career and life tool. Many initially believe economics is only valuable for those who want to work in the financial and corporate sectors. (This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences are Eugene F. Fama, Robert J. Shiller and Lars Peter Hansen, men whose work focuses on financial markets.)
Many young women don’t seem to understand that economics is also for those who have broad intellectual interests and for those with research and policy interests in health, education, poverty, inequality, crime, obesity, the environment, terrorism or infectious disease. All students should be aware of the broad applications of economics when considering an undergraduate major.


Read the Rest at Bloomberg View

See Also

Takacs and Chambliss on "Systemic Advising"

Chris Takacs and Dan Chambliss are the authors of the forthcoming How College Works (Harvard, February 2014).  Their work is based on an eight year long, social science based assessment study. Among other points, here they suggest research-based reasons why having a broad selection of really good intro courses is important.  

More generally they suggest making sure any course that students have to take is high quality, not least because there’s no “voting with your feet” to give us feedback on these courses. This advice will, alas, fall on deaf ears because we are uncomfortable with the idea that any of our courses are not high quality. But the idea of deploying teachers strategically where they can do the best job is smart. 

See also (reposted from early November on this blog)…

Inside Higher Ed piece discussing Chambliss and Takacs’s finding, in How College Works, that an inspiring encounter with a faculty member strongly influences a student’s choice of major