Around the Web – “Something of Autumn”

Sofa left on curb

photo by walknboston via Flickr

The streets of Cambridge are now lined with discarded sofas and desks. Every few yards, it seems, there is a temporary sign tied to a tree which prohibits parking and announces the arrival of a fleet of moving trucks. This massive population transfer can only mean one thing around here. Summer is drawing to a close. As A. Barlett Giamatti wistfully wrote, “Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn’t this summer, but all the summers that, in this my fortieth summer, slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it.” While perhaps a smidgen of melancholy is unavoidable with the passing of the season, at the university our “something of autumn” also means the excitement of a new semester, with all of its potential. Syllabi to refine, new skills to learn, the return of old friends who had wandered the world in the previous months, and, of course, our students!

As ever, the good people at Beloit College have compiled the Class of 2016 Mindset List, in order to provide the (somewhat longer in the tooth) educators of this new batch of freshmen what the cultural touchstones have been in these new college students’ roughly 18 years of life. Kurt Cobain has always been dead for these kids?! Yikes! Shock value aside, however, these lists can be a good reminder at how our cultural worldview can differ from our students, but also how they still can overlap. I mean, does anyone miss paper airline tickets (#9)? Nevertheless, this is an appropriate time of year to recognize how much of a transition our first year college students are making, and for some it might be a good idea for their professors & TFs to ask some specific questions.

Those weeks before the beginning of the semester is also the time that many educators craft or refine their course policies. Over at Inside Higher Education, John Warner has posted the policies for his course on contemporary literature. They are, as he admits, very long, but well worth the read, for they are, the most wonderful set of educational policies in the classroom since, well, ever.

First, there is the format, an extended question-and-answer catechism. For his first class Warner hands out the questions to his students and uses them as a basis for discussion. This allows him to deftly step around one of those highly persnickety questions of the first class, when students are still “shopping” and half of those in the classroom (if not more) you might never see again, leading some professors to treat this first class as a throwaway, in the belief that anything more than a run-through of the syllabus and a quick spiel would be a waste of everyone’s time. But if the professor is treating class time as disposable, what kind of impression does that make on the students?

Warner takes the first class as an opportunity, not to begin covering material, but to really explore his teaching philosophy, expectations of the students, and course policies. He lays all his cards on the table, even providing excerpts from his student evaluations, positive and negative. In so doing, he establishes an open, student-centered classroom environment where students are supposed to take an active role in their own learning, and, along the way, provides a robust justification of a liberal arts education. As I said, it’s worth a read.

In a similar vein, Mary Bart at Faculty Focus has a new post titled Establishing a Fair & Supportive Grading Environment. Therein she recounts an anecdote: a retired professor is asked back to teach one course on part-time basis. The department head asks what is the least they could pay the professor, who responds “Oh, I’ll teach for free. But you’ll have to pay me to grade.” While many of us are itching to be getting back into the classroom, most are probably not regarding the prospect of returning to our desks to grade students’ work with the same degree of enthusiasm. Working from a seminar by Virginia Johnson Anderson, Bart outlines some strategies for crafting assignments and grading, including:

  • Backwards design – instead of framing your course with the question “What am I going to cover?” one should consider results – what will your students know and have the ability to do at the end of the course?

  • Stop using “understand” as one of your goals. It’s simply too vague a term. “If you list as a learning objective that, for example ‘Students will understand the concept of photosynthesis,’ students may gain a very surface level of knowledge that it’s something plants do and then will feel they’ve met the requirement.” Instead, frame your goals in terms “which require a higher level of cognition,” (I would say “more specific” instead), such as apply, synthesize, and evaluate.

  • “Construct a welcoming, thorough and explicit syllabus, and refer to it often.” The tone here is vital. As Anderson stated, “When I read syllabi … I have to remind myself that I’m not working for the state penal institution.” Of course one has to be explicit about academic integrity, but one still needs to engage with the students in a positive way.

All of these strategies find clear and inspiring manifestations in John Warner’s course policies. And they are all practices that work best when prepared in advance and implemented from the very first day of class. And that day is beckoning, ladies and gentlemen, that “something of autumn” is in the air. May we all make it a fruitful season!

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