Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
. . . means not just one, but two new syllabi: one for graduate students and one for (mostly) undergraduates. (Technically, of course, these are actually updated versions of older syllabi, but there’s plenty of freshness in each of them).
And, this time around anyway, the new semester also begins with a very freshly published essay on cultural studies and history (with the shockingly off-topic title of “Cultural Studies and History”).
Ideally, of course, this tip could be summed up in four simple words: Just Don’t Do It.
But you know that already. The syllabus tells you not to do so. Pretty much every instructor you’ve ever had since high school has told you not to do so. And yet, in spite of all that, you may someday find yourself in what we might call the Triple-P Problem: you’ve Procrastinated, and now you’re Panicking, so you turn to Plagiarism and hope against hope that I will somehow fail to notice that the words I’m reading aren’t your own. The odds are pretty good, however, that such hope is misplaced, since the same procrastination problem that has put you in this particular pickle also means that you don’t have time to cover your tracks especially well. So I’m going to share a few basic tips with you — all based upon actual mistakes that your predecessors in my classes have made over the years — so that you don’t follow in their footsteps and wind up with a bright, shiny F on your transcript.
If you’ve actually followed all the steps above, then there’s a halfway decent chance that I may actually believe that what you’ve handed me is something you have written yourself. Congratulations! Of course, at this point, the odds are also still pretty good that what you’ve handed in doesn’t fit the assignment well enough to earn a respectable grade. And you’ve done as much work (and maybe even more) trying to cover your tracks as you would have had to do in order to write the paper yourself. But now you may squeak by with a D instead of an F. So it’s all been worthwhile, yes?
Over winter break, I did something that most of my peers would — rightly — describe as insane. I took a course that I had just finished teaching, which I was scheduled to teach again this semester, and I more or less redesigned it from the ground up. The normal thing to do, of course, would have been to take my fall syllabus, change all the dates, and be done with it. Maybe if I were feeling especially ambitious — or if I knew something had bombed abysmally — I’d have swapped out a reading or two. But even for someone (like me) who rarely teaches any course precisely the same way twice, this was an extreme overhaul: i.e., the sort of thing I might do if the gap between the two versions of the course was a few years. While I used the same required text, that only kept the first two weeks or so of readings intact. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a completely new course.
So why the radical renovation? There are probably many reasons (and my dubious grip on sanity may still be one of them), but one of the biggest is that the fall version of the course was the latest in a long line of “experiments” I’ve undertaken with what I call a “hackable syllabus” . . . and it seemed to me that the main pedagogical goals I’d been trying to achieve had never actually come to fruition, and so the time had come to rethink the nature of that experiment.
The experiment in question originally grew out of a summer grad seminar on “Communication and Critical Pedagogy” that I taught towards the end of my time at USF. In the midst of one of those seminar discussions, when we were talking about the need to give students a significant measure of control over their own education, I decided that my previous efforts to do such a thing had been too superficial — e.g., letting students select from a pre-determined menu of assignments, or giving them flexible due dates for papers — and that I needed to embrace this philosophy more fully. Coincidentally, for reasons I can neither recall nor explain, sometime that same summer I also heard about a game called Nomic. I’ve still never actually played the game, but its fundamental nature — it’s essentially a meta-game, where you play the game by changing the rules of the game as you go along — struck me as something that could fit very nicely with my newfound desire to turn as much of a course over to my students as I possibly could. And so the hackable syllabus was born . . .
On its surface, the hackable syllabus looks incredibly complex — which is probably necessary, but also probably one of its major flaws. In practice, it’s much simpler than it appears to be: students can propose changes to almost any and every rule on the syllabus (including the reading list, due dates, and the graded assignments), the class as a whole discusses and votes on proposals, and proposals that are voted into place become part of the course rules. Most of the apparent complexity lies in setting up a fair and reliable mechanism by which the rules can actually be changed. The actual process varied slightly from one version of the syllabus to another, but the underlying core — propose rule changes, discuss them, vote on them — was still pretty simple . . . yet, time after time, students routinely got hung up on the mechanism in countless different ways, and never, ever really took control of the syllabus at the level I had hoped they might.
To be sure, they had good incentives to do so. Every hackable syllabus contained deliberately cruel and unreasonable rules that students needed to locate and vote out of existence, lest said “bad rules” come into play. And every successful rule change resulted in the authors of said change earning an extra point tacked onto their final course grades. Still, over seven different courses, each with slightly different versions of the hackable syllabus, a consistent pattern emerged: students would eliminate all the bad rules (though, typically, they would only do so after a false start or three), they would tweak some extraordinarily minor aspect of the grading policy (e.g., eliminating penalties for late arrivals and early departures), and they’d be done. No one ever tried to change the reading list. No one ever proposed a different sort of graded assignment be added to the menu of options. Once they’d freed themselves of the need to bring impossible-to-find yoga mats to class (and so on), they were perfectly content to leave the core of the course — i.e., what they had to read and write — up to me.
Of course, this “failure” was never really my students’ fault. At some crucial level, I always knew that, and probably should have done something about it sooner. If nothing else, by the time students wound up in one of my hackable syllabus courses, they had all experienced 15-20 years of education where they had routinely been handed a set of readings and assignments on Day One, and that was that. So of course they never raced to revise the reading list or to envision new assignments: never having been asked to do such a thing before, the odds that they would suddenly take such an initiative were slim to none.
So that radical rewrite of my fall syllabus was all about finding ways to encourage this semester’s batch of students to help build our reading list. (Encouraging them to craft new types of assignments is a goal that will have to wait for some future course. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.) I gave them a syllabus where the first month’s worth of readings was all lined up. After that, each week has a theme and one starter reading in place . . . and it’s up to them to come up with enough other readings (or videos, or audios, as they see fit) to bring us up to ~100 pages/week (or its audio-visual equivalent). There are collective sticks for falling short of that page-count target, and individual carrots for helping to reach it.
And, so far anyway, it seems to be working. We’re currently two weeks deep into the land of “Student-Provided Readings” and the group has hit the target both times, and put some worthy material on the table for us to read and watch and discuss. We’ll see how it goes for the next ten weeks or so but, to this point, I’m feeling pretty good about that “insane” decision.
[Bonus for any of my spring 2012 undergrads who happen to be reading this: Cut-and-paste any full entry from this blog and send it to me in an email. For every full course week left in the semester after your email lands in my inbox, I'll add 0.5 points to your course grade and shrink your Take-Home Final by 50 words and 0.5 points. You're free to share this information with your classmates if you so choose . . . but not on the course website. If news of this bonus ever lands there, the bonus goes away, and all previously awarded benefits will be taken away. P.S.: Perhaps needless to say, this is a one-time-only bonus for anyone who happens to collect it.]
It’s the start of another semester, so I thought it would be a good time to share what has become a standard part of my Day One spiel for my undergrads. I’ve taken to giving some version of this, no matter what the course actually is, partially because Day One is a good time for us all to reflect on the bigger questions of what this whole “higher education” thang is all about . . . but also because it helps to set up the more course-specific stuff that always follows this about active learning and the need for my students to participate in what we’ll be doing for the four months that follow. But enough preamble. On with the show.
You have been cheated. Misled. Lied to. By the U. By your high school. By your grade school. By your parents. By a lot of people. You’ve been cheated in many ways, but the ones I want to talk about are these:
Big Lie #1. Show of hands, please. How many of you are paying for your own education? [Wait for it.] Sorry, but you’re wrong. This is not your fault. You’ve simply been trapped in one of the Big Lies that universities (among others) tell on a regular basis — and have started telling more and more over the past decade or two. You are, of course, paying good money. But you’re not paying for your education. Universities aren’t actually in the business of selling education — though they certainly want you to think they are — because education can’t actually be bought and sold.
Put simply, education is what happens when you learn something you didn’t know before. Ideally, that still takes place all the time on university campuses . . . but when it happens, it’s got nothing to do with what the university is actually selling. You can, after all, go sit in one of the big lecture halls on the West Bank from 9-5 all day every day for the next four months — most of the time, no one will know that you’re not actually registered for whatever courses you’re witnessing — and you can learn an awful lot simply by paying careful attention to lectures you haven’t paid a dime for. Similarly, you could take a copy of my syllabus (or anyone’s), go find all the readings for free in the library, and learn a great deal without ever writing anyone a check. In fact, you don’t even need a syllabus. The university library stacks are open to the public. Go in. Pick a floor. Start reading. Do that for 8 hours/day, 5 days/week, 50 weeks/year (i.e., as if it were a regular job) and you’ll get yourself a pretty impressive education.
What you get when you spend your tuition dollars, however, is not education. Rather, what you get when you write out that check to the U is the privilege of being evaluated and — if you meet a particular set of standards — of being credentialed. Ideally, you’re being evaluated on things that the university is helping you learn. But you don’t get an automatic refund if you don’t actually learn anything — nor do you get charged extra if you happen to learn more than what’s on the syllabus — because what you’re really paying for is for people like me to assign you a variety of tasks and then judge you on how well you perform those tasks. In the eyes of the university, if you actually get an education along the way, that’s great. Ideal, even, since it helps them keep that Big Lie in place. But the university isn’t selling education any more than health clubs sell fitness. In both cases, your money buys you access to the institution, but that’s it. Whether you actually get fit or educated depends on what you do after your check has cleared and you can’t get that money back.
Big Lie #2. You have been told that your education — particularly your college education — is the ticket to a Good Job. There’s a very tiny shred of truth in this, at least insofar as a college degree will make it more likely (though by no means guaranteed) that you’ll wind up with a job that pays you an annual salary rather than one that pays you an hourly wage. Eventually. Bearing in mind that “eventually” may still mean 10-12 years from now. But there’s much more to a Good Job than good pay. Lots of people, after all, make very good money working jobs they actively hate and that give them ulcers.
More importantly, that college degree hasn’t automatically translated into a Good Job upon graduation for at least 25 years. This sad truth is even sadder because it has nothing to do with questions of actual merit, skill, or brains. Most of you — even the best and the brightest of you — will graduate without a Good Job in hand . . . or even on the horizon. Again, not your fault. There simply aren’t enough Good Jobs for all the new college graduates who enter the job market every year. This was true even before the economy went into the toilet. But it is even more true now.
I still keep in touch with some of the best students I’ve had. People who I know are brilliant, articulate, creative, motivated, etc. People who I’ve written letters of recommendation for. People who will almost certainly succeed at anything they want to . . . if they’re given the chance to do so. As far as I know, none of these students from the past 5-10 years is actually unemployed right now. But most of them are still trying to find jobs that are more than placeholder positions that help pay the bills until they can find the career that they really want for themselves. These people aren’t lacking Good Jobs because they’re uneducated or unqualified or unmotivated. Far from it. They’re lacking Good Jobs because there simply aren’t enough of those out there.
Mind you, this is not necessarily the end of the world. There’s a lot to be said for taking some post-graduation time to breathe, to find yourself, and to figure out what you really want to do with your life — even if that means working a not-so-good job (or two) and living on the cheap for a while. Except, of course, that you’ve been told for most of your lives that the real reason you should go to college is so that you can get a Good Job. So you’ve been fed unrealistic expectations by people who really should know better. ‘Cause the non-connection between “a college degree” and “a Good Job” has been true ever since I graduated from college . . . way back in 1986. Which means that it’s been true for at least as long as most of you have been alive. Probably much longer. I was fed this big lie too, after all. And while I wound up with a Good Job in the end, that process still took about ten years after I finished my B.A.
Connected to Big Lie #2 is Big Lie #3: that the quality of your education is measured by your “grades.” That you should be worried about bringing home a report card filled with As (and maybe a B or two), because a high GPA demonstrates that you’ve gotten a good education . . . and that a high GPA will help secure you a Good Job.
Trouble is, in the long run, no one really cares about your GPA. But especially not future employers. When it’s your job to produce a presentation that will help your employer land the big contract that will keep your company afloat (and keep you employed) for another three years, your 3.8 GPA isn’t going to write a kick-ass presentation for you. It won’t guarantee that you’re able to write a kick-ass presentation. It won’t help you keep your job if you write a weak presentation. You will actually have to be able to write that kick-ass presentation.
Perhaps more to the point, the quality of your education isn’t measured very well by your grades at all. A grade simply demonstrates that you were given a set of tasks and someone evaluated you on how well you did those tasks. But it’s possible (for example) to learn a great deal but perform poorly when tested . . . or to ace a test without retaining anything meaningful about the subject after the test is done. In the former case, you’ve got a good education but a lousy grade. In the latter case, you’ve got a lousy education but a good grade.
Put those pieces of the puzzle together and most of you have been led to believe that the most important thing you should expect out of a course is a grade. As a kid, your parents are proud of you if you get As. They’re disappointed when you get Cs. And, typically, they’re much more likely to go to parent-teacher conferences and ask questions about your test scores (how can we help him get better grades?) than about the content of the curriculum (we think that it would enrich her life as a citizen of the world to learn French; where can we find a tutor for her?). It doesn’t take long before most children learn that they, too, should worry more about their grades than about their education.
Big Lie #4. Most of you — most of us — grew up in educational systems that were designed to produce good grades rather than active, engaged, productive citizens. Your average public school system, for example, gets extra funding when its standardized test scores go up, rather than when its graduates go on to become brilliant scientists or ground-breaking novelists. And so most school systems focus their energies on training students to produce good test scores. Which essentially means that you’re trained — from a very early age — to sit still, shut up, do what people in authority tell you to do, and regurgitate whatever they say on tests and exams and essays. Whether you actually learn something that matters is secondary to whether your school district’s test scores are higher than those in the next county.
And so you’ve also been lied to about the role that you should play in your own education. Which is not the role of the passive spectator who memorizes facts and figures and spews them back. There are contexts where rote memorization is valuable and important . . . but if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re not being educated: you’re being indoctrinated. A real education requires you to be actively involved. It requires you to participate. To ask questions. To engage in dialogue. To be challenged by ideas and opinions and worldviews that are different from your own. It requires you to analyze. To synthesize. To create.
These are the sorts of things you need to do routinely in the “real world.” A large part of what it means to be an adult, after all, is that you’re on your own, you’re independent, you’re taking responsibility for your own well-being — and those are difficult things to do if the major lessons you’ve been given on how to cope with the world are to sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told.
Now I’d be lying if I said that this course, all by itself, can erase all those Big Lies. We’re together in this classroom for a grand total of about 48 hours over the next four months . . . which is not a lot of time compared to the 20 or so years of lies you’ve been fed about how you should simply sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told. But, with any luck, this class can be a start.
For perhaps obvious reasons, this month’s list has been a little harder to write up. And the most important item was also the hardest to find any good words for at all. The pictures will have to do.
Nine days late, I know, but it’s been a busy week or so.
As before, these are in no particular order . . . except for #1.
Lots of people do Top Ten lists of one sort or another. But do we really need to fetishize the number 10 simply ’cause that’s how many fingers most of us are born with? And do such lists really need to revolve around hierarchical rankings? I don’t think so.
So here’s my “notable nine” for September 2010. These aren’t necessarily the best — or the worst — things that happened to me this past month. And they’re not presented in any clearcut order. They’re simply nine slices of my life from the past 30 days that deserve some sort of recognition.
My friend Elena likes to tell a story about grading student papers while some Jacques Cousteau special was playing on the TV as background noise. While she was gawking at what her charges had managed to do to logic, reason, and the English language, Cousteau was commenting on one of the eternal mysteries of the sea. I’m not sure (and I don’t know if Elena remembers) just what bit of maritime biology Cousteau was talking about, but the phrase he used — “No one knows why they do what they do” — rapidly became our standard response to whatever baffling student behavior manifested itself in our classes.
I’m teaching two courses this semester. Both of them are filled to capacity, which means that students who want to get into either of those courses either have to hope for a fortuitously timed drop by someone currently in the class, or they need to ask me for a permission number to get added to the roster. Since registration for spring courses began a couple of months ago, I’ve probably had two dozen queries along these lines. Most of which have been pretty straightforward and easy to handle: the student in question sends me an email, asks about one of my two courses by name, and I tell them I’ve added their name to the relevant waitlist.
But I’ve also had at least half a dozen queries by students whose requests to get into my course ignore “little” details like specifying which course they want to join. At least three queries from students who don’t provide me with their full names (’cause, of course, there’s only going to be one Chris or Elizabeth or John who might show up in my classroom (either of them) on Day One). And at least two queries from students expressing a strong and profound interest in taking my course . . . in an email that’s actually addressed to the instructors of three or four different courses that the student in question wants to get into.
No one knows why they do what they do, indeed . . .
PS: How did I forget to include this bit? About 25% of the students who I’ve written back, asking for (a) their full name and/or (b) the course they want to join, have never written me back again. I suppose that’s good. If you have a hard time answering either of those questions, after all, you’re going to have a helluva time with an actual exam or a research paper.
Several people (including many blog-less friends not linked here) have asked me about the Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in Kingston, Jamaica that wrapped up early last week. And I would be hard-pressed to do better than Melissa Gregg’s summary of the event . . . except, perhaps, to simply say to all those people who wanted to know how it went: You should’ve been there.
I know, of course, that there are lots of good reasons why people don’t make it to conferences. Not enough time. Not enough money. Competing obligations. The simple need/desire to be a homebody for a while, especially when conferences fall during the gap between semesters. So I don’t really blame my curious but absent friends for not making it to Jamaica. Still: You should’ve been there.
I have been struck by the multiple requests for reports — not just friendly “how was the conference?” queries, but an explicit desire for extended details (who was there? who gave good papers? what’s new and hot in the field? etc.) — from friends who would have fit in perfectly, who would’ve enjoyed themselves immensely, and (most tellingly) who have been to enough conferences themselves to know that even the most thorough “report” is no substitute for being there. The feel of a conference often matters as much as (and probably more than) the actual content of the presented papers, or the roster of attendees, or a rundown of who said what to whom at the hotel bar on the final night. So I’m not going to try and provide a detailed accounting of the who and the what of the event, ’cause even if I were to feel the muse and be graced with the most eloquent way to capture five days worth of conversations, I still couldn’t do the event justice. You should’ve been there.
One of the things I most appreciate about the Crossroads conferences — or at least the past two renditions — is the degree to which they take their international-ness very seriously. To be sure, they’re not some perfectly ideal space of worldly cosmopolitanism: the official language of the conference is still English, and the global South remains under-represented. At the same time, Crossroads isn’t the sort of “international” conference where most of the usual suspects from the US, Canada, and northern Europe simply gather in a big chain hotel in some different corner of the world for a long weekend and have the same basic conversations with each other that they could/would have had at a conference back home. For me, Crossroads somehow manages to simultaneously feel both smaller and larger than those sorts of conferences. It’s smaller, insofar as Crossroads has a much more tight-knit, communal feel to it than a Hilton/Sheraton/Hyatt-style conference. While it’s still a fairly large gathering, I’ve come away from the past two versions feeling like I’ve shared an experience with several hundred people — and that doesn’t happen at most other conferences I attend. And it’s larger, insofar as the people you’re sharing that experience with represent a much broader slice of the world than is the norm for “international” conferences.
We do it all again in 2010. In Hong Kong.
You should be there.