Welcome new readers!

The "New to the blog? Start here" page will give you an overview of the blog and point you to some posts you might be interested in. You can also subscribe to receive future posts via RSS, Facebook or Twitter using the links on the right-hand side of the page, or via email by entering your address in the box. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Summer link round-up

I've posted several links over the last couple months on the blog's Facebook and Twitter feeds - for those who do not follow the blog through those feeds, here's a round-up of those links:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Serial specialization?


The other day I was having a conversation with a friend, who is not an academic, about the tenure and promotion process. We have a mutual friend who is going up for full professor and she's at the stage where her department is sending out the requests for letters. My non-academic friend was asking about the process and he made a comment about how stressful it must be given that, at this point, there really isn't anything one can do to influence those letters. I said that was kind of the point, that in order to become a full professor, one needs to have been consistently productive and building a reputation as a contributor in one's field.

But lately, I've been thinking a lot about the costs of this process. In order to build that reputation, we all specialize, sometimes in pretty small niches. Of course, as an economist, I generally believe specialization is a good thing but when one has wide-ranging interests, becoming 'stuck' in a specialization can become stifling. Academia is one of the last professions where people may stay with the same 'company' for their entire careers but does that mean we need to DO the exact same job our whole lives?

A big reason this is on my mind is because I am trying to figure out how to navigate and integrate the different hats that I want to wear. I spent many years cultivating my reputation as an education policy researcher - I earned tenure and promotion to full professor on the basis of my work in that field and I'm proud of the work I have done there. When I started getting more involved with teaching and economics education, my only real concern was how to balance that with my ed policy work, which I did not want to give up entirely. One way I managed that was to keep publishing but in somewhat different outlets (which I really could only do because I already was a full professor at that point). Instead of trying to get into econ journals, my ed policy work the last few years has been more in the form of policy briefs through think tanks, and my econ ed stuff has been in books and teaching-related journals. Fortunately, that's been enough, technically, to satisfy the 'professional growth' requirements of my department but I have to admit that I've struggled to be OK with it - it's hard not to feel like I'm "slacking off". I tell myself that it's all right because a) I'm certainly more than compensating with the teaching side of my job and b) I've chosen my ed policy projects to maximize the impact I could have on actual policy (which has always been more important to me personally than which journals I could get into). But aside from the work itself, it's also been hard to feel myself slowly growing apart from my ed policy community, even as I have loved developing new connections with the econ ed community (that's you all! :-)).

And now I've acquired a THIRD hat, as CTL Director. Although there is some overlap in the work with my econ ed hat, it's a whole new community. Like the econ ed community, the professional development folks have been super-helpful and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know everyone. I just got back from the POD Network's Institute for New Faculty Developers and I'm already looking forward to seeing many of those folks in the fall at the POD annual conference. But I wonder how I'm going to integrate this role with my existing worlds. Is it possible to do all of this, and do it well? I mostly fear that my ed policy hat is going to shrink even more than it already has and that makes me sad. But perhaps that is simply the reality I have to learn to accept...

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Webinar next Thursday introducing EconEdActive

One of the things I did during my sabbatical was pull together resources for MacMillan's EconEdActive site. The site is now up and running, with several tools that allow users to comment, rate activities and add new resources. There will be a webinar next Thursday, June 25, at 11am PST (2pm if you're on the other coast), to provide an overview of the site. You can register here. Hope to 'see' you there!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thinking about the big picture

Ah, it is finally summer! It's been a long, stressful school year and I am really looking forward to having some time to just breathe. One of the things I am really, REALLY looking forward to is having the opportunity to step back and think about my overall plan, both for the CTL and for my life in general (i.e., research and having a life outside school!). I feel like I spent most of this year just trying to keep things afloat while simultaneously figuring out what the hell I'm doing; that, in and of itself, has caused a lot of stress for me. My usual M.O. is to be much more methodical - I plan, I make lists, I develop clear goals before figuring out all the steps I need to take to reach those goals. While some people love to just jump in the car and drive aimlessly, seeing where they end up, I have always been a person who cannot enjoy the journey if I don't know what the destination is. It's OK if the destination changes as things happen along the way, but I'm just not comfortable if I don't have a clear direction to go from the beginning.

It's interesting how often I have found myself drawing parallels between the way I approach the CTL work and the way I approach my classes. In many ways, this year has felt like teaching a course you've never even thought about teaching before, that you were asked to teach the day before the semester started. All you have to go on is the syllabus and materials from the person who taught the class last, and they have a completely different teaching style from you and a totally different idea of what you think the class should actually be about (like teaching a class called "Public Economics" which you think should be about market failure and taxes but the previous instructor made all about political economy and voting theory) (AND they did nothing but lecture!). But since you don't have time to do much prep, you mostly just go with that previous course outline, tweaking where you can and as time allows. If you know what I'm talking about, you can imagine that even if the class goes "well", it probably doesn't feel great, doesn't feel authentic to you.

That's how a lot of this year has felt. I've tried to get a handle on what I want to do with this job but for the most part, I've had to spend all my time just doing stuff. So having the opportunity this summer to step back and think is going to be awesome. And next week, I'm going to the POD Network's Institute for New Faculty Developers - I am so excited to learn from people who are already doing this work. I'm sure I'll have lots to report when I get back...

Friday, May 29, 2015

The all-powerful syllabus

Two recent events have me thinking a lot about the importance of the syllabus. I'm guessing a lot of readers have heard about the art class at UCSD with the 'nude final'. The nutshell version: a student's mother complained to a local TV station that her daughter is in a class where nudity is part of the final project; predictable uproar ensues. The fuller version: the class is not required, the nudity assignment is clearly stated in the syllabus and discussed on the first day of class (when students still have three weeks to drop the class), AND the assignment does not actually require students to be physically naked as there is an option that merely requires students to do a 'nude gesture' (the whole point is for students to share their 'naked self', either literally or figuratively).

There are so many things about this story that drive me crazy, from the helicopter mom to the way-too-predictable reaction of conservative media. But I also think it's a great case of how good pedagogy offers strong protection against stupid/crazy/immature people. The professor's chair, dean and past students all have voiced their support, in part because the professor clearly explains the nudity requirement in the syllabus and gives students an alternative. Once that part of the story became clear, I saw a distinct shift to focus more on the helicopter mom angle (according to a friend who is a student at UCSD, "everyone" on campus knows about this class and many are embarrassed, not about the professor, but about the girl who ran to mommy).

On the other hand, a few weeks before the UCSD story broke, SDSU's Student Grievance Committee submitted a proposal to the faculty Senate that no more than 5% of a student's final course grade could be based on "peer evaluations". The Grievance Committee are the people who have to hear complaints from students such as "I failed the class because the group project is worth 50% of our grade and all the people on my group conspired against me to say I didn't do any work". They also hear a lot of cases, about group work and a host of other things, where the professor has not spelled out a clear policy in the syllabus. While I absolutely sympathize with the Committee's desire to 'fix' all these problems, I absolutely disagree that the appropriate solution is a blanket policy that ties the hands of instructors who actually know something about good pedagogy. That is, the problem is NOT that peer evaluations are a large part of a course grade; the problem is invariably that the professor has not structured or explained those evaluations in a way that is clear, fair and consistent. So it seems to me that the preferable solution is NOT to mandate a specific pedagogical approach but to work harder to make sure that faculty are better teachers.

Of course, that's easier said than done. The faculty who need that kind of help are not the ones who voluntarily show up for CTL events. Maybe part of the solution also needs to be greater accountability for individual instructors - when a student files a grievance and 'wins' the case against the professor, my guess is that the only people who know about it are the student, the instructor and the Committee. Maybe that should expand to at least include the department chair and Dean. That probably violates the collective bargaining contract, but it would at least put some pressure on instructors to fix whatever problem led to the case in the first place. According to the chair of the Grievance Committee, the majority of the cases they hear are a result of bad syllabi, particularly syllabi that do not clearly spell out policies related to grading. I wonder if policy could be created that says the 'punishment' for losing a case is that the professor must submit a revised syllabus.

At any rate, it all reminds me that one of the best things we can do early to avoid problems later is to be clear and transparent about our policies and expectations...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Maybe I'm just not cut out for administration...

I'm stressed out. Last week, I was having stomach pains and I swear, I'm worried I may have an ulcer. But when someone asks me WHY I'm so stressed, I'm not quite sure what to say. I just have this feeling of being overwhelmed, that I'm trying to juggle too many different balls and am constantly worried about dropping one. But at the same time, when I sit down and really look at everything I need to do (I am the queen of to-do lists!), I am pretty sure it is all under control. So why do I feel like it isn't?

The only answer I can come up with is the meetings. Oh, the endless meetings! As a normal faculty member, pretty much the only set items on my calendar were my classes, my office hours and the occasional department meeting. But now, as CTL Director, my calendar is suddenly FULL of meetings and other scheduled events. Of course, there are the roughly weekly CTL events, but also biweekly meetings with Instructional Technology Services, biweekly meetings with the other Directors in my division, monthly meetings with the Assessment committee, random meetings with people across campus to discuss possible collaborations, meetings with individual instructors who want teaching advice, quarterly meetings with the Division budget person, and semi-regular meetings with my Dean and Associate Dean. Oh, and because I'm also now on the Faculty Senate, I also have monthly Senate meetings and three other monthly meetings for Senate-related committees and groups. There are many days when my calendar has more time blocked out as 'busy' than 'available' - last week, I had two days where I had over-lapping meetings solid from 9:30am to 4:30pm. Even on relatively light meeting days, there's generally at least an hour or two blocked out (on top of classes and office hours). And because finding a time during the semester when more than two academics can meet is like herding cats, a lot of my meetings are at times like 10-11am and 2-3pm, which is incredibly inconvenient for trying to get anything else done.

I had no idea that dealing with this change in how my time is structured would be so hard. It isn't hard in the same way that teaching is hard - when I get home from a day of teaching, I'm mentally exhausted but when I get home from a day of meetings, I'm stressed. Stressed because the meetings both prevent me from crossing much off my to-do list, and they generate ideas and action items that make my to-do list even longer. And although I'm often able to reply to emails and get a few things done in the short periods in between meetings, I just don't feel as productive because everything is done in short bursts. On the rare days when I have a full morning of uninterrupted time, I'm amazed at how much more productive I feel, even if the amount I get done isn't really all that different.

When faculty talk about moving into administration, it is often with a negative tone (as Dean Dad points out, the imagery of going to "the dark side" is pretty pervasive). I've seen lots of articles with advice about making the move into administration and the changes in perspective that can accompany it. And one of my concerns about taking the job as CTL Director was whether I would get sucked into that darkness, losing my perspective as a faculty member. But while I'm definitely seeing the validity in everything that I've read, both good and bad, this change in how my time is structured was not something I had anticipated and it's a much bigger challenge.

I almost decided not to post this - I realize I sound like I'm just whining. But I'm curious if other academics have any advice. My husband, who works in the private sector, is sympathetic but I know he doesn't quite 'get it'. When I try to explain it, he points out that this is what most people's days are like - he often goes from one conference call to another all day long and gets frustrated that he can't get his other work done. And I know he's right. But after so many years of having the kind of flexibility that makes being an academic such a great job, it doesn't really help that "everyone else deals with this too". I'm just not sure how to adjust without ending up with an ulcer. Any advice from my dear readers?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Catching up...

Thank goodness for Spring Break! Between late February and end of March, I went to three different conferences (one in San Diego so I didn't have to travel anywhere, thank goodness) so I've spent all of this week just getting caught up... I learned so many cool things and my head has been swimming will too many ideas to manage but let me try to at least share a couple things with you all...
  • At the CSU Symposium on University Teaching - where the conference theme was 'GRIT' - the pre-conference keynote was by Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes from UNLV's Transparency Project. The main gist was the importance of helping students understand how and why we ask them to do the things we ask them to do. The discussion was particularly interesting to me, given my last post about being more transparent in my writing class. 
  • Jesse Vestermark, a librarian at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, gave a presentation on helping students critically evaluate online sources - also incredibly timely since I was discussing that very topic in my writing class the following week! Jesse described a great activity where he gives students pieces of paper with different website characteristics printed on them (like 'features strong opinions' or 'company website' or '.edu domain') and has students place them on a 'spectrum of reliability' at the front of the room, then discuss. I tried it in my class that week and it led to a really great discussion as students debated why different factors mattered in different circumstances.
  • Last week, I attended the AAC&U's conference on Diversity, Learning and Student Success. Every session I attended was really useful but one that stands out was learning about threshold concepts and wicked problems, which are part of a CSU initiative to re-design GE courses. Threshold concepts are "core concepts that transform our ways of thinking in a particular discipline" - apparently, economists did some of the early on threshold concepts, which made it easier for me to understand what the presenters were talking about since they kept using opportunity cost as an example :-).
  • And if I didn't have enough food for thought from the last five weeks, registration is open for the 2015 National Conference on Teaching and Research in Economic Education (CTREE), which will be May 27-29 in Minneapolis. As always, the program is packed with so many great sessions that I'm going to go nuts trying to figure out which ones to attend. Hope to see you there!