Could it be true?

September 20, 2012

So I am starting my 6th year of service at Morningside College – the year the tenure is traditionally granted.  The tenure portfolio is in and I’ve been told not to worry.  I’ve been an active member on campus, was voted onto a curriculum committee that is currently doing curriculum revision, chairing a sub-committee for our upcoming HLC accreditation visit, have started a new and exciting research program at a local drug and alcohol treatment center, and the recipient of one of the prestigious teaching awards on campus.  I guess I do not have much to worry about.  But what is beginning to dawn on me and feels quite unnerving is the fact that I will soon be moving out of the category of ‘Junior Faculty Member.’

It is not an uncommon experience to not feel at advanced (in work, age, or what have you) as you actually are.  I still feel a part of the junior faculty here, though I may soon not be seen as one by the ‘real’ junior faculty.  I still have my moments where I feel I do not know the institutional history or traditions.  I still feel that I am working hard to better myself as a mentor, instructor, and scholar.  However, I also still feel that sense of being an imposter where though I have been given some heavy responsibilities, that I will not live up to them.  A tenured faculty member doesn’t feel like this, right?

Perhaps what is making this acutely present for me is the fact that we have two new faculty members in our department this year.  I feel that I want to be present for them as a mentor, but I also do not want to impose my methods onto them and allow them to create their own way of teaching, advising, scholarship and service.  But what is becoming more clear to me now than it has in the past is that I may be a bit of a wonder to these two new people.  How is it that I am able to do a major book project, start a new major line of research, be present for my students, hold classes that students enjoy and yet work incredibly hard, volunteer at our writing center, and still manage to have a social life?  I find that I may be becoming the new Susan Burns in the psychology department (those of you who know her will get this reference).

Susan was my primary mentor when I first started at Morningside.  She was a sight to behold and was a wonder to me first starting.  I though she was superwoman.  She also was (and still is though she has since moved into an administrative role) an excellent teacher, students loved to work with her, she was active in faculty committee and served as a strong voice for psychology for the college.  I always wondered how she managed to do it all and still have time for a personal life (which I know she does).  I guess the answer is that it seems to just happen.  You take on a little bit here and and then little bit more there.  You are presented with opportunities that you simply cannot pass up because they are once in a life time, continue doing what you were because that is the main part of your job and you learn to manage it all.

I am not the only faculty member like this at Morningside.  I can list several good friends and colleagues that are similarly ‘super.’  BUT we are not super-people.  We are simply people who have either 1) learned to manage everything and have enough tools and activities in our teaching and advising toolbox that this preparation takes less time or 2) gone completely out of our minds.  Option 3 is perhaps a little or a lot of both and probably more likely.  In any case – still not super.  Or at least we usually don’t think we are.  We just do what we do because we probably would not have it any other way.

BTW, Susan if you happen to read this, thanks for all of the mentoring and support you gave me as a junior faculty member, I would not be where I am, doing what I am doing now had it not been for your support and guidance along the way.

 

Is this boring?

March 5, 2012

In my life there has been one thing that is constant – learning.  I have always enjoyed learning – so much so that I decided to go into it as a profession.  The thing that never ceases to amaze me is that some trivial or ‘boring’ thing that I had come across suddenly becomes extremely interesting once I begin to learn more about it.  Take my own language for example.  I’ve never been the best speller or had the most elaborate vocabulary.  I was never really interested in it.  That is until I started to realize the roots of the English language.  I started learning about the history of certain words and phrases and became fascinated.  I wish I could remember a specific example here – but I seem to be at a loss.

Another, perhaps more potent example is my interest in the field of statistics.  I was like most students in college when I was forced (yes and it was forced) to take statistics for my major.  I hated it.  I did not understand the process or why I even needed to take this dreadful class.  I ended up taking statistics again in various forms at least 4 more times.  It was only when I started to be more active in my own research that I learned the finer aspects of statistical analysis.  This fascination started through regression analysis with interactions.  I never knew that such an analysis could be done and it opened my eyes.  From there multivariate analyses become fascinating.  Once I began to understand more of these more complex analyses, I went back to my old t-tests and ANOVAs and noticed (finally) what was going on and why.  I also was entered into the world of nonparametric statistics which opened my eyes even more!

So something I thought was boring really wasn’t – I just didn’t understand it.  Once you begin to understand something – I think it starts to become more interesting.  Here’s another – Geography.  What high schooler enjoys geography!  But start learning about HOW those borders were created and changed and the geographical influences on the cultures that live in that area and it does become interesting.

So, the next time that you find yourself bored by some topic ask yourself first am I bored simply because I do not understand?  Granted there are things in the world that are boring even when you know about it.  But I think that the opposite is more likely true.  Ask any soccer, baseball, or hockey fan.  How could anyone be interested in a game where there is so little scoring?  Learn the finer points of these games and you will soon learn why each sport has its ardent fans.  It’s not about the scoring (well, yes it is) but even more so it is about the gamesmanship and strategy leading up to the score.  There is truly nothing better than an elegant hockey goal through traffic, the corner kick and header into a soccer goal, or the triple play in baseball.

E-Book Revolution?

February 14, 2012

Just a couple of weeks ago Apple announced its iBooks2 initiative as a way to help educators create and make cheaply available books that could  be viewed on their iPad.  I’ve just learned today of a company called Inkling that is attempting to market to professional publishers to assist them in creating e-books.

I am very interested in the possibilities of e-books and do believe that these will be the wave of the future.  However, many of the current forms that e-books take is really not much different than a traditional paper bound textbook.  E-books have been available for years and typically consist of the publisher taking the existing book and putting into an electronic form.  My anecdotal reports have been that students typically do not enjoy this or prefer this over a paper bound book.

The newer publishing software, however, promises opening new doors to e-publishing.  More interactivity, more media.  So I went to Inkling’s site, got the free chapter from an intro psych textbook and took a look.  I was actually pretty disappointed.  This book, though interactive in the sense that you tap on a term and a box pops up with the definition is really not much different than the existing e-books already out there.

I’m ready for the new evolution of e-books.  Something with much more interactivity, more hands-on learning using electronically delivered applications, and perhaps more self-quizzes to test for comprehension.  It will take creativity (something that many of us academic writers tend to lack) and vision.  For me it will almost take having a creative team much more so than the current model of textbook publishing.  It will also take more consistent updating and willingness by authors to consistently revise and change the content as new information arises.

I see a bright future, but one that seems to be taking its sweet time in getting here.  I do believe that these will soon be a demand for this form of textbook (within the next 5 years). Those in the publishing business need to get on the front end of the wave and take a risk.  I wonder if I’ll be one of those authors….future sabbatical project perhaps!

Does 101 = easy?

September 18, 2011

So I am a part of a committee that is busy discussing what the different levels of college courses mean (i.e. 100, 200, 300, and 400 level courses).  Many different people tend to view these distinctions differently.  Here are a few common views:

  • 100-level courses are easier than upper level with 400-level courses containing the ‘most difficult’ information.
  • 100-level courses are typically taken by freshman, 200-level by sophomores and so on.
  • 100-level courses teach basic knowledge that will be needed to upper level courses.  400-level courses thus can assume that students have been exposed to the necessary background knowledge and skills.

Now all of these distinctions are not necessarily isolated from one another.  Of course if we see freshman as primarily taking 100-level courses then these would assume the least amount of knowledge and thus probably cannot (or do not) introduce information where extensive background is needed.  Many times these distinctions are pretty clear between lower level (100 & 200) and upper level (300 & 400). What we have been busy grappling with is attempting to distinguish what is the difference between 100- and 200-level courses (besides from who tends to take them) and 300- and 400-level courses (probably less distinction here than between 100- and 200-level).

A common experience that I have is that my PSYC 101 course is often first perceived by the students as supposed to be easy.  When in reality, it may be one of the more difficult classes in our major.  It is not difficult because the material is taught at a high level…the difficulty actually comes with the breadth of material covered.  It is what is sometimes referred to as a ‘survey course’ where students are introduced to many different fields and theories on our discipline.  So unlike the majority of courses within our major (where you focus on one area or theory) in PSYC 101 we cover many areas as a more superficial level.  So when I think of whether 100-level courses = easy, I tend to disagree.  And I believe that many other teachers of 100-level courses would agree….but it does seem that this is the belief of the students (at least in the beginning before they get their first exam/paper back).

What I rather believe 101 courses are (or what I feel they should be) is as a way to introduce a novice student to a new area of study, but in a way that they can see the application to either their own lives in college or in life or in an interdisciplinary way that shows the student how interconnected much of human knowledge/art/skill is.  This is the way I teach my PSYC 101 course.  I do not see this as a class to recruit majors and then get them ready for upper level courses.  I see this as a course that any student can use no matter where they go in life.  Fortunately, I think that focusing on the latter actually addresses the former.

But I get a bit off topic, right now I am in the middle of what I think is a fascinating and important debate about how we label our courses.  What meaning we give to these numbers can potentially be used to help inform our curriculum and our student when we advise.  At this point there is language of  Foundational Skills, Emerging Skills, and Skill Mastery.  I think I am the one who first brought this to my current group, but I am quite sure I commandeered this language from the CLA workshop I attended last year.  It seems to fit well, but only has three levels (doesn’t map perfectly on the traditional 4 level course structure).  I hope that this discussion helps to inform us in our attempts at current curricular revision.  It has certainly begun some interesting debate and also helped us to see what some future issues will be as we continue.

Today I spent nearly the entire day preparing food.  Specifically, buying and preparing food for preservation.  The beginning of August is the time for sweet corn and peaches here in Northwestern Iowa.  I bought a 25 lbs box of MO peaches and 6 dozen cobs of Iowa sweet corn.  Here is the end product of nearly 6 hours of work:

What you see here (from left to right) are 12 quarts of peaches in light syrup, 4 dozen ears of corn cut off the cob (the cut cobs are behind the bags of corn for later use in soup stock) and 2 dozen cobs to be frozen on the cob.  As you can likely tell by the fact that I kept, and will freeze, the spent cobs, I like to use all part of food.  All of the husks are now in my compost heap for use later in the garden.

As I was husking the corn I was thinking about how I do these things mostly as a hobby.  I enjoy food…growing, preparing it, eating it.  But all of the things that I do are not necessary in today’s food economy.  I could spend much less time and just buy this stuff from the grocery store.  But instead I will spend months of work and worry on growing vegetables and hours of time preserving food FOR FUN!  Not that long ago, people had to do this to feed themselves during the winter months.  I have other hobbies that were once a necessity as well including knitting and crocheting.  I started to wonder if there would be any activities today that are living necessities that would become the hobby of some person in the future.  Perhaps driving your own car?  Cleaning your own home?  Writing using a pen and paper?  I’m really not sure.  We have so many conveniences today that it is hard to think of things that are living necessities that one would only do as a hobby in the future.

Doing that activities of canning and freezing today also had me thinking about what those people  of the past would think about a person who chooses to engage in this time consuming activity?  The reasons that I do it are partially for the enjoyment of the process…but let’s be honest, that process gets old quickly.  The bigger reasons are a satisfaction of making something myself from nearly nothing (in the case of gardening), and being able to enjoy something that I made months after the garden has been put to bed.  I find a much closer connection to my food because of this.  I have spent so much time and effort that I take the time to use the preserved food in the beat meals and I take the time to really taste the food that I have made.  I think that this focus on food has waned in our country.  Instead we tend to focus more on what is quickest to heat up and shove in our mouth.  Much of this commercially prepared food I find less tasty and fulfilling (note I did not say filling!).

So any thoughts on which of today’s necessary activities will become a hobby of a future person?

It has been a while since I have last written just on myself here.  The past few weeks have been busy and fulfilling for the most part.  Today was a day of putting out many fires, but everything coming out well in the end.  I also think today was a good day to sit back and reflect on what it is I often to day to day and I found that even though today was hectic and I often was a bit disorganized, it was a day that showed well why I truly love my job.

So let me count the ways (things that happened just this week):

  1. I get great ideas for new ways to highlight student scholarship from colleagues I don’t expect it from.
  2. Students when asked to take on a mighty task come through beautifully and professionally.
  3. Watching my students in experimental psych tackle their data, see how much work it is, the frustrations that come with easy mistakes that are made, and yet also feel the anticipation of knowing if their data mean anything (significant results).
  4. Also, having one of those ‘really good classes’ that is fun to teach and interact with the students.
  5. Listening to students in the library work together on constructing an argumentative paper and taking it really seriously.
  6. Seeing how much faculty care about their student’s work and fighting to be sure that their student’s work is presented in the appropriate manner.
  7. Reading a colleague’s manuscript draft on an area totally outside my own and being absolutely fascinated by the topic and the thesis.
  8. Critical discussion between faculty on issues of courses and student designed majors.  Items that, in the past, may have been passed due to  apathy were energetically debated.
  9. Watching students that were freshmen when I started here 4 years ago, prepare for graduation, receive departmental awards, and get ready to go to grad school or start their new jobs.
  10. Working with faculty who really care about student success, experience, development, mentorship, etc. etc.

I’m sure there are more instances….but honesty it is 4:10 on a Friday afternoon, I have no meetings or classes left.

Signing off!

This past year I have been a member of our college’s curriculum review task force.  For those of you who are not familiar with academia, curriculum is probably the most politically charged issue on college campuses.  Curriculum is not only tied to the heart of education but also tied to how resources are allocated.  But the item that I would like to discuss today is the idea of the liberal arts.

Morningside College is a traditional small private liberal arts college.  I used to think that I knew what that meant, but the more and more that I think about this idea, the less sure that I have a strong sense of what I think liberal art should be.  Let me explain why briefly.

I think that there might be two very general ways that the liberal arts is generally conceptualized: 1) as a broad base of knowledge in several different areas of study and 2) as having an interdisciplinary approach to the gaining and creation of knowledge.  On the surface it would appear that these two are basically the same.  But I would argue that indeed they are distinct yet related.

The first approach – having a broad base of knowledge, I consider to be one of the most common ways that colleges and universities think of their liberal arts programs.  This is usually shown by having some form of distribution form of a general education (take a class from several different fields).  My undergraduate college took this view.  I had to take classes in science, math, language, social science, art, writing, etc.  Morningside also takes this approach with requirements in categories called empirical, quantitative, global awareness, creative expression, ethics and personal values, religion, and service learning.

The second approach – an interdisciplinary approach to the creation and learning of knowledge – is probably more commonly found in colleges that have so-called ‘core’ general education requirements (a set of classes that all students take that are interdisciplinary in nature).

Now the big difference I see is that if you believe that liberal arts is a broad base of knowledge in several areas, this does not necessarily assume that those areas are viewed in an integrated context.  I know in my undergraduate college there was not a whole lot of overlap between my general ed. classes nor did I see any attempt at this.  This is fine, and I can see the value in this.  But the more that I get involved in curricular issues and within my own teaching I find myself valuing more how I might be able to integrate all of these knowledge areas.

If we value a liberal arts that assumes an interdisciplinary approach (which I find myself leaning more and more toward), how can a curriculum do something like this?  Do you go to a core?  These have difficulties in scheduling, staffing, and less flexibility in course choice?  How could you make a general ed with a distribution format more integrative?  You need to know what other professors do in their courses in departments that you are not a member of.

Because I am currently on a committee looking to revise our general education curriculum this has become both a value issue and a practical issue for me.  Do we impose interdisciplinary approaches in our core through special core classes, or can people trust each other enough to build on each others work and to communicate accurately exactly what knowledge and skills we do in our general education classes?

I do not know the answer, but I tend to currently lean more toward the latter at this point in time.  Time, evidence, and constraints may change my mind, but regardless I will continue to fight for the liberal arts as an interdisciplinary approach to learning, teaching, knowledge, and skills.

Buon Giorno!

January 28, 2011

Ciao!  This is about the extent of my Italian currently, but I think I will be expanding a bit this semester.  I am currently a participant in a pilot project at my college to see how we might use Rosetta Stone in our school.  I’m not sure what the future holds so I am hesitant to make any guesses, but in any case I hopped on the chance to learn the language for free.

At this point I can name some simple objects, bambina/o, donna, uomo, mela, uovo, penne, cavallo, etc.  I’ve learned mangia, cucina, corre, etc for verbs.  I have attempted to use Rosetta Stone before for Spanish and it is the same progression as I had before.  I am hopeful that I will be able to become conversational with a computer-based language program.  At least we have supplemented the program with monthly meetings of the group, but also I am close with several of the people, so I may begin saying random phrases in Italian to them…at least until I get to the point of being able to have a meaningful sentence beyond ‘the girl swims, and the women eat.’  In time it will come.

Right now the one complaint I have is that I am learning phrases to describe other people, not myself.  So I cannot even say “I am learning Italian.”  I’m sure the program gets there.  I also cannot ask questions of others “what do you have?” because I have not been introduced to that conjugation yet.  But again I’m sure it will come.

I think that this could serve as an interesting model for one of our college’s outcomes, which is lifelong learning.  There are several faculty and staff members who have chosen to do this out of pure interest (of course the incentive of a free language class helps).  Perhaps students will begin to see faculty practicing their Italian with each other.  What a cool thing to see…faculty and students working together to learn something new!

It’s an interesting model that does not come without its criticism.  Certainly you do not get a taste of the actual culture where the language is used, which can be important for language comprehension, but perhaps for beginning learners it is a good start.   For now I will practice and try not to let it interfere too much with my need to do real work.  Perhaps at some point in the future I will attempt to write a short blog in Italian!

Arrivederci!

I am just 30 minutes out of my Tuesday/Thursday developmental psychology class and I am starting to think that I might have found that perfect project for this course.  Before I explain why I am actually a bit giddy today, let me give just a bit of background.

First, I teach developmental psychology quite often.  Usually a few times per academic year.  Though it is my most taught class (and probably best prepped in terms of actually having coherent lecture material and activities) it is a class that I have personally struggled with.  The reason for my struggle is partially the course content and partially my own need to keep things fresh as to not become bored with the material myself.

I have tried several ways to re-create the course.  First, I moved from a chronological to a topical approach so that I wasn’t always talking about one age period but rather all of the age periods throughout the semester.  Second, I tried to include more hands-on activities (an hour 40 is a LONG time in class!) that I thought would be engaging and question provoking for the students.  Then I played around with the course project, making it first an autobiography and then splitting up the autobiography into 5 parts.

I still found myself not totally satisfied with the class.  The content seemed too easy (at least for me) and the course simply not offering the appropriate amount of rigor that a 200-level course should, the students did not seem to be as engaged as I would like, and I just haven’t felt quite ‘right’ about the class.  I cannot describe it better than that, and if you, reader, have ever been a teacher I think you know what it is I am trying to convey.

I’ve toyed with the idea of incorporating a service learning element into my class, but this never came to fruition, mostly because I did not have the resources or the time to find good community locations for a small scale service learning project.  I know it can be done, I just have not done this.  But just recently and honestly just the week before classes begun, I had another idea for a course project.  Have the students develop a public website.

This idea came about for a few reasons: 1) I wanted to try to reduce the amount of writing grading in this course.  In the past I have had massive amounts of writing to grade.  This is not to say I do not value writing, I just needed to bring the amount down a bit (Thirty-two 15 page papers is a lot!). 2) I wanted to have students write for a different kind of audience.  I have thought more and more about ‘authentic tasks’ and in all of my other courses students write a typical college paper or psychology APA paper – not very authentic, unless they are going to be an academic.  I wanted to practice a different form of writing and a form that they are more likely to use in the future. 3) I wanted to encourage my students learn some things on their own.  There are so many topics that I cannot cover in this course simply because it is too large.  I wanted students to choose some topics that they could dive into deeper on their own.

So here is the project, for each new unit (there are five in the course), seven groups of 3-4 students work together on some selected topic in developmental psychology and create a web page to describe and teach that topic.  The caveat is, they need a narrow topic so they can do one thing really well and that the web page must look professional, be organized, be informative, and be creative.  My students just developed their assigned topics a couple of days ago and I (hope) I am feeling the effects that this project now has on the course in general.  Let me explain.

Today is usually a day that is mostly me lecturing with a couple of activities that the students do not really get too engaged in: Theory.  Often it is a yawner of a class as we cover quite a bit (Freud, Skinner, Bandura, Brofenbrenner).  Today I had a different experience.  Today the students were REALLY engaged and ASKED A BUNCH OF QUESTIONS!  I was surprised at first!  Usually there might be one or two question, but I had at least 6 different students ask questions through the lecture.

Now this is simply anecdotal and it may just be today, but if a THEORY lecture can engage students….what will the more interesting topics bring?  Many of the questions were about Freud’s Psychosexual Theory and as I looked back, most of the students asking the questions had chosen that as their group’s topic.  I am hopeful that this is indicative of students having more ‘buy-in’ to some of the content.  They know what their topic will be and will want to know more when we actually come to that topic.  I am also hopeful that for later lectures during each unit, group members will offer information that they have found for the class.

These are extremely preliminary observations…it has only been one class…but I remain optimistic.  I had a GREAT time during this lecture, more enjoyment than usual and I know it is because I saw the students being interested and engaged in this topic.  I will continue to see if this pattern continues…who knows, perhaps there is a study in here somewhere for the future.  For now, I am at least partially reinforced for my choice of course project.  We will see how everything comes together, but for now it is a good start.

I may be a convert…

January 14, 2011

Ok, so forever I have been a pretty strong supporters of non-apple/Mac platforms. It’s a pc world right?!? Tonight I write to you, fair reader, from a loaned iPad whist sitting in the hotel bar with my complimentary glass of cabernet. Though I still do not think that I can justify actually buying an iPad my myself personally, I do believe that I will. Be checking one out rather often, especially while traveling for business.

I find writing this blog entry vey easy with the ‘full-sized’ keyboard of this device and I found it really easy to transfer from typing with a regular keyboard to this touch-based keyboard. I have also found a fee free apps that would be useful for everyday (such as the news apps) but also a few for education and other productivity. I still have to play with some of the more educationally based apps, but I believe they will be useful.

Additionally, as I play around with this device I find myself liking the interface of the apple style product. We now have a choice at out college of choosing either a pc or Mac platform for out work computers. I have thought semi-seriously about trying a Mac for my new computer. Tonight I find myself even more drawn to trying one out. The two platforms are becoming more and more combatible and with the fact at nearly half of my students have a Mac, it is necessary for me to use software and other appications that can cross platforms easily.

My grad school advisor will probably say ‘I told you so!’ he had a few conversations debating the merits of both platforms (he being a pro-Mac guy, me pro-pc). I will need to think about this long and hard, but i think it may be time to make the move. However, I still do not think that I can justify actually getting an iPad. We’ll see what the next generations (likely due out early this year) will bring in terms of updates and pricing.

I apologize for any typos, I cannot seem to be able to scroll up in my text box on this…something this think about apple!