Monday, August 28, 2006

My Freshman Year - A Response to Bardiac's Post

Last week, Bardiac posted about Rebekah Nathan's My Freshman Year *What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (NY: Penguin, 2006; first published by Cornell UP, 2005), and since I just recently read the book as well (I'm involved with first year programs at my university and it was recommended, and Nathan is going to be speaking in the coming months at some sort of event, and I was trying to decide whether I should bother with it), I wanted to respond with a full-length post. But before I do respond to the specific things that Bardiac brings up, I've got to put it out there: While some of what Nathan writes about is compelling, a lot of it felt like I'd heard it before or figured it out myself. She doesn't exactly get it wrong, but at the same time she doesn't entirely get it right, either. Middle-aged women don't live in dorms. Traditionally aged college students don't make real friends with non-trads. She acts as if she has some kind of insider perspective, but she doesn't, just as an ethnographer doesn't really have inside perspective when he/she goes off to observe another culture. So while reading the book was ok, it really didn't set my world on fire. But to respond to Bardiac's post...

Office Hours
Bardiac's first question is about how to schedule office hours better to accommodate students' schedules. As she notes, "Nathan talks a lot about how students manage their experience at AnyU, especially how they choose general education classes, how they fit in working for money, classwork, and the other things they do, and how they think about their management. [. . .] Nathan points out that she'd typically set up office hours during the middle of the day, before or after the lecture classes she taught (136). As a student, however, she discovered that she almost inevitably had another class to attend during her professors' office hours. She also points out rightly that more students work more hours these days than in previous decades."

Bardiac then goes on to describe her schedule and to ask readers for their suggestions about how she might arrange her schedule to accommodate students. (She is required to have 3 office hours per week and to make appointments.)

Now, my take on this may not be the nicest, but I really don't think that it makes a difference when one schedules office hours. There will always, particularly when students work as much as my students do, be conflicts between the hours that I choose and when students are available. (Incidentally, on the information sheet I ask students in each of my classes to fill out, I ask about their work-and-other commitments that might affect their work in my course. From freshmen through seniors, all but a handful work, and even those who aren't working now are planning to get a job. Most students work part-time, but many often work part-time at two different jobs, thus coming in at around 30-40 hours a week even though they don't work "full time." On top of this, more than a few also have children or other family members that they care for. With all of these commitments, when I schedule my three office hours doesn't matter much.)

So, if when one schedules the office hours doesn't really make much of a difference, what does?
  1. Offering students a range of ways to get into contact with you if they have a question about something, and encouraging students to use those means of communication. A student may be more likely to use a class discussion board online than to come to office hours, or to send an email. For some kinds of questions, I think those can be effective.
  2. Really being available to meet by appointment, and even offering to do so. I would say a good 60% of my meetings with students do not happen during my stated office hours. They happen after I negotiate with the student for a time that is convenient for us both. In some ways, I'd rather do all meetings with students this way because they are sure to show up if they schedule an appointment, whereas office hours are often empty.
  3. I think it's important to impress upon students that meeting individually with the professor is a good strategy for improving in the course, and to instill in them a belief that it is "worth" their time. If students think meeting with a professor will help, they will either tweak their schedule or schedule an appointment in order to do so. If students think it won't make a difference, they won't, whatever time the instructor schedules his/her office hours.
Reading Assignments
Next, Bardiac considers the issue of reading assignments. She writes, "Nathan talks about how students choose which reading assignments to do for a given class, and crassly, the choice comes down to which assignments they'll be quizzed on, or they'll need for homework, or for which they'll be a discussion, especially if they're likely to have to participate (137-139). Now, I KNOW that deep down, and tend to give quizzes a lot in my lower level classes. But Nathan brings out the point that more experienced students are even MORE likely to skip readings they don't think they'll REALLY need. " From this, Bardiac considers whether she should be quizzing her students in upper-division classes, or frequent papers to make sure students are keeping up with the reading. She also wonders about whether these strategies would be appropriate for graduate classes.

Now, at my institution this issue of students doing/not doing the reading is huge at all levels. My thoughts are these:
  1. Whatever you do, some students will not read. Period.
  2. I don't quiz in upper-division classes because I think it's infantilizing. (I think it's infantilizing in lower-division classes, too, but with 25 students, it's the only time-efficient way for me to monitor that they read. My upper-div classes are smaller, so I don't want to fall back on quizzing.)
  3. I think that the best way to keep students reading is to show them that it's meaningful to the day-to-day work of the class. If on a given day they may be doing an activity that assumes they've completed the reading, or if I ask the class to get things started with discussion, they are much more likely to be on top of the reading than if I'm running the show all of the time with lecturing and leading discussion.
  4. In terms of assignments, I like to offer a range of assignments that keep them participating. In upper division classes, my students have to participate in a blackboard discussion thread once a week, they have to come in with three questions/insights for each class period, and they write four short analysis/response papers (one for each unit of the course). Between each of these assignments, they will have to write about most texts on the syllabus and they will have to at least consider those they don't write about. Only the short papers are graded, though I do check to see that they are doing the other things, as well as reading what they write.
Next, Bardiac wonders how to get students to begin research earlier and to encourage students to take advantage of the full range of services at the library, like ILL. Now, this has been a question I've considered at length, and so here are some examples of things that I do.
  1. In my writing class that focuses on the research paper, I require an annotated bibliography. I do not require this in lit classes, just because I find it kind of tiresome to read them, but I do...
  2. Require students in my literature classes to submit a proposal for their final paper about 5 weeks from its deadline, and on that proposal they also have to include five potential sources that they might use on the assignment, including at least one scholarly book and at least one scholarly journal article (though with the advent of databases, they are MUCH less afraid of articles than, say, I was when I was a student and finding an article meant that one had to go through like four steps to get the actual article you wanted). This gives me the opportunity to see what they're looking at, to give suggestions, and to give them ideas about potential ways to do research on their topic.
  3. For the past few upper-div lit courses I've taught, I have students do presentations, and this semester, I've incorporated a research component into the presentation assignment, to get them thinking about research from about week 3 onward. Also, they are allowed to develop their research paper topic out of their presentation if they wish, and so this means that they are encouraged to begin doing real research quite early on.
  4. I also make sure to take students in all classes where I have them doing substantial research to the library for instruction on how to use things. One thing that drives me crazy is the way that some will insist that "these kids today" are so savvy with technology that they don't need to be taught how to navigate things on the computer. This is a lie. Yes, they can text and they can IM and they can google until they turn blue, but they don't know what a boolean search is, and they certainly don't understand how to find reputable sources or to tell what sources are reputable. We need to teach them that stuff.
Finally, Bardiac asks about diversity, but I don't really have the answer to her questions, so I will leave off here.

It's a rainy day, and I'm going home to hang out with my cat. I should go to the gym, but right now I think a nap is in order.


Eddie said...

I agree about the office hours! How the heck can we be expected to be available for each student when he/she is free? It's really much better to make sure they take advantage of making appointments, etc. (while also having office hours).

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I'm with you and Eddie, there is no way to schedule office hours at a good time -- the best option at my school is to make sure to be available for a quick drop in between classes. We have some schedule quirks when there are nearly no classes for a half-hour here and there, so being available then is the best option.

MommyProf said...

I've started, for at least some of the reading, having the students select their own (though I have to approve it). They also have to write something to make sure that they do it, but this way, they should have at least something that is genuinely interesting to them.

Dr. Crazy said...

I think I'm too much of a control freak to let students pick their own readings. Same reason I don't do well in book clubs :) But I see what you're saying Mommyprof, and I can see where that would be one strategy for making the students more invested in the reading material of the course.

And I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking that office hours are not any sort of solution to the when-to-meet-with-students problem. I agree that we should still have them, but I think the "by appointment" strategy works much better with our students' lives (especially if they're non-trads, or living off campus, or really any sort of student who isn't just living in a dorm and going to college).

Bardiac said...

Hey Dr. C, thanks for your thoughtful response.

I really like your idea about using webct. Can you share some of those ideas more in a post, please? I seem unable to find good ways to use our system for responses without things becoming burdensome for me (especially grading wise).

And I totally agree that students are great at some tech stuff, but need to learn how to do boolean searches and use library-type tools.

Thanks, Bardiac.

ps. Thanks again for your help with the book, too!

Dr. Crazy said...

Bardiac, you're welcome!

And sure, I can do a post about how I use discussion boards, etc. I'll warn you now, though, I use them in a VERY limited way precisely because integrating the technology stuff can ultimately be more of a burden for the instructor than any sort of enhancement for student learning. But perhaps that's what I'll discuss in my post? At any rate, that'll be something I'll do this week for sure :)

(And thank you, Bardiac, for posting about the "My Freshman Year" book, as it really did make me think about it some more, and that's why I posted over here in response to you - I didn't want to hijack your comments with all of this pontificating!)

luolin said...

I'm also with you on the office hours. With students who work many hours, have family responsibilities, or who cram all their classes into two days per week with no free time at all between 8 and 5, there is no time that is good for everyone, so I have gone back to scheduling the office hours that suit my schedule and pushing the individual appointments. I do think it is good to have drop in times available, even if they are usually empty, because some students really are too shy to make an appointment; office hours are less intimidating (or at least they were for me as an undergrad).