Higher education

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Book Review: Subversive Pedagogies: Radical Possibility in the Academy edited by Kate Schick and Claire Timperley

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 02/04/2022 - 8:00pm in

In Subversive Pedagogies: Radical Possibility in the Academy, Kate Schick and Claire Timperley bring together contributors to explore teaching as a subversive space of radical possibility, drawing attention to pedagogies that are situated, embodied, caring and decidedly political. Judith Leijdekkers and Sander Hölsgens offer a conversation around the book, reading the collection as an invitation for fellow pedagogues to scrutinise, transform and resist the … Continued

Adventures in Teaching First Year Students.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/03/2022 - 7:55pm in

Last week I met with a student, B, who took my class as a freshman in 2007, and was making a brief visit from Australia, where she has settled. Shortly after her freshman class ended she made a suggestion to a classmate, which has been rather fateful for me. She’s forgotten that it was her suggestion.

My university has a program called First Year Interest Groups (FIGs). The design is simple: 20 students opt into a 20-person seminar with a specific theme, and are required to take two other, thematically linked, courses in other departments. B took my first offering, in Fall 2007 on the topic Children Marriage and the Family. (Students also took a sociology course on marriage and the family, and an Ed Psych course on human development.) I would see them all in class twice a week, but they would see each other 5 additional times a week. Students opt into the program, but first generation students and students from low-income backgrounds and other underrepresented groups are heavily counselled into them, so participate disproportionately present. About 20% of the incoming first year students participate.

I’ve written a bit elsewhere about how dreadfully I taught that first FIG, and how the experience influenced my pedagogy in the classroom. It has had just as much influence on my interactions with students beyond the classroom.

Teaching a FIG comes with an expense account of $1000. You can use the money however you like, within reason: research, field trips, whatever. I was telling a friend who was a senior administrator that I didn’t know how to spend it (field trips in Philosophy?), and she suggested, “take them out to dinner: students love free food.” I thought it might be nice to do that in February, a couple of months after the class ended. So I did, and all the students attended. It was fun.

A couple of days later I saw one of the students, let’s call her Emma (more about Emma here). She said that as they walked home together B commented that it would be nice to have another class together, maybe in junior year. When I saw her the next day Emma asked me if that would be possible. I couldn’t see a way of doing it on my regular schedule, but it would be easy enough to teach an extra class in the fall of their junior year. If I taught it for free, on top of my regular classes, I would feel fine restricting enrollment. I’d also feel fine if it didn’t fill. So in Fall 2009 about 10 of them took the additional class. It was exciting for them. But it was also exciting for me. Seeing how they had changed and developed, both as people, and intellectually, over the previous couple of years. And, of course, getting to know them in a way that is difficult when you just see people for a single 15-week stretch. One student in particular had been close to silent as a freshman, but had really come out of herself in a way that amused the whole class. It was like having a different person in the room. [1]

I taught the class again in 2010, during the school year at the end of which the 2007 cohort graduated. By then I knew several of the 2007 students pretty well. One had encountered pretty traumatic and difficult hurdles, and I had helped her get over them; we’re still friends. As detailed in this piece Emma came to the 2010 class once a week to coach my pedagogy and, of course, got to know the 2010 students.

Emma had also identified a problem for the FIG students.

When we were in the FIG we all saw each other 6 times a week, and really got to know each other, and you. It was like high school, but with intellectual rigor, and on a huge campus, so gave us a sense of belonging. But then, in the spring, we were all exclusively in 300 person lectures where we couldn’t get to know our classmates, and our professors had no interest in us.

She made two suggestions for mitigation. First, in October, when the timetable is published, create space in class for students to look at it and work out how to take classes together in clusters of 2-4 (or more). Second, she pointed out that every spring I teach a large-lecture applied ethics course that is entirely intellectually accessible for first year students. Her suggestion was that I add a discussion section that I would lead, just for the FIG students, and that she would encourage the FIG students to sign up for it (she would encourage them so that they would not feel pressure from me). So we did that: about 15 of them took it. And, then, when they were juniors, I offered a class just for them, which only about 8 of them ended up taking.

When the 2010 group were seniors (Fall 2013), I taught another FIG. Two of the 2010 group attended those classes, one to criticize my teaching, and the other to act as a sort of peer mentor to the first years. Almost everyone in the 2013 group took my large lecture in the spring.

In 2015 I taught a junior level class for the 2013 group and then, in 2016, I taught the FIG again, with four of the 2013 group attending to peer mentor. So I had settled into a pattern: teach the FIG once every three years, teach a discussion section for them in a large lecture class during the subsequent spring, teach a full class for them in fall of junior year, and, sometimes, run a reading group in the semester during which they graduate. If you do that then you end up getting to know a substantial group of students pretty well.

My department and the program would allow me to teach the FIG more often, but realistically I lack the bandwidth to be fully accessible in the way I want to be to the students over the course of their undergraduate career. And that was the big change in my professional life. Usually I’d get to know students in their junior or senior year, usually philosophy majors, and only occasionally might get to know a first year student and keep up with them because they became a major. But now I was getting to know a swathe of 20 first year students, few of whom had any interest in majoring in Philosophy, and with whom I’d keep in touch throughout. I found I could keep track of about 20 at a time, with 3 year spacings.

About half the times I have taught the junior course as an unpaid overload, but the other half of the times I have been allowed to teach it as part of my normal course load, and filled it by topping it up with non-Fig students. In 2019 so many of the 2016 students wanted to be involved in mentoring that I formally allocated each 2016 student to 2 or 3 2019 students. Several would come to each class session, which enabled me to deploy them to monitor small group discussions. This makes those much more productive and provides me with quick information about how good/bad my discussion prompts are, whether I am providing enough/too much time for the small group discussions, which students might need more encouragement, etc, as well as giving the first year students access to a lot of advice that, frankly, I can’t give. I anticipate the same uptake from 2019 students next fall.

Some of the consequences are charming. A 2010 student and 2007 student were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, and are close friends (they met through the FIG connection). Two pairs of 2007 students (that I know of) are lifelong friends. I just heard from two of the 2016 students who live together in Hawaii (they barely spoke to each other in class). Several other 2016 students, all of whom graduated during covid, are close friends with one another. Those who are not always want to hear about the others when they talk to me. I was recently at the wedding of a 2013 student in Door County, and her photographer (completely unbeknownst to her) was a prior FIG student of mine. One of the few who subsequently majored in philosophy took the FIG because her sister (who hated philosophy) had taken it 6 years previously. Four girls in her cohort majored in Philosophy, and they led the students in the major for a few years.

But some of the consequences are more serious. Obviously, in a group that large, over a 4 year period a number of them face real challenges, some of which seem insurmountable to them. I think they know – well, I know they know – that they can ask for help, and that they trust me to give it. Early on one student thought she needed to drop out because she was failing a class, but if she dropped it her financial aid would lapse: I was pretty confident that she was wrong, and made her see a financial aid counsellor who solved the problem.

Another is amusingly grateful to me because when she was having a series of panic attacks I told her to invite another student out for lunch, who, as I anticipated, provided the ballast she needed: they’ll be lifelong friends. Another stopped coming to class, and, after me chasing her up a few times, it became clear that she was not going to any classes, and on the verge of dropping out. My (possibly reckless) advice included taking, in second semester of freshman year, a very hard upper-level class with one of my most rigorous and demanding colleagues: she flourished in that class, and although I wouldn’t say she enjoyed college, I’m pretty sure that she’s in a better place than if she’d dropped out.

Another wanted support navigating an issue in student politics (around a political issue concerning which she knew there was a good chance I would disagree with her). I helped her figure out exactly what she wanted, and then connected her with the student politician whom she was upset with, knowing that she would get a satisfactory outcome. His immediate reaction when she talked to him, was “I’ve fucked up, I am sorry, what you’re asking for is completely reasonable, can I just apologise to you and do what you’ve requested?” [2]

A number of stories are too personal for me to feel comfortable sharing in print, even with details changed to protect anonymity; but many of them involve simply being sympathetic, listening, smiling at people while they cry in my office, and getting them to the agencies that can provide professional support, which, often, they just don’t realize are there. I’ve convinced several more students not to drop out (all of them ended up enjoying college and being very successful). I failed with one, who dropped out at the end of her freshman year; I encouraged her to stay, but I knew it wasn’t going to work. She says, many years later, that having someone to talk to regularly over that dreadful year was a lifeline. She’s doing well. One student, who never had any problems at all, said that she enjoyed college more knowing that if something did go wrong she had someone to tell about it straightaway. And that she could send her friends my way (which she did).

Our outgoing Chancellor told me a few years ago that when she was an assistant professor at the university she’s about to return to as President, she was assigned a random 17 students every year with whom she had to meet and keep in touch over the course of their first year; basically as a point person. I figured at one point that 1:17 is round about the ratio that would work at Madison; if each faculty member had a conversational relationship with about 17 undergraduates then every undergraduate could have some faculty member with whom they have a conversational relationship. That doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation really: I had maybe 5 faculty members throughout my undergraduate years with whom I could chat casually and, if necessary, in a lot of depth. Of course, not everyone is well equipped to provide this kind of support, so it seems reasonable to expect someone like me, who is well positioned, to take on more than 17 (average of 25 through the FIG program, plus another 10-15 students at any given time who know my door is fully open to them).

Of course this is all voluntaristic. It doesn’t solve the systematic problem of the anonymity of the student experience at the large research university. It’s not supposed to. Nor does it solve the problem of anti-intellectualism in the student body. It’s not supposed to. It just mitigates those problems for a handful of students. And of course it carries costs for me: primarily the time costs of teaching extra classes from time to time, and chatting to and getting to know people. And the letters of recommendation, which I imagine I write more of than average (but who would ever know, because I have no idea how many other people write, because we never talk about it!).

But I’m extremely privileged: my job is secure, I have enormous control over how my time is used, and my regular course load (2 courses/semester) is sufficiently light that adding an extra course here and there leaves me plenty of time for research and committee meetings. And of course there’s lots of reward! Students have lots of successes, and it’s a joy to learn of those. And, perhaps, even more of a joy to see them enjoying one another’s successes (I was recently chatting after class with two students who, I knew, had just had very major professional successes, and got to see the thrill on each of their faces as they heard about the other’s). It’s so much easier to teach people well if you know them. You can much more efficiently calibrate the level of challenge to what those specific students need at that particular stage of their intellectual development. You can create discussion groups that are more productive, because less randomly chosen. Far less time needs to be spent establishing the level of trust a classroom needs to foster productive discussions about difficult issues. And I think seeing how particular groups of students changes intellectually over a 4-year period has enabled me to intuit quicker and better where other students are in their development when I teach them.

It wasn’t actually the meeting with B that prompted me to write this. Last Fall I met a few times with a student who had graduated in 1998, having taken the first, really disastrous, course I taught for freshmen (not in the FIG program which didn’t exist then) in 1994. She remembers feeling lost and disoriented during her first two years of her undergraduate degree, and getting help from me in reorienting herself. She asked about my career, and after I described the FIG experience, which I suppose has been the highlight, she told me to write it up for others to read. And emulate, if they have the energy, and are similarly privileged.

I’ll end with a moment that I really valued. Toward the end of one of the junior year classes a black, working class, student countered something I had said with an argument I couldn’t respond to. I hesitated, and then said “I don’t know how to respond to that”. Her response was instantaneous and joyous: she punched the air and cried “Yes! I’ve never done that before!” If she had just had the normal one-semester experience she’d never have had that moment because for her, at least (as for me when I was her age), one semester just wasn’t long enough to have learned the habits of mind that enabled her to do that.

[1] We read Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok. I asked them one thing they had learned from the book and the previously silent student jumped in “Well, I learned why it is that our education sucks”

[2] “My friends asked me, ‘why are you going to talk to your philosophy professor? How is he going to help. What if he’s on the other side?’. I said “I don’t know. I don’t know what side he takes on this issue, but I know that he’ll be on my side and will help me find a resolution”.

The Problem Is Not Harvard, the Problem Is Graduate School

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/02/2022 - 8:02am in

This is because the system is built to protect, enable, and encourage harassers. Graduate students, whose cheap labor is used by the university to buttress the outrageous salaries of star faculty and senior administrators, are often broke, disempowered, terrified, and exhausted, even prior to being sexually harassed....

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Times Higher Education is expanding, but what is it becoming?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/02/2022 - 11:00pm in

Since its origins as a newspaper supplement, the Times Higher Education (THE) has become so much more than a higher education news company. As its business model and commercial raison d’être changed, so has its rankings-related journalism. In this post, Morten Hansen and Astrid Van den Bossche explain how recent research on THE rankings output … Continued

What can universities do to support the well-being and mental health of postgraduate researchers?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/02/2022 - 10:00pm in

As highlighted in a recent LSE Impact blogpost, there is evidence to show that postgraduate researchers face particular risks in relation to poor mental health and well-being. Reporting on a recent review of interventions carried out by universities and higher education institutions, David Watson, outlines four areas in which universities can develop initiatives to support … Continued

A Narrative CV for Universities?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 31/01/2022 - 10:00pm in

In an attempt to move away from overly quantitative assessments of researchers, many research funding bodies are turning to the use of narrative CVs. In this blogpost, Elizabeth Gadd argues that, in the same way, offering universities a narrative format in which to describe their contributions would provide them with an opportunity to proactively and … Continued

Which speakers will benefit from the rise in remote seminar presentations?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/01/2022 - 10:00pm in

The pandemic has led to a surge in working from home and a fall in business travel. More meetings have taken place remotely. Marcus Biermann looks at how the changes have played out in academic seminars in economics, and asks whether women in academia may benefit from a decreasing need to travel. Many people have to travel … Continued

Is doing a PhD bad for your mental health?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/01/2022 - 10:00pm in

Poor mental health amongst PhD researchers is increasingly being recognised as an issue within higher education institutions. However, there continues to be unanswered questions relating to the propensity and causality of poor mental health amongst PhD researchers. Reporting on a new comparative survey of PhD researchers and their peers from different professions, Dr Cassie M … Continued

Free software for students

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 16/11/2016 - 12:53pm in

Pretty much all universities maintain a list of free-as-in-gratis software that they recommend students use. Very little of this is free-as-in-freedom software. There is no technical reason why most computer users should ever have to use proprietary software. Some users simply aren't aware of the drawbacks and dangers of proprietary software, while others are compelled to use proprietary software by institutions (their employer, etc.). It is vitally important that educational institutions do not compel, or even encourage, the use of non-free software, for many reasons.

The following list was initially based on the list of software Southern Cross University recommends their students use. I've supplemented this with other software I've found useful, and removed some items that solve problems that virtually nobody has these days (such as running Adobe Flash applications). Let me know if you've any suggestions.

Essentials

Software most students will find useful.

Audio players

  • Southern Cross University recommends iTunes, which fundamentally is spyware. However,
  • SCU also recommends VLC media player, and I would as well! According to Wikipedia, it runs on "Windows, macOS, [GNU/]Linux, BSD, Solaris, Android, iOS, Chrome OS, Windows Phone, QNX, Haiku, Syllable, Tizen, OS/2"!
  • I use Totem for playing single audio/video files, and Rhythmbox for organising my music collection. These are only available for GNU/Linux (and other Unix-like OS's).
  • gPodder is a pretty nice podcast downloader/organiser for GNU/Linux, OS X, and Windows.
  • Suggestions, please…

File archiving/compression

  • Southern Cross University recommends 7-zip, which I've used and recommended in the past. Runs on Windows, OS X, and GNU/Linux (though I use tar and gzip from the command line, or the GNOME front end to these). I don't recommend using 7-zip's own format for any important data you want to preserve for posterity. GZIP (or TAR and GZIP for multiple-file archives) is the most cross-platform and future-proof option, IMHO.

Java

  • Most of Java is free software, though some components are proprietary.
  • I use IcedTea, part of the GNU Classpath fully free software Java reimplementation, to run Blackboard Collaborate, and it works fine (that is to say, any problems can safely be attributed to Blackboard Collaborate). Only available for GNU/Linux.
  • Would like to hear from anybody better informed than I about fully free software Java options for other platforms…

Mobile

  • Mobile hardware and software is a privacy/security nightmare. You can at least not make the situation any worse than when the device came out of the box. F-Droid is a huge collection of free software for Android devices. Install the F-Droid app, and from there you can browse/search the collection and install the apps you need, knowing that there is complete and corresponding source code available for each, so the developers can't hide anything nasty behind a wall of copyright.

Office Suite

  • By virtue of its feature-completeness, LibreOffice is pretty much the only game in town. I rarely used this kind of software before attending uni, and that's where 99% of my frustration with it lies. I've not found anything I've been required to do in three years of uni that it cannot accommodate, though I suppose Microsoft Office power users would face considerable migration strain. Runs on GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows, and even has a document viewer for Android.

PDF readers

If I had a penny for every time I'd heard PDF referred to as "Adobe Acrobat format"…

PDF writers/converters

  • Southern Cross University recommends CutePDF Writer, which has been found in the past to install adware/spyware. Don't touch it with a bargepole.
  • Many free software applications, such as LibreOffice and Mozilla Firefox, are able to export to PDF format without requiring additional software.
  • Suggestions, please…

Utilities

  • KeePassX remembers your passwords so you don't have to. Stores them in an encrypted file. Vastly preferrable to SCU's recommended (indeed practically enforced) solution: synchronising your passwords across multiple remote services! KeePassX runs on GNU/Linux, OS X, and Windows.

Web

  • Most websites send executable code (rather than just the document you asked for) to your browser. That can provide useful functionality, which is fine (with qualifications) if you trust the source, but many sites also send programs from third parties whom they trust (or just don't much care about), while you are unaware of this. At SCU, your activities on the university-mandated ed-tech shambles that is Blackboard are shared not only with Blackboard Inc., but also with another half a dozen companies that provide services to the university and/or Blackboard Inc. (user statistics, caching or load balancing, and so on). These services are provided at a free or heavily subsidised cost, on the business model of surveillance capitalism. It is morally outrageous to require that students submit to this, but hey, every university does it (except maybe the good ones). The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger web browser extension is a reasonably user-friendly way to control which of these programs get downloaded and executed on your computer, and consequently whether a third party is able to track your use of any particular web site.

Nice to have

More specialised or advanced software.

Audio/video editing

  • Audacity is a multi-track audio editor for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows. A friend and I had a podcast for a while, so I used this all the time for cleaning up audio, and mixing elaborate sound effects from samples. It's brilliant.

Graphics

  • Dia is a diagram (flowcharts, etc.) creation program for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows.
  • The GNU Image Manipulation program (GIMP) is a raster (bitmapped — photos, and so on) graphics editor for (according to Wikipedia) "[GNU/]Linux, OS X, Microsoft Windows, BSD, Solaris, AmigaOS 4". I don't do a lot of image editing, but I've depended on it for about 20 years, and have never once found myself wishing I had Adobe Photoshop.
  • Inkscape is a vector (line art, logos, diagrams, etc.) editor for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows.
  • Dia, the GIMP, and Inkscape all export to PDF, and the latter two do a pretty good job of importing from PDF.

Reference management

  • Bibus is a reference manager for GNU/Linux and Windows. It imports metadata in all the usual formats (Bibtex, etc.), though I've found it pretty poor in automatically generating references you can copy and paste into a list without manually tweaking. I find it principally valuable as a simple searchable database of stuff I can vaguely recall reading, but can't remember where. It has some functionality for hooking into LibreOffice and Microsoft Word, but I've not tried that. It's also unusual in that it doesn't try to hook you into using some proprietary web service, as most other reference managers do, so it wins on privacy.
  • Unpaywall is a web browser extension for Firefox and Chrome which locates legal, freely available verions of paywalled journal articles, should they exist. Helps you avoid either your institution's clunky proxy system or [*cough*] informal alternatives.

Scientific/statistical calculator

  • Speedcrunch is an intuitive scientific calculator for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows.
  • Qalculate! (you can tell it's fun by the exclamation mark in the name) is a plotting calculator that also has a lot more functions (including statistical functions) than Speedcrunch, though to my mind it's rather clunky to use. Runs on GNU/Linux, and a third party has contributed an OS X port.
  • For statistical functions lacking in LibreOffice, and more heavy-duty number-crunching, GNU PSPP is excellent. It's a free software replacement for SPSS for GNU/Linux, though apparently you can get it to compile and run on OS X, if you're the sort of person who doesn't find that too intimidating.

Help wanted

Products that I've never had a reason to find free equivalents for. Suggestions appreciated.

Adobe AIR

A web app development environment. Possible alternatives.

Qualtrics

A proprietary online survey platform. I was a web developer in a former life, so I would use (and indeed have used) my own custom-built Drupal site to conduct surveys. I realise this is not a practical option for most students. The best solution for most would probably be a third-party platform licenced under the GNU Affero General Public License.

Deprecated

If you still need any of these, I'm very very sorry.

Adobe Flash Player

There used to be a number of free software alternatives, but as Flash is a dead technology, replaced by superior native web technologies, these projects appear to have died as well. While waiting for the corpse to be formally pronounced dead, install the HTML5 Video Everywhere plugin for your web browser of choice, and you can disable (and preferably uninstall) and forget the blasted thing.

Adobe Shockwave Player

Another superceded technology.

Microsoft Silverlight

A development/runtime platform for .NET applications. Not strictly obsolete, since .NET developers do perform the useful service of giving PHP developers somebody to look down upon.

Microsoft Security Essentials

An oxymoron in more ways than one.

QuickTime

Ah, memories.

Brian Eno on basic income

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 24/10/2016 - 5:00pm in

From an item in this weeks reading (transcription provided by the author of the item):

"I often get asked to come and talk at art schools, and I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, ‘I’m here to persuade you not to have a job.’ … My first message to people is: try not to get to a job. That doesn’t mean try not to do anything. It means try to leave yourself in a position where you do the things you want to do with your time, and where you take maximal advantage of whatever your possibilities are. The obstacle is that most people aren’t in a position to do that. I want to do anything to work to a future where everybody’s in a position to do that. … [T]he concept [of basic income] is the closest thing I’ve heard to achieving the kind of future that I would like to live in."

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