Thursday, May 28, 2015

Scholars Against Scholarship

There have been a lot of professors railing over trigger warnings, and I honestly don't see what the big deal is. Being careful in what you say and embracing a diversity of perspectives are each fundamental to any sort of scholarly endeavor. Introducing trigger warnings and doing other things to increase the accessibility of your classroom is not only good pedagogy, it's not difficult.

As far as I am concerned, this pursuit of classroom accessibility is not a threat to academic freedom, but rather, it is crucial to it. What follows is a rough outline of the topics I intend to talk about on my panel at Left Forum. The arguments for trigger warnings, though disturbingly short in supply, have been made in plenty of places, and I am not interested in scolding academics by reproducing them. Instead, what I hope to lay out here are some best practices that I have used to grant my students the autonomy over their own education that adults deserve.

There's a Whole World Out There

The first thing is to destroy the notion that you are the only source of knowledge in your classroom. There are other people who teach what you teach and likely do it in a different way with different materials. Your colleagues who teach what you teach also guide students to forms of knowledge that are broadly in line with your discipline.

Before I continue, there is one thing I must make abundantly clear. As an educator, I have little interest in maintaining the familiar classroom structure. As an educator, you must understand that the modern academy is directly descended from scholarly institutions of religions and governments entirely in the service of them - the opposite of academic freedom. Academe has evolved since then, both in terms of access and pedagogical technology (who doesn't use a classroom management software anymore?), but in terms of an academia in the service of the public good, we still have a long way to go. We should strive, as best we can, not to reproduce authoritarian structures in our classroom which have limited and continue to limit the pursuit of knowledge.

That said, as educators we should encourage students to read beyond the materials you present to them. I don't think of this as extra work that a student may engage in, but rather as a hedge against my own authority. The dominant mode of education would have it that classrooms are something entirely under the control of educators. As I see it, the classroom is an environment to be constructed, not a situation to be managed. Further, I do not even see every moment of my instruction time as particularly essential to my students' education.

In general, I expect that my students are mature enough to make sure they are familiar with all the course material. Further, I also recognize that what I teach them is a synthesized version of many, many peer-reviewed contributions to academia. As such, I try to provide my students with as much of this material as possible. I recognize that in some disciplines, such as the "hard sciences," this may be more difficult than others. Even still, there are a wealth of pedagogical journals that seek to help educators teach the subjects in their courses. Articles from these journals also serve as a worthwhile study aid for students.

The Contract

Crucial to any classroom is the syllabus. The syllabus - in addition to being an agenda of course topics, readings, and due dates - is a contract between all members of the classroom. It provides an opportunity to agree on classroom behavior and accountability processes. This is the syllabus I used for my most recent macroeconomics class.

As you can see, the syllabus contains a basic introduction to the course. This provides not only a summary of the subject, but also why I think it's worthwhile. Next, I talk about the course resources. As you can see, I'm pretty lukewarm on textbooks. I'll probably write about this in more depth at a later date. Next, I have some brief course goals. I used to have some blank space here for students to nominate additional goals, but in my experience students don't often take this opportunity. Then I have the course outline.

All of this stuff is, in my experience, pretty standard practice. What might be of novelty is what follows. In my statement on attribution and plagiarism, I make it clear that my concern with plagiarism is not punitive, but rather predicated on notions of good scholarship. The concern academics should have with regard to plagiarism isn't so much about "stealing ideas" but about credibility. The fact is, if you do not position your scholarship within the context of the work of others, those reading your work will not believe that you have done the research necessary to know what you are talking about. Furthermore, as a scholar, your work should help point other scholars towards learning more about what you are talking about.

To drive this point home, I have developed a hierarchy of sources in terms of credibility. At the top of the list is journal articles. As such, I usually supplement any course text I use with heaping helpings of journal articles. In my opinion, it's a fairly tall order to ask students to engage in scholarship when the only thing they know of scholarship is their godawful textbook published by McGraw-Hill or whatever. If we intend to produce good scholars, it's important that our students come into contact with good scholarship.

The last three sections play very much into the same theme - making my classroom and the university as accessible as possible. The first is my accommodation policy. Pretty standard for one of these statements is the information of the university's disability services. What I would imagine is unique is the recognition that the medical establishment sucks sometimes, and that I am willing to try things if it will help my students learn better.

Next is the non-discrimination policy. As you might imagine, it states the university's own non-discrimination policy. Additionally, I have a punitive, yet pedagogical, measure for breaches of that policy: an essay on a topic dealing with why you're being punished. The real world won't tolerate that shit; I won't tolerate that shit.

Last is the Title IX statement, which is an idea I lifted entirely from Karen and Nadia Dawisha's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It informs my students that it is every employee of the university's duty to provide a safe learning and living environment at the university. It provides a list of resources, and a promise to support any student who comes to me in confidence about harassment or assault. In addition, I provide a link to Know Your IX to learn more about their rights under Title IX and what they can do to end campus harassment and assault.

The Worst Part About Banking Education

Grading. Is. The. Worst. It's a tedious exercise in arbitration. I feel myself torn between a spectrum of testing for substantive understanding and a fair grading process. Most things that evidence a deep understanding of the material are nearly impossible to grade with any sort of consistency. Testing for mechanical sorts of knowledge (calculations, graphs, anything multiple choice) allows less bias, but it doesn't show me understanding and lends itself to cheating. As a result, graded assessments are largely split in half between these sorts of testing.

An additional burden with grading is the very choice of grading system itself. As you can see on my syllabus, the grading weights are blank, because my students and I agree upon that on the first day of class. Although I didn't get to use it with my class this past semester due to the low enrollment, I also use a rather quirky grading curve. Most grading systems allow students to succeed or fail on their own or worse foster an unhealthy competition among students. The curve that I use is an attempt to foster collaboration between students. The curve is set up so as to push all the grades toward where most of the class did. Thus, if you are a high grade in a class full of low grades, you'll be dragged down. But if you are the low grade in a class full of high grades, you'll be pulled up. Thus, like any sort of professional setting, your success depends not only upon your own effort, but also on that of your colleagues.

The grading system itself is a relatively simple algorithm if you're familiar with basic statistics. First, it reassigns students that got the mean grade with the median grade. Then it squeezes or stretches the distribution, reassigning a deviation of half the interquartile range for each standard deviation. I encourage you to download the spreadsheet and play around with the numbers.

Toward a Democratic Pedagogy

I am constantly searching for new and better ways to democratize my classroom. This isn't on the basis of some new-agey pseudo-science. This is on the basis of offering the very forms of academic freedom that academics hold so dear to my students. By creating an environment structured for students to feel as comfortable as possible to explore the terrain of knowledge, I hope they put their most into my classes, and get the most out of them.


I will be speaking at Left Forum on the following panel:

Live From Academia!
Bringing the Insight of the Ivory Tower to the Energy of the Masses

Sat 12:00pm - 01:50pm in Room 8.61
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
524 West 59th st, New York, NY 10019

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