Adjuncts Adrift?

SMU is boat-hull-dam_70945_990x742hosting “The Year of the Faculty,” but the Chronicle of Higher Education seems to be amid a year of Adjuncts. Many articles in the last several months have detailed the often poverty-stricken, prep-strapped life of some adjuncts. Clearly, not all adjuncts are alike. Some are indeed affluent leaders in their fields who teach to share their special knowledge, serve their professions, enhance their résumés, or enjoy the classroom experience. But sometimes, adjuncts are relegated to the dregs of Academia’s caste system.

Long-term adjunct work, part-time and full-time, has its drawbacks for faculty as well as students. At the 2014 AAC&U conference, I attended a session titled, “Addressing the Adverse Impact of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Working Conditions on Student Learning: Practical Approaches and Resources for Facilitating Change.” (There’s an academic title for you.) A panel discussed the many challenges for adjuncts and the ways those hurdles may impact student learning. Overall, the session identified difficulties and called for more inclusion of adjuncts.

Granted, tenure is hard won and deserves respect. But adjuncts teach the same students, in the same classrooms, for the same tuition dollars as tenured professors. Our students deserve the best learning opportunity in all classes, regardless of who is standing in front of the room. And our instructors deserve respect, regardless of rank.

Fortunately, more people and institutions are recognizing the problem and calling for change. For example, recent articles in the Chronicle include: “Accreditation Standards Should Include Treatment of Adjuncts, Report Says,” and “Adjuncts Gain Traction With Congressional Attention.” USC has launched The Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success.

Here at SMU, the CTE is developing a program to support part-time adjuncts: CAFÉ, a Community for Adjunct Faculty Excellence. If you would like to learn more, participate, comment, or collaborate, please contact me at In the meantime, please join me in speaking up for greater awareness at SMU.

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Anyone up for playing a game in the classroom?

GamificationWhat’s wrong (and right) with having some scholastic fun? What do students gain, both cognitively and affectively, from role-playing simulations? Do games and related activities stimulate student motivation to learn? Those are some the questions a small group of faculty members are thinking about this academic year under the auspices of the CTE Faculty Learning Community. The group, intrepidly led by Alice Kendrick (Advertising-Meadows) includes Ann Batenburg (Teaching & Learning-Simmons), Tony Cuevas (Instructional Design & Learning Technology-Simmons), Andy Greenwood (Music History- Meadows), and me (Psychology-Dedman).

We are learning that there are lots of good reasons to occasionally insert a game or “playful” activity in class. It breaks up the lectures, gets students’ competitive juices flowing, and as Dean Bowen would endorse, it is a great way to actively engage students. We’ve also learned that there is a literature out there about such topics as “gamification” (Kapp, 2012), defined as using game elements or design techniques to make learning more engaging and fun.

Classroom games are already being played on the hilltop. Maria Dixon (Communication Studies) is using the John Madden football game to teach organizational communication skills. Alice Kendrick has students go without wearing denim for several days (“deconsumption deprivation”) to learn how clothing affects social activities and personal choice. Ann Batenburg adapted the speed dating concept to help students prepare for tests. I’ve used a customized Jeopardy game for reviewing course material. One of my colleagues plays a song at the beginning of class. The first student who makes the connection between the song and the topic of the day gets a point of extra credit. These are just a few examples of what is going on in our classrooms.

As is evident, games and related activities can add life and some fun to the classroom experience. You will hear more from our group as we develop more knowledge and expertise in this area. But you can also help us. If you are using a game or game-like activity in your class, please send me an email about it ( And don’t forget to have some fun in class!

Posted in Active Learning, CTE, Learning Communities, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | 1 Comment

7 Characteristics of Good Learners

thinkingOver at the Teaching Professor blog, Maryellen Weimer has come up with a list of seven characteristics of good learners.  We might all salivate at the idea of students like this:

  1. Good learners are curious
  2. Good learners pursue understanding diligently
  3. Good learners recognize that a lot of learning isn’t fun.
  4. Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.
  5. Good learners make knowledge their own.
  6. Good learners never run out of questions.
  7. Good learners share what they’ve learned.

Imagine a classroom full of the curious, persistent, generous risk-takers described here.  “But Beth,” I hear you saying, “that’s all very well, but we have to take our students the way they come.”

And that’s true, but we’re not helpless in the face of passive resistance.  We can adopt policies that require and reinforce diligence.  But more to the point, we can model this kind of learning for our students, demonstrating our own curiosity and the way in which our discipline asks questions.  We can share some of our own flubs, and create a classroom environment that provides the kind of support that encourages risk-taking and enables success.  We can show how the un-fun equips us to fly.

Most of us probably ended up in teaching because we love to learn.  Let’s remember to show our students how we got there.

Posted in Active Learning, Critical Thinking, Students, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How do I ask students better questions?

While preparing for class I find that a lot of my time is spent composing my delivery, i.e., what is the content that I will present, how will I present it, how I will use the board, how I will use computer demonstrations, etc. These are all important to consider. However, I often find that my lectures or assignments may be weakened not by the whats and hows of my delivery but by the questions I ask — the whats and hows I pose to the students. The silent class, lack of engagement or incorrect answers are sometimes due to not giving as much thought to my questions as I do to my delivery.

The importance of asking the right questions is in itself a field of study. Inquiry-Based Learning is a well-evolved teaching system based on asking questions. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a nice (and short) opinion piece with a somewhat call-to-arms tone emphasizing the importance of a well-considered question strategy in the classroom. One example can be found in this recent article, which asks how to pose questions with the goal of increasing participation and engagement: A “simple, effective approach” that this article suggests is to ask specific questions of specific students.

At the level of a specific question, how a question is asked can generate different answers and stimulate different thought processes. As described in the paper Asking More Effective Questions, questions in the classroom typically take one of two forms: convergent questions, where there is generally a specific answer, and divergent questions, whose answers are more open ended. Formulating effective divergent questions is recognized as more challenging for instructors. This theme is taken up by Nesbit and Cliff in the field of physiology and I note one of their conclusions: “Our findings indicate that, despite the fact that instructors of anatomy and physiology recognize the value of open-ended science questions, they have considerable difficulty in successfully creating them. Inexperience may contribute to the low rate of success in producing open-ended questions.” This gets down to perhaps the most detailed level of asking questions, i.e., how do we word them to best achieve our goal?

I often struggle with the open-ended question posed to the classroom. Is the silence that follows due to a mis-application of a teaching technique or strategy indicating lack of engagement, preparation or understanding? Or is it simply the fact that they don’t know what I want? Is my attempt to pose an open-ended question merely resulting in obfuscation? As another example, I recently posed an exam question (mathematics) that said, “Solve the following differential equations for x(t):”. Many students did not carry the solution as far as I intended. The fact that many did not and that many stopped at the same point indicated to me that I must be somewhat culpable for the misunderstanding. In this case, it appears that I should have said, “Solve the following differential equation and determine all unknown coefficients.” In this case I needed to be more specific. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t want to be more specific because understanding what I mean with a question is part of the examination.

I conclude not with any “how tos” or suggestions to try a nifty bit of technology. Instead, I want to emphasize that just like our delivery methods, which can be analyzed from theory down to their MOOC bits, we should give equal attention to our question techniques. And for those questions, we must consider not only the theoretical and strategic issues of engagement and convergent vs. divergent questions, but also simple wording. Sometime (maybe often), it’s less an issue of pedagogy, and simply a matter of careful, considered and effective composition.

Posted in Active Learning, Course Design, Teaching Methods | Leave a comment

Documenting Kindness

kindnessHere’s a happy thought for the start of a new semester:  academic life can be characterized by kindness rather than snarkiness.  Thanks to Mark Chancey‘s Facebook post, I read a recent article that highlights a project created by a professor at Mizzou named Rabia Gregory.  She has started the Academic Kindness Tumblr — as its subhead proclaims, this blog provides a space to “record unsolicited kindness, unexpected goodwill, and excessive generosity in academia.”  As Professor Gregory notes, Academic Kindness seeks to show that “not all academics are brutish self-centered narcissists who delight in tearing apart the work of others for sport.”  It also encourages us to respond to the kindness that comes our way by “paying it forward” — being generous to colleagues, staff, and students.

Most of the examples posted so far reflect generosity in the scholarly realm.  For example, there are stories of senior scholars taking time to support the work of graduate students they had never met.  Here’s one of my favorites:

“While doing my comps, I found myself in need of an obscure, unpublished Ph.D. I was still figuring out ProQuest and I was trying to figure out a way to order it from the university. As I was doing this, I sent a brief email to a very senior scholar whose work deals with the material in this dissertation and asked if he could recommend the best way to find a copy of it. Instead, he sent the entire dissertation to me by mail — in two packages because it took him a while to photocopy the whole thing (I should also note that I live in a different country, so it would not have been cheap to send). A very kind and unexpected gesture!”

One post is even a fan letter to SMU’s Professor Bonnie Wheeler.

I bet, though, that we all also have teaching-related stories of unexpected grace.  My teaching life, for example, has been immeasurably enriched by colleagues who shared teaching materials, covered for me when I was ill, provided really helpful critique, or shared a confidence-building compliment when I needed it the most.  How about you?  Share your stories of academic kindness in the Comments to this post, or on the Academic Kindness Tumblr. And remember to pay it forward.

Posted in Academia, Inspiration, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reading Fiction

novel-1There is a piece in the Dec. 9 Chronicle (“Why Fiction Does It Better”) that argues that fiction develops readers’ capacity for “sociocognitive complexity”:

Cognitive scientists and literary theorists have plenty to say on this subject. Cognitive science connects the acquisition of vocabulary to social cognition, or the development of theory of mind—a capacity to attribute mental states, including thoughts, beliefs, and desires, to oneself and other people.

For those of us around the university who aim to prepare our students to bring to their various post-University roles — citizens, parents, professionals/workers, bosses — such useful attributes as compassion, tolerance, empathy, and the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, it is encouraging to see a positive correlation between these capacities and a universally available activity.

The author’s challenge is to get more fiction into school curriculums and to do so earlier, not later, in the moral development of students.  And in universities, where an emphasis on STEM education has the potential to crowd out courses built around novels, drama, and narrative poetry, the curricular challenge is no less severe.

When a few of my first-year law students asked what they might read over the holiday break, I didn’t hesitate to suggest a handful of novels that I thought would entertain and provide a welcome break from the past four months of reading cases and statutes. Little did I know I was also adding to the development of their capacity for sociocognitive complexity!

Posted in Learning Communities, Pedagogical Theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Going Text-less on Power Point

As a professor of Latin American literature and culture, the use of audio-visual material has been a very effective tool in my classes. So far, I have preferred a low-tech approach to teaching, occasionally playing a short scene from a movie or a documentary, a music video, or a TV ad.  Although I am also a Power Point user, I have never been an advocate of using it to present information. Text on a screen becomes tedious, it slows down class discussion, and it suddenly puts our students in a robotic, note writing mode. To me, Power Point is fundamentally a pedagogic tool to introduce different types of visuals into the class, shifting the dynamic of the class discussion, and reinforcing the full attention of my students.

I rarely use text on the screen; I also discourage my students to do so in their oral presentations. The use of Power Point in the classroom should be about a few stimulating images, not about a class-long presentation full of definitions, explanations, dates, and written excerpts from the book. In a text-less Power Point presentation, students are the ones who define, explain, analyze, and inform while the images change on the screen. They should illustrate what they are saying, whether it is an event, a theme, a conflict, a reference to pop culture or to historical places, even the emotional or mental state of a character. The images should complement and enhance the information given; they should work as “hyperlink” windows or visual footnotes. The use of text could be used in certain cases, but it should be kept to a minimum. For instance, sometimes a photo without context can provoke an interpretation that changes completely once you add a date or a tittle. Thus an image of a building in flames that looked like one of the twin towers could become the Chilean presidential palace during the US-backed coup on September 11, 1973.


One can also measure reading comprehension in the type of visuals used by the student to illustrate the plot in a story. A student might decide to represent a character with the photo of a white Hollywood actor in his late twenties when the novel describes him as a poor Dominican in his puberty. On the other hand, another student could used the image of an obese young woman to demonstrate, not how dangerously skinny the character actually is, but the body image she has of herself according to the text.

UnknownI have also found very helpful the use of a visual image completely devoid of any context at the beginning of the class, inviting students to imagine, interpret, and articulate what they see. The iconic face of Che Guevara on a dollar bill, an upside down map of the world, a photo of a mouth with lips made out of real ruby stones and real pearls instead of teeth, or a painting of two lovers facing each other with mirrors in place of their faces are a few examples that have provoked productive and lively discussion in my classes.


Posted in Active Learning, Students, Teaching Methods, Technology, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Robots in My Classroom

Two to three times a week, talking robots, cartoon animals, and humorous drawings of celebrity figures make appearances in my Problems in the Philosophy of Religion classroom. In full color, but with oddly stilted voices, they discuss evil, Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, the foundations of morality, or the nature of time. They don’t talk for long – each conversation lasts only two minutes or so — but they have become an integral part of this upper-level undergraduate class, and of the way my students learn philosophical concepts from ancient to modern.
The robots, which students choose and animate using the web-based XtraNormal program or another animation program of their choice, first appeared in my classroom in 2010, when I was looking for something more engaging than the “2-minute” response papers that I had been assigning. In those papers, students were to critically respond to a specific philosophical reading the class had done for the day, highlighting what they thought was good about the argument, and where they thought it might not be so good. Often, the papers did just that, and launched us into interesting and fruitful discussions. More often, however, students would end up in front of the classroom, reiterating the argument rather than critically assessing it. They were repeating ideas rather than engaging in dialogue. How to make this happen?
In the XtraNormal program, students must write in dialogue, much as if they were crafting a screenplay. This forces the kind of dialogic thinking I was hoping to get with the original two-minute response assignment. It also creates some useful social pressure as we screen every video at the beginning of class, and then archive links to the videos on the class Blackboard site so they are accessible for purposes of review, something students report as helpful come exam time.
What I have come to love most about the robots, though, is the sense of play they bring to what are often almost overwhelmingly serious topics. In looking at the world through robot eyes, and hearing it through robot voices, students are able to engage arguments they may have previously dismissed outright as dangerously counter to their world views. We can start a conversation.

For an example, click here: Robots Discuss William James
Alas, XtraNormal shut down services at the end of July 2013 (I weep for the end of the robots), but there are other animation programs which appear to be equally good or better, some of which I list below:

Posted in Active Learning, Critical Thinking, Students, Technology | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Craigslist learning

This week I have some curmudgeonly (that is actually a word that my spell checker ok’d) thoughts to share. My faculty colleague found this CragislistAd [BT update: I've posted this link to the ad text, because the original has been flagged for removal since Lynne wrote this blog entry last night].

Since it is a request for a statistics paper-writer-for-hire, it made the rounds in our department (Statistical Science), with everyone asking each other if the assignment was theirs. It belonged to none of us.

Of course, we don’t know if the requester is even an SMU student or from some other university in Dallas. Nevertheless, I found the posting to be very discouraging. The matter-of-factness of the request was shocking to me. I’m sure that when I was in college (way back in the last century) there must have been some students who hired others to write their papers. However, I never heard about any of them because I don’t think it is something that a student would have advertised. Back then, most people I knew felt a little privileged to be in college, and didn’t want to risk appearing as though they weren’t up to it.

When these kinds of ads show up on Craigslist, does it make the idea of purchasing the services of a person to learn for you seem more common and therefore more acceptable? The amateur psychologist in me says that must be true. I hope some real psychologist will weigh in on this.

As teachers, we sometimes imagine that if we can just craft the perfectly enlightening and interesting assignment, we can bring our students to that Eureka moment and they will from then on recognize the BIG and IMPORTANT ideas in our course. We hone our ability to explain to them how they will be assessed on the assignment (as we learned to do in CTE’s rubric workshop), thinking that it will enhance the effectiveness of the assignment since they will know better how to spend their time productively. But before any of these things have any hope of mattering, the student has to DO the assignment. But even for those that do, they must spend adequate time on the assignment itself and connect it to the course material for it have its planned effect . Many of my students do not seem willing to spend this kind of time (since I can see on Blackboard that about 20% of them start their homework assignments after 11 p.m. for a 7 a.m. submission time). Many seem to think it is just part of the game we are all playing, as they navigate the hoops we throw up for them on their way to the credential (a degree) they want.

It may seem that I am exaggerating the importance of one Craigslist ad, by a student who might not even be ours, and maybe I am. However, I was already thinking about this attitude problem due to a conversation with one of my students earlier in the week. She asked me if she could take the midterm scheduled for the Monday before Thanksgiving the week before, because “all my other courses are cancelled for that Monday and Tuesday before break.” (This is copied and pasted from her email—these are her exact words.) Can it really be true that 80% of us are dismissing class the two days before Thanksgiving?! I doubt it, but if even some are, it may seem to students that we faculty also think that time spent engaged with the course material is optional and can be dropped if something more fun comes along, or if their parents have a trip planned, or any number of other things.

So here is my question: Is there ANYTHING we can do as a faculty to increase the proportion of students who appreciate the connection between the learning and the credential? Certainly much of a student’s attitude toward learning is already formed before they get to us, so maybe the answer is no.

For my part, I told the student no, I would not change the date of her exam, because I thought we needed all the learning time we could get to master this material. I also threw in that I don’t approve of the semester being cut short for no reason. I imagine she was not pleased. If I were an assistant professor, I may not have had the courage to insist that she be given those extra days of learning time. Our reward structure pushes us in the other direction.

This may seem like a funny topic for a teaching blog. Don’t we just have to make the material fascinating and present it correctly? Certainly that helps. But I believe student outcomes would improve dramatically if more of our students believed that the value of their credential is what they learned to get it, and what they learned about how to learn along the way. Can we have any impact on that belief at all? I’d like to start a discussion about how.

Posted in Students | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Twitter for Academics

twitterLet’s face it:  among many academics, Twitter has a bad rap.  Maybe it’s because we first became aware of it through celebrity overexposure (Lady Gaga has over 40 million followers) or the trivial oversharing of its contributors (“eggs over easy for breakfast”).  And it’s only slightly interesting that #Thanksgiving and #BlackFriday are “trending” right now.

But this week, two articles came to my Inbox pointing to ways in which Twitter can be useful in our professional academic lives.  One is about creating conversational communities.  A blog post entitled “What does Twitter have to offer academics?” reflects on making connections.  Twitter’s 140 characters, they note, can be used to quickly solicit information, discuss concepts, network, keep up with current news in one’s discipline, increase visibility, promote recent publications, learn about conferences, and make global contacts.  During conferences, Twitter can create a “backchannel” that allows discussions among attendees during and after presentations.  Here, for example, is a sample of the Twitter feed from last spring’s CTE symposium, “Higher Education in the Crosshairs.”  For anyone thinking about using Twitter as an effective tool for academic networking, this post on 10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics gives good advice.

The second article (that I found through Twitter!) relates more directly to teaching.  Who could resist the title:  “How Orwell and Twitter Revitalized My Course”?  In it, a professor of English discusses his use of an assignment that each student in his 21st Century British Literature class post three ‘tweets’ a week related to the course.  He adopted this strategy because he found that his students rarely made connections between different topics in the course, or between their readings and the course’s big themes.  And so he set up the Twitter assignment to try to encourage those connections.  Here’s how he describes the experience:

As of this writing we are five weeks into the semester, and . . . this assignment has produced levels of connection and engagement among my students that I have never experienced before. We begin every class period by taking a quick look at the tweets that have been posted since the last meeting. That means every class begins with a brief discussion of connections they are seeing and forging.  [Through their posts] they are putting together a collective body of research on contemporary British life that has become a crucial resource for all of us in the course, including me.

Interested in learning more?  Take a look at 60 Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom from the folks at TeachThought.


Posted in Academia, Technology | Tagged , | 2 Comments