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Monday, May 30, 2011

Not quite summer...

Although Commencement was last weekend, I've still been immersed in teaching. For starters, last Wednesday was SDSU's Course and Curriculum Design Institute's One Day in May symposium. The theme this year was 'Learning to Write, Writing to Learn' and I gave a presentation on my experience with SWoRD. FYI, my slides are available on slideshare (or the CDI wiki), and writing everything up is at the top of my summer blogging schedule. The short version is that it was a very bumpy semester and I'm not ready to recommend anyone else try it, at least not if you have other peer review options available to you...

I've also been getting ready for the AEA's National Conference on Teaching Economics and Research in Economic Education. I'll be participating in a panel on Team-Based Learning in the 3pm session on Wednesday, and another panel on teaching large classes in the 3:15pm session on Thursday (the full program can be found here). If you're attending, please come say hi! It looks like it will be a great conference - the only problem is there are so many different presentations I want to go to at the same time! For those who missed out on submitting something this year, or were not able to register before it filled up, there is already a call up for next year's (Second Annual) conference; deadline for proposals is December 1, 2011.

After the conference, I'll finally get a chance to work on all the stuff that doesn't get done during the school year. Hopefully, that will include getting caught up on blogging about all the new stuff I tried this year, as well as summarizing some of the research from the conference...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Commencement: humbling and inspiring

I attended Commencement today. I haven't gone every year; I have to admit that I have often thought of it as a chore, something I am obligated to do as part of my job, rather than something I look forward to. But as I sat there today, I found myself inspired, rejuvenated, and I felt somewhat ashamed that I had been dreading it. First, as I watched many of my students walk across and get their diplomas (well, diploma holders), and as I listened to their families cheering for them, I felt proud to have been part of their education, to have played some small role in helping them arrive at this day. Not all of them did great in my classes but today, I was full of optimism that they will go out into the world and do good things. And as I watched the graduates interact with their families, particularly as I heard several different languages being spoken by those families, I was reminded how many of my students are the first in their families to graduate from college and I was humbled. I think that for many academics (or anyone with a college degree who mostly hangs around others with college degrees), it is easy to forget that although most Americans have completed 'some college', a college degree is still a relatively rare commodity - fewer than one-quarter of all adults have one. It is not an exaggeration when we emphasize to graduates that earning their diploma is a major accomplishment.

Then in the College ceremony, the speaker was a retiring professor who has taught at SDSU for 40 years and she is the kind of professor that students remember for the rest of their lives. She talked about her expectations for the graduates, starting with a charge to them to fight for the future of the CSU system. She talked about the vision, laid out in California's Master Plan, to make a quality college education available to all who want it and how, as beneficiaries of that system, the graduates have an obligation to make sure that door remains open for all those who come after them. Her words reminded me why I do what I do - not only my job as a educator in this incredible system but the work I do as an economist studying education policy. My job, my career path has not been accidental; it is the result of a conscious decision, made many years ago, to try to "make the world a better place" by ensuring the best possible education for every child. Somewhere in between trying to publish journal articles and worrying about my classes, I think I lost sight of that for a while. It was good to be reminded of that today.

Friday, May 20, 2011

I think I prefer "voodoo economics" to this...

This has nothing to do with teaching but I just had to share Jon's Stewart's response to Ben Stein's idiotic defense of Strauss-Kahn (starts at about 3:02):

Thanks to Stein, we get Stewart listing off several sex-offending economists and what has to be the best worst quote about the profession ever: "Economists are the rapiest profession going... Turns out the invisible hand of the market is very f***ing touchy-feely!" Not sure if I'm laughing or crying...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Every teacher is different too

My last post made an analogy between kids and classes, noting that every kid/class is different for reasons that may have nothing to do with the parents/instructor. Personally, I definitely need the reminder of how much that goes on with my classes is outside my control. But part of the reason it's so easy to forget is that at the same time, instructors clearly can make a difference. To return to the parents/kids analogy: even when children in the same family are quite different from each other, there are often still behavioral similarities across families that are clearly a result of parenting. For example, in Family A, the older boy is out-going and loud while the younger girl is relatively quiet and shy, but when one of the parents says, "It's time for bed," both children whine and drag their feet, or ignore the parents entirely, continuing to play and run around. In Family B, the younger boy is the gregarious one while the older boy is artistic and sensitive, but when one of the parents says, "It's time for bed," both children respond pretty much immediately, getting changed into pj's and going about the bedtime routine.

I don't have kids so I have no firsthand knowledge why these differences really arise but my observation is that in families like Family A, the parents are not very consistent about discipline, and in families like Family B, they are. But if you asked the parents in Family A, my guess is that they would say that their kids are just 'hard to handle' or 'naturally rambunctious' and that Family B is simply 'blessed' with 'good-natured' kids.

Similarly, I think that some instructors encounter issues with their classes that they blame on things outside their control but the problem really is something about them. This is particularly true when the issues are things that actually do seem outside the instructor's control. Student complaints about a foreign accent is a good example - that certainly seems like something outside the instructor's control. But why do students only complain about the accent of some foreign-born instructors and not all instructors with accents? Similarly, it is certainly common for attendance to be lower in super-sized classes but why does one large-class instructor have only 50% attendance when another large-class instructor routinely has attendance closer to 80%?*

My point is that while yes, each class has its own 'personality' and some classes pose challenges for no apparent reason, I don't think we should take that too far; there is still plenty within the instructor's control. I would rather err on the side of thinking it's me when it's actually them, than thinking it's them when it's actually me. I guess one way to keep in things in perspective is to stay vigilant for issues that transcend courses (e.g., when students across multiple sections and semesters all complain that my lectures are confusing) and try not to worry quite so much about the issues that fluctuate from class to class (e.g., when one class is particularly cluseless while another is completely on-the-ball).

* Don't get me wrong - I am not saying that things like foreign accents or class size do not make a difference, all else equal. I have no doubt that my colleagues with strong accents must actually be better teachers than native-born teachers in order for students to consider them equally good. But while these things might matter ceteris paribus, it's also clear that instructors can compensate for them if they work at it. I just think some instructors use these things as excuses not to do that work (or to be more charitable, maybe I should say that it simply may not occur to some instructors that the problem could still be something within their control).