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Monday, January 30, 2012

Fred Korematsu Day

As a Californian and Japanese-American (fourth-generation in both cases), I'm very proud that my state now officially recognizes today as Fred Korematsu Day. I realize that some may see the proliferation of specially-designated days like this as political correctness run amok, but unfortunately, it's clearly necessary - it's appalling how often I encounter people who know nothing about the Japanese-American internment. It's particularly scary given the current political climate where it seems like many in Washington believe "national security" should trump civil liberties.

Brief History Lesson
For those who don't know what I'm talking about, between 1941 and 1945, after the bombing of Pearl harbor, the United States government forcibly removed over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the Pacific coast and placed the majority in 10 "camps" in the western interior of the country (I put "camps" in quotes because although they were euphemistically referred to as internment camps, I really think "prison" is the the proper word for an institution surrounded by barbed wire where you are shot if you try to leave). Over two-thirds of the prisoners were American citizens, including my grandparents. Although the Japanese community was rounded up in the name of 'national security', not a single person of Japanese ancestry was ever convicted of spying or treason, and ironically, Japanese American men were later allowed to join the army (to fight in Europe) and their unit, the 100th Battalian/442nd Regimental Combat Team, became one of the most decorated units in history.  Fred Korematsu was a Californian who refused to obey the order to report to the assembly centers; similarly, in Washington and Oregon, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui defied the curfew imposed on Japanese individuals. All three cases went to the Supreme Court, where they lost at the time, but those convictions were finally overturned in the 1980s.  

If you are not familiar with this chapter of U.S. history, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association has a great site, Exploring the Japanese American Internment through Film and the Internet, and there's also a cool Digital History site. Personally, I learned a lot about the internment when I was younger by reading the personal stories of internees, such as Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family, and Nisei Daughter.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fluctuating enrollments

For the last three semesters, I've taught one or two sections of the Data Analysis course with 75 students in each section (yes, this is an upper-division course and yes, I think it's insane). I teach the class with team-based learning (which I realized I haven't written about much - will put that on the To Do list), so there is still a lot of class discussion; from my perspective, the main problem with having 150 students is how long it takes me to grade the exams and papers (yes, I give essay exams and assign two papers, though one of the papers is supposed to be only about four pages). When I originally decided to teach the class with TBL, it was partly because of the material, which lends itself quite well to the TBL format of having students work on complex application exercises. But it was also partly because I knew the classes would be so large and working in teams seemed like a good way to still have lots of student interaction and class discussion.

However, this semester, my enrollments plummeted: I think I will have 36 students in one section and 24 in the other. I'll talk about why enrollments are so low in another post but these numbers have me wondering how this semester will differ from the past. On the one hand, it doesn't really make a lot of sense for me to spend much time re-vamping the class to take advantage of the smaller size, since I believe enrollments will be back up in the 70 range next semester. On the other hand, a part of me feels like I should be able to 'teach better' with such small classes and I feel a bit guilty if I don't even try. On the other, other hand, I still feel like TBL is the best way to teach this material so why 'fix' what ain't broke? Maybe I should just be grateful that I won't be spending as many hours grading and leave it at that; after all, my other class is the writing class so it's not like I won't have plenty of grading to keep me busy, and it would be nice to be able to give that class more attention without killing myself.

This is going to be an interesting semester...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Having students reflect on their writing

Classes started here on Wednesday so I've been working hard the last couple weeks to re-vamp my syllabi while also trying to get at least a little bit of research work done. I'll be teaching the writing class again and instead of using SWoRD, I'm planning to have students do their peer reviews using Turnitin's PeerMark system. I used PeerMark in the fall with my Econ for Teachers class and while it doesn't have SWoRD's fancy algorithm for converting reviewing scores into grades, there are a lot of things about the interface that I like. I can still require that they give both numeric scores and qualitative comments, and I can grade those reviews plus the integration with Blackboard also means I have full control over when assignments become available, can set exact due dates and times, and can even set 'adaptive release' criteria (so, for example, I can require students to view a tutorial on giving good feedback before they can access their first set of papers to review). Reviewers can also highlight things in the papers directly, and attach notes to those specific points in the paper (rather than having to say things like, "The second sentence of the third paragraph on page two is confusing").

One sort of new thing I'm trying this time around is having students write 'reflective memos' after they turn in their final draft. I say 'sort of new' because in the past, I have had students do an in-class evaluation after each assignment, where I've asked them "What has one thing you learned from the reviews you received from your classmates that you can use in the future either to improve your own writing or to be a more helpful reviewer for others?" and "What has one thing you learned from being a reviewer that you can use in the future either to improve your own writing or to be a more helpful reviewer for others?". Depending on the assignment, I'd also ask them what the most challenging aspect of the assignment was. This semester, rather than having students do these evaluations in class, I'm going to have them write a 'reflective memo' which will be due a couple days after the final draft. The instructions for the memo ask them to answer similar questions but will give them more time to think about and write out their answers. The second half of the memo will also ask them to evaluate the reviews they received (similar to the back evaluations in SWoRD) and I will use that input to grade the reviewers (though I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to do that yet).

I got the idea for the reflective memo from a post by Traci Gardner, who wrote a lesson plan about using draft letters (and a Faculty Focus post discussed a similar idea, interactive cover letters, a few months ago). Those examples have students turning in the letters at the same time as the paper. I thought about that but I worry that students would not give the reflection the time it deserves. Call me cynical but I am imagining a lot of students finishing their papers about five minutes before the deadline. While it might be that they would finish earlier so they would also have time to write the reflection (certainly I know that some students would), it isn't clear to me that it matters a lot whether the reflection letter is done before or after they turn in the assignment. I suppose some students could have a "now that I've turned it in, I don't want to think about it anymore" attitude, but we'll see.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Do you have your students read economics blogs?

Now that you've seen what I said in Chicago, let me talk a little about the rest of the panel... First, I have to say that I was fairly anxious about it beforehand, largely because my blog is very different from the other blogs represented and I had no idea what the other panelists were going to say. I knew I was going to speak first and figured that either would be a very good thing or a very bad thing; I think it turned out to be good (I felt a bit bad for Jodi Beggs, who went last and had the tough job of trying not to repeat too much of what the other panelists said but I thought she did a very nice job with that). Of the other panelists, Jodi was probably the most concretely useful as she talked a bit about nuts and bolts things like using RSS readers to keep up with multiple blogs, as well as the pros and cons of using blogs in teaching economics.

That balance ended up being particularly nice because Steve Levitt and Alex Tabarrok presented two very different sides of using blogs. I thought it was a bit odd that the first thing Levitt said was, "I had never thought about using blogs to teach economics until I was asked to be a part of this panel" - on the one hand, I suppose that might be the position many audience members were in (i.e., they were at the session in part to find out more) but on the other hand, it immediately raised the question (at least in my head): then why was he there (other than to draw people in with the big name)? Another thing that seemed a bit odd was when he said that he thought requiring students to read economics blogs is "misguided" because so much of what gets published on blogs is not "right". That is, bloggers often write off the top of their head and so at least some of what they write ends up being incorrect. That could be confusing for students and it would be better to have them read more developed ideas, such as peer-reviewed work.

While I understand his point, I really don't agree at all. Fortunately, Alex addressed this a bit when it was his turn, pointing out that the open nature of blogs means that mistakes don't last long, and the back and forth among economics bloggers is modeling exactly the kind of economic thinking that we want our students to see. Jodi further added that it is important to structure assignments well - you don't want to just tell your students 'go read some blogs' without any discussion of what they are reading. Jodi also talked a little about reading (and having students read) a variety of blogs, by writers with different viewpoints and backgrounds.

Levitt also mentioned that in the course of writing his textbook, he went back through the archives of the Freakonomics blog, expecting to find lots of posts he could use to highlight various concepts. But what he found is that there weren't that many posts that were useful for talking about cost curves or any of the other abstract models that are so common in intermediate micro texts. One might think this would lead to some questioning about the relevance of those models but instead, he seemed to see that as another reason not to have students read blogs; i.e., if blogs aren't really connected to what students are learning in class, students don't need to be reading them. It didn't seem to occur to him that the problem might be with what students are learning in class... (Peter Dorman, who offers a less flattering view of the panel, notes the oddity of this as well)

Since I don't teach a lot of the typical models in my classes, I haven't had much of a problem finding blog posts that are related to what we discuss in class. But the way I typically have students read economics blogs is also highly directed - I have students read specific posts that I have found, that bear some relevance to specific concepts. That means I sometimes use posts that are not incredibly recent but although I send students to one specific post in a blog's archives, I've noticed that at least some students (usually those with an inherent interest in economics in the first place) will start looking around that blog and reading on their own. It is not uncommon for students to come in a few days or weeks later and ask me about something that they just read on the Freakonomics or Marginal Revolution blog, blogs they started reading regularly after the original assignment.

Do you have students read economics blogs for your classes? Feel free to explain how you do it in the comments...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Having students blog

[The Chronicle article about the AEA session made it sound like I talked a lot about having students blog but it was really only the last few minutes of my presentation. I wasn't originally even going to talk about that at all (what I posted the other day was all I originally planned to say) but Brad Delong had to cancel so I added more stuff. So here's what I had to say about students blogging...]

I did want to take a few minutes to talk about an entirely different aspect of using blogs in the classroom and that is having students blog. I actually started blogging originally because I was considering having students blog for one of my classes and I figured the best way to learn how this blogging thing works was to do it myself. My perspective is that blogging can be a relatively easy way to get students to do more writing, which is something that has become increasing rare at my university since our classes keep getting bigger. Blogging typically isn’t something that you’re going grade the same way you would grade normal papers – the idea is simply to get students engaging with the material so you might ask them to write about their reaction to readings or to class discussion. Since it won’t be graded for content or style, some faculty may think, well, then what’s the point, but one way to think about it is that student blogging can be a type of formative assessment; that is, it’s low-stakes but it gives you feedback on where your students are at. So by reading what your students write, even if it’s not graded, you can get an idea of what they are thinking (or if they are thinking). And because blog posts are inherently public, many students do still take it more seriously than you might expect for a low-stakes assignment, because they know that someone other than the professor may actually read it – and that can be reinforced if you have students read each other’s blogs and comment on them.

I only had students blog one semester, and it wasn’t really a typical economics class (it was a course for teachers), so I’m not the most super-qualified person to talk about this but if anyone is interested, I did want to at least offer up a few resources. One is a book by Will Richardson, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Richardson gives lots of great advice about getting started with blogs. I'd also suggest checking out edublogs.org, which is a blog platform - so you can have your students create blogs on their site - but more importantly, it's a community of teachers who are having their students blog. So there's lots of information about how to do it from people who are actually doing it themselves.

*** I will add here that since my university just moved to Blackboard 9, which can host blogs and wikis, I am considering giving student blogging another shot, maybe next year. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why I blog about teaching (and you should too!)

[What follows is an edited version of the first two-thirds of my presentation for the AEA panel on "Using Blogs to Teach Undergraduate Economics" (the last third was about having students write blogs, which I'll be posting soon)]

For those of you who are wondering who the heck I am, let me start by explaining that my blog is somewhat different from the other blogs up here in that I don't think of it as first and foremost an economics blog, I think of it as a teaching blog. That is, I generally write more about teaching issues, not economics issues, though the classes I happen to teach are economics classes.

From my perspective, there are two types of blogs that are relevant to my teaching: economics blogs and academic blogs. When I say economics blogs, I mean blogs written by economists where the primary focus is discussion of economic concepts and/or commentary on economic issues, such as the other blogs represented on this panel today. As an economics instructor, I use economics blogs both to keep myself up to date on what’s going on in the world, and as a source of material for classes. I often use examples from economics blogs to illustrate concepts in class, or have my students read economics blogs and then discuss or write about what they read.

There’s also a small sub-set of economics blogs that are specifically focused on teaching economics – I would put Jodi’s blog in this category, as well as a handful of others. These blogs specifically highlight current events or examples from media and other sources and discuss how they can used to teach different economic concepts.

By ‘academic blogs’, I mean blogs that focus on life in the academy – for example, ProfHacker on the Chronicle of Higher Ed website, the Teaching Professor, or any of the many blogs on the InsideHigherEd site. These generally revolve around teaching issues that are common to all disciplines, like assessment, class management, student complaints, etc. There are probably a disproportionately large number of academic blogs focused on technology (probably not a big surprise, given the medium), but there are also a lot that are simply academics writing about what they do in the course of their jobs as academics. The focus isn’t really on teaching subject content, like with the teaching-oriented economics blogs, but on broader issues of pedagogy and issues that arise for all of us who are teachers and academics in general. As economics instructors, these blogs provide access to a community of educators where we can find out how others deal with teaching issues that we all deal with.

As consumers of blogs, I think reading and commenting on both these types of blogs can help us be better teachers but I particularly wanted to talk about academic blogs because I think those are less well-known to most economists and yet from a teaching perspective, I think they can be invaluable. And that’s because most economists don’t typically spend a lot of time talking to each other about teaching. Most of us don’t get any training in how to teach and we just have to figure it out on our own. So academic blogs provide a way to at least connect with other teachers, and given that there are a lot of issues that are universal to all teachers, I think that we have a lot to learn from academic bloggers, regardless of what discipline the blogger is in.

At the same time, I often find I am most helped by discussions with other teachers of economics because there are some pedagogical issues that present different challenges in our field. So when I started blogging, I decided that my blog would be a teaching blog in the vein of other academic blogs. I tend to write about general teaching issues – for example, I’ll write about my experience using different technologies like clickers or managing a class of 500 students. I also have a lot of posts that are specific to teaching economics, though I try to focus more on pedagogy than just giving examples of concepts, so I’ll write about the experiments I run to teach supply and demand or the specific assignments I use in my classes.

As far as I know, mine is one of only two blogs by an economist with this particular focus on teaching and academia – Steve Greenlaw also has a similar type blog, though he’s been writing even less than I have lately. So I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage anyone who is thinking about getting into blogging, and who is seriously interested in improving their teaching, to consider starting a similar type of teaching blog. And that's because while I certainly think that reading and commenting on academic blogs is a great way to connect with other educators, I also feel that being a producer of this type of blog has been just as valuable, if not more valuable, for my teaching.

That’s basically because this type of blogging is one way of engaging in reflective practice, a concept that goes back to the philosopher and educator John Dewey but more recently, was popularized by Donald Schoen who defined reflective practice as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.” Reflective practice has subsequently became relatively common in some teacher training programs for K-12 but I think reflective practice can be particularly useful for teaching in higher education where we don’t get formal training and instead are mostly left to learn from our own experiences.


There’s no one ‘right’ way to engage in reflective practice but I found this model, by education professor Graham Gibbs, and thought this was a good synopsis of what I often do on my blog. My posts are often me just ‘thinking aloud’ about what I’m doing with my classes. I tend to use the writing process to think through what has worked or hasn’t worked, and why, and then consider what needs to be changed.

To a certain extent, reflective practice is already a big part of the "scholarship of teaching and learning” but for those who aren’t interested in doing formal scholarship related to teaching, blogging is a great way to informally reflect on what’s going on in your classroom and in many ways, blogs are actually much better for this than traditional journals, so let me give you a couple reasons why…

Unlike traditional journals (even teaching journals like the Journal of Economic Education), blogs allow you to document your teaching in ‘real time’ so you can capture your thoughts when the experience is still fresh in your mind. Also unlike traditional journals, it is perfectly acceptable, if not expected, for bloggers to write in the first person and discuss personal experiences. That’s obviously something we typically do NOT do when we’re writing formal papers but it’s a big part of blogging. Both of these aspects of blogs, as well as simply the nature of blogs in general, can encourage dialogue and interaction with others. And you can get feedback from your peers in a timeframe when that feedback can actually be used to immediately affect your teaching.

I’ll also add that I like that the technology of blogs allows easy organization and searching. In the past, although I would often make notes about things I wanted to do with my classes, those notes would generally get lost in the sea of papers I have in my office. But with the blog, I can ‘tag’ or categorize individual posts so when I want to go back and see what I’ve written about a particular issue, I can easily pull up everything on that subject.

On the downside, I will point out that of course, there are also some costs. The most obvious cost is simply time – when I get busy with other things, blogging is usually one of the first things I put on the back burner so there are stretches of time when I’ve only posted once or twice a month. And I do think it takes a certain personality type to do this type of blogging – I haven’t quite decided if it requires a super-sized ego or no ego but either way, for this sort of reflective blogging to be useful, you have to willing to ‘out yourself out there’ to a certain extent. You have to willing to be upfront about what doesn’t work, as well as what does. That also makes it a bit iffy for junior faculty – I think (or certainly hope) that enlightened senior faculty will appreciate that being willing to publicly discuss problems you might be having with your teaching is actually a sign of a good teacher but if there are people in your department who are not so enlightened, academic blogging might be something you want to wait to do until after getting tenure.

For me, overall, blogging has been a really fun and useful experience. Even when I haven’t had time to be super-consistent about posting, I find that I think about my teaching more because I’ll think about what I’d like to write when I do have more time. I find myself making notes and saving links to things and just generally being more aware of teaching issues because I’m always looking for ideas for blog posts. But even if you never blog yourself, I think simply reading teaching-related blogs and participating in the conversation can help pull us out of the isolated bubble that many of us teach in.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Welcome new readers!

Just wanted to extend a quick hello to anyone who has found their way here because of the session about blogging at the ASSA meetings, or the Chronicle article about that session! The "New to the blog? Start here" page will give you an overview of the blog and point you to some posts you might be interested in. You can also subscribe to receive future posts via RSS, Facebook or Twitter using the links on the right-hand side of the page, or via email by entering your address in the box. Thanks for reading!