Posts tagged ‘teaching’

April 8, 2018

Politics? In MY classroom?

by razumov

(This untimely post is in honor of Chuck, who certainly must have thought about these things over the course of his life.)

Two things have happened to me recently. One, I got a tenure-track job at a university where the students have a professional and not just a personal interest in learning about Russian history. Two, I became politically active, to the extent that joining a socialist organization and doing stuff with them a few hours a week is considered active. It’s my second semester now and I’m teaching Intro to Russia Since 1825–and, of course, this being the revolutionary centennial school year, thinking about the eternal question of Politics In The Classroom.

As an undergrad, even a politically-opinionated one, my opinion on this topic was unequivocal. I did not want to hear about my dumb professors’ political views because I knew that these would amount either to the tepid NPR liberalism I got plenty of elsewhere or something noxiously right-wing that would be even worse. I had enough acrimonious debates with profs in seminars that I knew that a prof who had trouble concealing his (usually his) politics was also unlikely to argue for them in good faith. Instead my favorite classes were the ones that seemed to point to an escape from the political tractor beam of the late Bush era.

As a professor, I’m much less confident of all this than I used to be. First of all, of course, there’s no way to teach the history of Russia’s twentieth century without “classroom politics,” if nothing else because students come in with preconceived ideas shaped by a deeply political process. Even if it were possible, though, would it be desirable? As a socialist I want to help people understand the Soviet experience in the light of its real strengths and weaknesses, not through the kind of propaganda that still wins Pulitzers. As a scholar….I want the same thing. (I mean, duh. I wouldn’t have beliefs if I didn’t think they were true.)

Yet converting this growing comfort with classroom politics into actual teaching has been surprisingly hard. A lot of what I try to do in my lectures–the debunking aspect–involves my mental image of what students already believe. To my surprise, I’m consistently off in my evaluation of these beliefs. The whole class pretty much already understood that the Soviet Union’s role in WWII is consistently downplayed in US schools, for instance, and their opinion on the place of Jews in Imperial Russian and Soviet life (a Fiddler on the Roof narrative I’d thought was fairly widely shared) was in fact pretty much nonexistent. Half the time I must be confusing them awfully, the poor things, as I shadowbox with an opponent not relevant for American students since the 80s. (Maybe next year I’ll do a writing exercise at the beginning of the semester where I ask them to present their priors and then at the end to revisit them.)

The flipside of this is that I’m finding that my interventions make little difference anyway. I assigned an article legendary in my field for marking a shift away from both the totalitarian and revisionist models of Stalinist individuality (Jochen Hellbeck’s “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul”), but my students felt no compunctions about fitting it into their familiar totalitarian view of Stalinist life. Hell, maybe they’re right.

At least, if nothing else, my rant about Nineteen Eighty-Four being the worst possible book for understanding the Soviet Union will stick. I hope.

January 12, 2009

How to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments

by Carl Dyke

A short, droll post by Kathy at Edge of the West concerning an instance of the “plagiarism-industrial complex” has, as is the wont of that site, produced a lively and interesting discussion in the commentary. Much of it concerns the merits of the commercial plagiarism-detection services, including their helplessness to detect truly “artisanal” plagiarism. If you’re willing/able to pay enough to have someone else do boutique work for you, and you’re careful never to submit any of your own work for damning comparison, that will probably work for you. Getting other people to do your work for you being the chief advantage of wealth, after all.

(Sad/amusing aside: a number of us suspect one of our best students of the past decade of ghosting papers — not for money but as a favor for friends. Oddly enough, this special critter was a compulsive perfectionist and almost never turned in its own work no matter what inducements we tried — and we became pretty creative — so if we’re right, we only got to enjoy its gifts at an odd second-hand.)

I’ve made a couple of brief comments there about why I don’t use the plagiarism police. For one thing, I think inconveniencing and anxietizing the honorable to intercept the dishonorable is an ugly way to live. For another, on (quixotic) foucauldian grounds that participating in the creation of docile bodies through the installation and extension of surveillance regimes is profoundly self-defeating. But my main reason I’ve only been able to sketch there, and want to elaborate here: I don’t use the plagiarism police because my assignments are functionally plagiarism-proof.

Howzat? There are a couple of key strategies that I’ll get to in a second, but let’s start with an ethos. You have to be loyal to students learning, not to covering content. It’s not impossible to do both, but starting with the second tends to fubar the first. And you have to give up the idea that there is essential content every student must master. Standardization of content outcomes is the single greatest stimulus and enabler of plagiarism there is. What you’ve got to want is for students to learn critical uptake, thinking and production skills in relation to content, where the skills are essential and the content is contingent. If you’re stuck with essential content, you’re stuck with some plagiarism. Take a moment to make sure there’s no way to get unstuck. I’ll wait.

OK. The first thing to notice is that shifting your loyalty to students learning (note: ‘students’ learning’ is a different subject) changes the moral environment of the classroom. Why? Because now what you care about is each student, not the material; which, if you communicate this properly and consistently, creates a social psychology of reciprocal obligation among you. It’s just much harder to cheat on someone who cares about you than someone who’s using you as a means to other ends (reproduction of content outcomes). There’s nothing magical or foolproof about this, however, so if you stop here as some of the more touchy-feely teacher ed. fads do you’ll still get plenty of plagiarism; maybe more, once they figure out what a lightweight you are. Furthermore, although it’s good and right to care about the students as whole people, it’s essential to care specifically about their development as thinkers and doers, which means they don’t get to derail the process or skate to passing grades just by dropping by your office to chat about the weather or tearing up over their abusive childhood.

As thinkers and doers students in my experience are a pretty mixed bunch. The ones who already have some critical uptake, thinking and production skills are rarely the plagiarizers, especially once you get them on the hook by caring about them. They can do the work cheaper and better themselves without plagiarizing. So once you’re caring about students learning and you get the moral environment sorted out so they care back, plagiarism becomes obviously something the ones who do it are driven to by missing elements in the necessary skillset. The task then becomes filling in those skills. Essays shift subtly from being a ritually formalized way to test content knowledge to being part of a longer process to develop practical intellectual capabilities. (It helps a lot to ‘sell’ those skills. All but the geekiest of them, who will become us later, think the various specific contents of the humanities are useless, they’re right, and trying to argue otherwise is counterproductively delegitimating.) This process orientation means among other things that for students at all but the elitest schools there will probably have to be lots of explicit instruction on how to write papers as a way to organize and communicate thought, including not just rules and recipes but rationales; peer reviewing of drafts (I do both intro paragraph and full draft); and a rewrite option, at least for the first paper until they get their chops together.

Classroom time has to make the same subtle shift. There are probably a lot of ways to do that. What works for me is to teach content through skills. So for example in World History I might want to cover some modern African history in relation to the Atlantic complex. Let’s say the skill we’re working on today is reading critically, and we happen to be doing that this time around using a 16th-century letter from the King of Kongo to the King of Portugal. This letter is a pretty subtle little piece of work, with a lot of information to be gleaned about culture and politics in Kongo; activities and attitudes of Portuguese merchants there; early phases of the slave trade; and so on. Of course we’ll need to crack the textbook to fill in some context to better understand what the Portuguese were doing on the coast of Africa, why they were welcomed by the Kings of the Kongo in the first place, what the slaves might have been needed for, etc.

Small groups and competitive/cooperative reporting are good ways to get most of the students involved and invested in the process of puzzling it all out. Classroom work has to be personal and recursive, including for example lots of interaction with the groups during their investigations and pauses to allow students who don’t know answers to find them or think them through, so that each student develops a personal class voice and habit of analysis that carries over to written work. Reasons and foundations always have to be specified, by them and us. Expectations should start high and get higher, so there’s always something of value to be accomplished for every student to be proud of. It’s a lot easier to convey the importance of scholarly apparatus to respect and communicate other people’s authority when the students are in touch with their own. I’ve done this directly with classes as large as fifty, by the way, and with discussion sections for classes in the hundreds.

And still all this is not enough to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments, although it’s a pretty good start. To knock out the last lingering vestiges of moral depravity, bad habit and performance anxiety, the last line of defense is to make it harder and riskier to plagiarize effectively than to write the paper straight. Here’s one way to do that with actual pedagogical value: design essay assignments that are unique to each class, its discussions and resources.

The simplest trick is to require students to write source-supported essays, to use only the course texts as sources, and to use more than one. By ‘require’ I mean if they don’t do it, they fail. This has the pedagogical value of forcing them to: engage with good sources you selected on purpose; mine available sources thoroughly rather than skipping around superficially; crosscheck sources rather than taking one at face value; synthesize information into their own analysis rather than just doing stock book reports; and appreciate the difference between mere opinion and informed opinion. All of these skills are supported by the reading work in class. By the way, this doesn’t help much if you don’t mix up your course texts. Publishers’ text ‘n’ source suites are a nice convenience for lazy teachers and plagiarizers alike, as is keeping the same texts and topics year after year. And stay away from stereotypical topics and sources. The easiest and most tempting paper in the world to plagiarize is yet another reaction paper on famous poem/article/book/event X. When you can google your topic and the first hit is a plagiarism site, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

The idea is to make it vanishingly unlikely that they’ll find any mass market boilerplate that adequately addresses your assignment. Here’s an example of such an assignment: “Using only the course texts for evidence, analyze the relation of agency to happiness in rural Ming China,” where the course texts are a primary source reader from one publisher and a world history text from another. (Research comes later in the term once skills and habits are better, but course texts are always required.) What would it take to plagiarize this? Most of the standard strategies – cutting and pasting generic information on China, e.g. – would result in an incoherent, nonresponsive paper that would fail on its own merit without getting into plagiarism detection. Furthermore, they’d fail without regular and accurate citation of the course texts. (I usually get about a third with this error, innocent or otherwise, in the first batch of papers. I don’t even read papers with epic fails, I just hand them back to be fixed. Obviously you have to know, communicate, and enforce your standards for this to work.)

OK, here we are at the end of this post and I have to confess, it’s still not impossible to plagiarize under all these conditions. Easy, in fact, for the resolute scallawag. Here’s how. As mentioned above, they can pay an artisanal plagiarizer big bucks for completely customized papers. At least three of them, in my classes, which would only be prohibitive for really rich scoundrels if all my colleagues were also plagiarism-proofing their assignments. Or if the determined rabscallion wants to save that bling for beer, they could scour the ‘nets for snippets of information about agency and happiness in Ming China, stitch them together with topically-relevant analysis, then invent plausible citations to the course texts. To do that, all it would take is to understand the assignment and its rationale, properly identify relevant information, produce focused and coherent analysis, and know the course texts well enough to target the fake cites effectively. And at that point they might as well write the A paper those skills indicate they’re capable of writing.

December 15, 2008

Teaching philosophy

by Carl Dyke

I’m inclined to agree with Academic Cog, whose various statements about teaching I admire, that “teaching philosophies” as required for job applications and tenure/promotion files tend to be “vague, general, and dorky-sounding,” ranging from inane to robotic. I especially dislike the ones that respond to explicit or implicit questions about “innovative” teaching. I’ve seen and developed some pretty fancy ways to deliver lecture and discussion over the years, but until someone figures out a way to teach the humanities that isn’t a variation on lecture or discussion (knowledge pills? cortical implants?) —

— I may add some tricks to my bag but I’m holding fire on innovation cred.

Re: innovation (or not), here’s the statement from my introductory world history syllabus, under the heading “teaching/learning philosophy as I learned it from world history:”

“If I give a student one corner of a subject and he cannot find the other three, the lesson is not worth teaching.” — Confucius

“When we renounce learning we have no troubles… when there is abstinence from action, good order is universal.” — Laozi

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” — Walter Benjamin

“Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be: — a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad.” — the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.” — William James

“I don’t believe in living in the past. The past is for cowards. If you live in the past, you die in the past.” — Mike Ditka

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. God knows but you do not know.” — the Qu’ran

“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous.” — Shunryu Suzuki

These are not meant to be linear. My classes are ‘some assembly required’.

Insofar as I have anything like a formal teaching philosophy I fall into the general category of humanists who think learning is good and it’s possible, in principle, for every student to learn; and of pragmatists who think this is better accomplished actively than passively. As for specifics, they vary. I use my classrooms as teaching/learning laboratories, so I’m always trying out new (to me) strategies. I also do a lot of reading and reacting with particular students and groups of students, which means that the instancings of a general approach may be quite different even across sections of ‘the same’ class. Finally, I have noticed that just about any way of teaching will work pretty well if the teacher is excited about it and fall flat if they’re not. So I never teach ‘the same’ class twice because I use each class as an opportunity to learn new things and I periodically cycle out of even very successful teaching strategies to keep myself fresh. I think that teaching stops being about technique and starts being about feel and fit and mindful interaction pretty quickly.

Still, as a member of several search committees I have read some pretty inspiring teaching philosophies. Occasionally at the interview they even turn out to match the practices of their authors! But it’s practices we care about in the end, isn’t it? So perhaps we should ask for statements of teaching practice. As to that, I indicated in the previous post I think it’s important to think through what we actually want our students to learn in our classes and teach directly to those objectives. For my students the most important outcome is the ability and disposition to learn independently and to read, think and write critically. I reported out an example of how that looks in practice in my earlier post, Ninja Reading, which is currently my favorite teaching statement and not at all inane or robotic.

December 14, 2008


by Carl Dyke

I’ve figured out, again, that if I want to get any serious work done I have to get away from my distractions. So for the last few days I’ve been taking up tipspace for as long as I thought polite at a series of restaurants and coffee shops, buying just enough to rent the table and overtipping like mad, bringing down the atmosphere of leisure no doubt with my gradebook, big piles of papers and journals, and the occasional anguished cry.

Actually the papers have not been half bad overall. I finally figured out that I need to teach what I want them to know and do, so I’ve got my teaching and assessing aligned (I ‘teach to the test’). It’s sort of amazing to me how long I got by with a reputation as a good teacher without doing that. Anyway, the papers are much better when I’ve taught them how to read, think and write in the ways one must to write a good paper. ‘What gives’ is content coverage. It’s amazing too how little I care about that if by the end of the class they can develop a coherent, well-supported thought about something in particular relevant to the course for 5-8 pages.

December 9, 2008

Community, agency, networks, happiness

by Carl Dyke

This semester as a collective project my school of Arts and Humanities worked in various ways toward a better understanding of what we called our Big Idea, “happiness.” One is Bob Ritzema’s excellent blog, Life Assays.

In my classes I plugged happiness in as the topic of the final papers, then sequenced the semester’s shorter papers as topical analyses leading to happiness as the synthesis. In my introductory World History classes the topics were community and agency. The students tended to struggle with the concept of agency, which I spent a lot of time walking them through as an umbrella term for power, control, choice, action, reaction and the like, but kept coming back at me informed by the folk definition of bureaucratic functions. Eventually I realized I was doing them no favors shielding them from the framing problematic of the structure/agency question, and this seemed to click; whether because it was the right way to teach it all along or they were ready for it from what had come before would be hard to untangle.

In general I find students have some trouble getting past definitions to concepts, and from concepts to cases. Of course it’s a cognitive mistake to linearize that way, so we also work from cases back to concepts, which does complicate the instruction. When introduced to abstraction they’ll spend a whole paper defining their terms if you let them; I call this throat-clearing. It takes a lot of patience and individual attention to get many students comfortable with a dialogue between the concrete and the abstract.

In my Contemporary World History seminar I added a third topic, networks. For the community module we primarily worked out of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, a wonderful ethnography of failures to communicate between Hmong immigrants and social service providers in Merced, CA; for agency we worked from David Reynolds’ nice global history One World Divisible; and for networks we had Donald R. Wright’s The World and a Very Small Place in Africa, which uses a world systems approach to work through how Niumi on the West African coast has been tied into the Atlantic Complex over hundreds of years.

This was a good group with good materials to work with, so we had a blast. One of my students is a community organizer, a real smartie attuned to the discourses of exclusion and oppression. She thought along with me all semester and had a whole bunch of clicks about how what we were talking about related to her work. Here’s one of those, from her network paper:

Taking oneself out of a network is near impossible. A person may be a socialist, but unless he moves to a remote location and begins to grow his own food, make his own clothes, defend himself, he is still living and functioning in a capitalist system that works by allowing people to mentally compartmentalize their actions. A group of activists may take up a cause, but in these times, it is near impossible for them to work outside of the non-profit industrial complex…. The institutionalizing and invisible nature of networks create an environment where people become so dependent on each other it is impossible to unsubscribe from the relationship.

Yup, we’re stuck with each other and in some pretty complex ways. I can’t wait to see how she finds happiness in this.