Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

What in Darwin’s name was I thinking? (#001)

Posted 13 Jan 2017 / 0

Crusher 1 1500pxI am not afraid to play around when it comes to my teaching. I have been teaching for what seems to me a long time — eight years as a middle school teacher, several instructor gigs in graduate school, and now nearly ten years as a professor at Pratt — and I never feel as though the way I teach is ‘set’. Perhaps I suffer from pedagogical wanderlust, never satisfied staying in one place for too long a time. Maybe my students are a moving target, as new generations force me to adapt my teaching to the inevitably-shifting strengths and weaknesses of those who walk into my classroom. But even if boredom and a shifting student environment weren’t at play, I still think that I would want to switch up how I teach periodically: even after teaching for so long, I always feel as though there is room for improvement. It’s amazing how even looking back a few years I can make myself cringe: that’s how I used to teach that idea? I can only hope that future teaching innovations make me cringe at some of the ways that I teach today.

There’s a certain risk in switching up my teaching on a regular basis. The biggest risk is the opportunity cost associated with major changes to my curricula: new teaching ideas take a lot of time to develop, and implementing them is a major administrative task. What might I have been doing with my time if I wasn’t compulsed to frequently change my course content and configuration? But opportunity costs aren’t the only risk. There’s also the risk that changes to my teaching might actually make my classes worse rather than better. Sadly, I fear that is what has happened in a few realms over the past few years, and I am in the process of trying to straighten out my errors.

It all started with course evaluations. As frequent readers of this blog know, I take course evaluations quite seriously. But taking course evaluations seriously does not necessarily mean that I will act on them appropriately; in fact, course evaluations are devilishly difficult to translate into curricular changes, because how students react to a particular element of a course doesn’t necessarily illuminate how a course should be changed. For years students have been complaining that I expect too much of them. I realize that this is probably the universal chorus heard by any professor who actually teaches a course with any rigor, but I still take the complaint seriously, especially at Pratt. Long ago I learned that our students really are terribly overloaded with work; the institution has basically acknowledged as much by revising the art and design requirements to a fewer-classes-for-more-credit model that’s due to be implemented in the Fall of this year. Reasonably — and by federal crediting guidelines — students are expected to spend at least six hours a week doing work for my class outside of the normal class meeting time. But I have found that students really struggle to devote this amount of time to my course because they are so overloaded with work in other courses (mostly in their studios).

These student complaints have context beyond my course. It’s kind of a well-known fact that all Math & Science courses at Pratt don’t place the same demands on students: there’s actually tremendous variation in the amount of work that our classes demand in and out of class, and I think that a fair number of complaints emerged from my students ‘comparing notes’ with their friends who have taken much less rigorous courses in our department. This is not a problem that I am going to fix entirely through tweaking my courses (unless I am ready to fully embrace the race to the bottom in regards to expectations on students), but knowing that there’s such inequity in workload-for-credit inevitably influences how I react to student complaints about workload.

I think that there certainly have been semesters when I assigned too much work to my students. A previous iteration of my The Evolution of Cooperation course (Fall 2012 in particular) asked students to do a lot of reading and to complete a major project. I have learned to streamline expectations in terms of reading, and I don’t think that my courses have suffered terribly. A few students who could have handled (and thereby benefitted from) more reading might have suffered, but they never knew it. Overall I think the general effort to streamline the workload in my course has been beneficial… and warranted.

But what if you streamline the wrong aspect of your workload?

Starting in the Fall of 2014, I eliminated a major staple of my courses: creative projects. For years, I had asked students to complete a project — usually a final project — that incorporated scientific research into a creative work. These projects produced a lot of successful work (my favorites were in Ecology and Human Evolution), but they required a lot of students. And I figured that if students wanted less work from the course, eliminating these creative projects would be an easy way of reducing workload. In most of the courses that required a creative project I was not asking students to take any exams, and increasingly I had the sense that I needed to implement a final exam to both hold students accountable for synthesizing what they had learned over the semester and to give me some way of assessing student achievement of the broader learning outcomes of my courses. I figured that if I was going to add a final exam, I ought to subtract something as well.

I didn’t eliminate the creative projects just to reduce workload on students: eliminating these projects also reduced my own workload. Done right, these sorts of projects require a lot of feedback and grading effort on my part, and I was getting worn down from trying to keep up with this effort. I guess that I just am not very efficient at administering my classes, because three course sections — in combination with the service work I was doing — were consistently taking up all of my weekly work time. If I wanted do any sort of research or writing, that meant working well beyond what I consider a reasonable work week. So there was a ‘selfish’ aspect of eliminating these projects, as I was freeing myself of a lot of work as well.

By the Spring of 2015 my courses were radically transformed by my new ‘lower workload’ approach: not only had I eliminated the creative term project, I had eliminated all outside projects altogether. My classes became very simple and very ‘straight’: do your reading and a short homework associated with the reading, come to class and participate in discussions and activities, and take midterm and final exams. This made my classes a lot more streamlined for my students, and for me. But then a funny, unexpected thing happened: students didn’t seem to like my course any more than they had in the past… if anything, they seemed to regard the course as more of a chore. And my course evaluations didn’t really get any better. Complaints about too much work persisted, even as the workload was objectively lower than in previous semesters.

I have to admit that I was surprised by this outcome, but I probably should not have been. Now that I have some time and space to look back, I can see pretty well what happened:

  • Students always want less work. Until your course becomes really trivial, students are always going to wish that they could do less for the same credit (especially when other courses fulfilling the same requirement require radically less work). So simply eliminating part of the workload really wasn’t going to lower complaints. Which highlights an important point that I (and my administrative supervisors) ought to keep in mind: not every student complaint bears listening to. General, dilute complaints about “too much work” have to be judged not on their face but based on how much work is actually being required. I don’t think that my courses that included a creative project — even alongside a final exam — were asking too much of my students.
  • Students really enjoy doing creative work in their liberal arts classes. Sure, they complain because the project occupies time they might spend otherwise. But in taking away this project I was taking away the one lifeline my courses had to their majors. At Pratt, the majors are everything, and I was a fool to teach a science course as though these major elephants in the room did not exist. Students seem to afford my courses greater respect when they require creative engagement, and they put work into these projects that they wouldn’t devote elsewhere.
  • I don’t enjoy teaching ‘straight’ courses. Although it is impossible to quantify, I think that a large portion of student malaise at my ‘straight’ course format reflected my own malaise about teaching my courses in this manner. I really like the development of a project, and I like creative expression in response to science: that’s a large part of what has made me a good fit to Pratt. Just like my students, I had to work a less in my reading/class/exams-formatted courses, but I was less happy doing that work. And there’s nothing that engenders students antipathy towards a course like instructor antipathy towards their own course.

So I made a mistake. It is certainly not the last time I will make a pedagogical miscalculation; heck, it’s not even the only major pedagogical miscalculation that I have made in the past few years. But what’s awesome about teaching is that there is always another semester. And that another semester emerged last semester  (Fall 2016) when I re-introduced the creative Term Project to my Ecology course. There are too many variables and too few students per class to put any faith in this comparison, but my two ‘straight’-taught Evolution sections felt a whole lot less engaged than my one Ecology section with the restored creative project. I haven’t gotten my course evaluations for these three course sections yet, but when I do it will be interesting to see if student ratings of the courses vary in any clear manner.

The future looks bright for creative projects in my courses. In the Fall of this year, our general education curriculum will shift to a new model. A lot will be changed. Instead of being asked to take two (random, haphazardly-selected) courses from the Math & Science department in the junior and senior years, students will be required to take just one course in their sophomore year. While the content of these sophomore “core” courses will vary radically (a wide variety of math and science disciplines are represented in the roster of these new courses), their requirements will not. They all require that students do research into the scientific literature, that students write in response to their research, and that student understanding of a common set of “core” concepts be assessed by a final exam. I know this won’t translate to total workload equity across these courses, but it is inevitable that workload across courses will be more equitable than our current roster of courses. And I hope that the greater standardization of expectation across these core courses will also lead to a normalization of the kind of workload I demand. I am proud that students will meet the requirements of scientific research and writing in service of producing their creative Term Project. And I hope to be right about my past mistakes: if I am, students should enjoy meeting core course requirements via the production of a creative project.

A Major Post, Course Evaluations, Higher Education, MSCI-260, Evolution, MSCI-270, Ecology, MSCI-271, Ecology for Architects, Teaching

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