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Perspectives of a Tired Grad Student

Moving Forward in Higher Ed

We were prompted to write a blog post about what we believed needed to change in higher education, and immediately what came to my mind was the conflict between the humanities and sciences. I can’t believe that there is still such a divide between these two groups. The fact that we have yet to realize that one cannot exist without the other is ridiculous and is limiting our development. Why are we so proud and self-involved that we cannot recognize that the work of those who think and work differently than we do can be just as valuable as our own work?

I know that the university is planning to move to a pathways approach, and although I am not 100% sure how I feel about the pathways approach I hope that this transition will allow the disciplines to become less divided and competitive, or at least be a step toward doing so. I think if we could implement more courses like communicating science that could bring the disciplines together we could make more progress toward becoming a unified group.

Students in the humanities should not be made to feel that the time and money they are spending on their degree is not worth it; they should not be made to feel that the work they are doing is unimportant.

According to John Martin, director of the Centre for Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine at the University of London, “science encourages the idea that humans are just molecular machines that have to be made more efficient, and its job is simply to measure the universe and predict its activity. But humans are more than this; they have a soul, and it is the job of the humanities to help people achieve their destiny as true human beings.”

Professor Martin tells his students that they are repairing hearts so their patients can fulfill themselves by studying art, literature and music. He says that if Einstein had not written down E=mc2, another scientist would one day have done so, but no one else could have written Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

It is this view of the humanities and sciences as dependent disciplines that are enhanced by one another and most most effective when used collaboratively that we need in higher education.

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MOOC’s in Higher Education

Mooc

Although I am not a huge fan of fully online courses in a University setting I absolutely see the value of MOOCs. I think that MOOCs are a great opportunity for individuals who do not have access to higher education, or who desire a more flexible and less demanding format of education. I think that MOOCs are the perfect alternative for these individuals who want to continue to learn and develop, but who do not want to pursue a degree or cannot afford to take classes offered by community colleges.

In the context of university education, I wrote a blog post earlier in the semester that referenced another individual’s blog where they talked about how they believe that the first two years of college education should be moved to an online format. The reality is that online courses simply don’t work for some people and on the flip side of that online courses are the only option for some individuals. I think having a healthy combination of both online and in-person courses is essential to accommodating all students.

The Power Struggle in Higher Ed: Theory vs. Practice

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a very research oriented person. I like to learn practical things in the classroom. I want to hear about real problems and use what I’ve learned to try to solve them. I understand the importance of theory and that theory should be used as a guide in the “real world,” but how do we balance teaching theory and teaching practical application?

I completed my undergraduate degree at Virginia Tech, and I enjoyed my program, enough so that I decided to get my second degree here as well. My undergraduate program had a decent mix of theoretical and application-based courses, but that hasn’t been the case as much in my graduate program. Some weeks it feels like day in and day out we do nothing but talk theory, theory and more theory. I am so tired of theory. I am realizing, now that I am over halfway through with my program, that I probably should have chosen a Master’s program that was less research and theory focused. I yearn for application based courses and discussions, and I’m just not getting that.

Knowing that some students are like me and really appreciate application based learning and that some students love the theory based material that I am getting sick of, I have been trying to make sure that I integrate both of these focuses in my teaching material as much as possible.

While thinking about the struggle between theory and practice, I came across this passage from an older blog post:

“I have argued here (and at length elsewhere) that once one bears down on the supposed distinction between practical knowledge and knowledge of truths, it breaks down. The plumber’s or electrician’s activities are a manifestation of the same kind of intelligence as the scientist’s or historian’s latest articles — knowledge of truths. It is true that someone might be adept at car mechanics and hopeless at philosophy. But it is also true that someone might be adept at theoretical physics and hopeless at philosophy. Distinctions between what one is adept at and what one is not adept at do not correlate with the folk distinction between practical and theoretical pursuits. If only to appropriate student loans rationally, we must also recognize distinctions between professions, the mastery of which requires learning many and perhaps more complex truths, and professions that one can master more easily. But these are distinctions along a continuum, rather than distinctions in kind, as the folk distinction between practical and theoretical pursuits is intended to be.”

I would like to hear from some of you in other disciplines if this fight over application and theory is present in your own department and what your thoughts are on it. I would also like to know what do you emphasize in your own teaching? Do you lean more toward theory or practical application and why?

Life as a GTA: Struggling to Meet Unstated Expectations

This semester I am teaching a new course as a graduate teaching assistant, and I am running into very different issues than I have ever had before. Previously I taught a course where I was given the material that I had to teach, but had quite a bit of freedom in how I actually taught the material. The students took tests and quizzes online, but I didn’t lecture on the information that was on them, instead I taught additional information or simply emphasized important pieces. In this new class I am teaching I am provided with a PowerPoint and expected to take what is on this PowerPoint and infer what the professor wants me to teach the students.

The professor teaches one course and I teach two others. I am finding myself struggling to figure out how to make the material that I cover match the material that he covers. For example, we recently did an activity where students were given an ethics-related scenario and had to come up with the “correct” ethical decision. When it came to the quiz on this lesson, the quiz asked the students to determine the ethical principle guiding this decision and two different principles, which I had discussed in class were listed as answers. I hadn’t realized when planning to teach this lesson that we would be asking students to distinguish a guiding principle, so I didn’t emphasize this, but spend more time focusing on why the “correct” decision was what it was. Due to this oversight, quite a few students missed this question on their quiz and were unhappy with me for not explaining the guiding principle clearly enough. This is just one example of the issues that I have been encountering working in this new position.

Do others who work in GTA positions encounter these types of problems? How do you overcome them? What suggestions, other than being as familiar with the tests and material as possible, do you have for someone in this position?

Open Access and the International Journal of Communication

The International Journal of Communication is an open access journal out of the University of Southern California, established in 2007. IJoC is ranked 5th for Humanities journals and 7th for Communication journals. IJoC publishes articles, book reviews, special sections, and features. IJoC is a purely online journal that focuses on communication content, but is accepting of content from other disciplines as well. IJoC reports that they try to uphold USC Annenberg Press’ committment to “excellence in communication scholarship, journalism, media research, and application” by publishing content covering a diverse range of topics and approaches.

Everything published in IJoC, except book reviews, is peer reviewed, and most content goes through two levels of peer review, unless the first reviewer has major doubts that the content would be accepted upon the second level of review.  

IJoC explains that they use open access as a way to increase the number of views and citations that content receives. The journal also addresses that because traditional journals are unlikely to give up the revenue they get from selling subscriptions, it is up to open access journals to replace those traditional journals and make open access the norm.

Take a look at IJoC yourself at http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/about/editorialPolicies#custom-6

Cheaters Teaching Cheaters

I recently read a fascinating article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that told the stories of current professors cheating during their own academic careers, and how those experiences have impacted how they handle cheating with their own students.

The course I am currently teaching is a hybrid course, meaning that the students learn the material on their own at home, then they come into class and we do activities and group discussions to emphasize the key points that they should have synthesized from all of the information. Due to to the hybrid nature of the course, all of the quizzes and exams are taken online. The professor I work with and I have had numerous conversations about how in the world to limit students’ ability to cheat on these assignments. This course has been taught for years, so quiz questions and answers have been posted in numerous places on the internet. We try to change the questions and answers and the way they are order, as well as giving them a short time-limit, so that they don’t have time to look up each answer.

My first question is how on earth can we stop students from cheating on online assignments when it is so easy to do so. Even if you use some of the browsers that don’t allow students to open any other tabs or material while they are taking a quiz or exam, there are a number of way to getting around this (printing the material, using another computer, tablet, or phone, etc.).

My second question is how important is it that we try so hard to eliminate all cheating? It seems that no matter what a teacher does there will always be those students who find some way to cheat. Obviously this isn’t fair to the other students, and the cheating student doesn’t deserve a good grade for dishonest work, but how much time should we put into preventing and detecting cheating? This article shows that about half of these teachers who cheated as students still feel remorse and regret for what they did and only report cheating once or twice in their college careers. Do one-time offenders who broke the rule due to an issue in their personal lives or an overwhelming schedule, or do all cheaters deserve the same punishment?

I would love to hear your thoughts on cheating and how you handle prevention, detection, and punishment of cheating in your own courses.

Limiting Inventiveness and Blurring Ethical Lines in Academia

This week in class we were talking about authorship and Dr. Depauw mentioned that she believes that you have only earned a degree if you are the first author on the thesis or dissertation that got you that degree. I was caught off guard by this comment because I was not aware that some students have other individuals as authors on their theses/dissertations. In my Master’s program the student does their own research and is the only author on their thesis when they are done; their committee members are acknowledged, but the student is the sole author.

This conversation on having additional authors made me wonder how much freedom these students have in choosing what they want to study for their thesis/dissertation. The amazing thing about my program is that I was given the freedom to study whatever I wanted as long as it related to communication in some way. My program advisor tells grad students that we are should find something that we are interested in, and even if there isn’t someone in the department who specializes in that area the faculty will do whatever they can to find individuals who can help them throughout the process. This freedom that I was given is one of my favorite things about my program and I can’t imagine having felt pressured to study a topic that fit with a particular professor’s area of research.

I am taking a course this semester that involves completing a research project/paper, and while trying to get my topic for this project approved I continued to be met with pushback from my professor any time I made a suggestion that was too far from her own area of research. I have been extremely annoyed at the limitations this professor has placed on the students in this course, so I cannot imagine having to feel this oppression when completing one of the most important projects I had ever worked on.

Not only would working on a professor’s project as part of a thesis or dissertation decrease their control over the situation, but could also open the door for ethical issues to arise. The Office of Research Integrity posted a case on their website where a former graduate student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine fabricated and/or falsified data in three publications and four meeting presentations. When graduate students are caught fabricating data it makes me wonder what the reasoning behind doing so was; were they being pressured by professors or other researchers, were they simply eager to have significant findings so that they could get published, or was something entirely different guiding their actions? 

I am very interested to hear from all of you on this topic. How much freedom did you have in choosing your own thesis/dissertation topic? For those of you who might be in a program that allows for less freedom in choosing what you research, how do you handle these limitations? Has anyone ever stood up against this restraint, and if so, what happened? Have you ever felt pressured to act unethically in a research setting, or have you ever had to deal with a professor using unethical practices?

Research Beyond the Researcher

Drew Story’s opinion piece Give People What They Paid For in Inside Higher Ed really caught my eye. In this piece, Story addressed the declining support and funding for scholarly work. Two sentences in particular caught my eye:

“For too long, colleges and universities have held a monopoly on new knowledge, mostly with specialized language, but recently more with exclusivity. The fact is that, aside from what the news media passes on, the public can’t access scientific research in its original published form.”

In the same vein, Maximillian Alvarez writes, “The biggest obstacle to democratizing access to and production of academic knowledge is the reality that many academics and academics-in-training don’t actually want this to happen. The university currently provides incentives for knowledge producers (greater prestige, salary bumps, more freedom with reduced teaching loads) that make it altogether undesirable for those in elite institutions — and those who desperately want to join them — to reject the system of privileges from which they benefit, or hope to someday.”

This statement gets at my biggest issue with higher education and scholarly research. All throughout my college experience, and especially while in my Master’s program I have been exposed to (or maybe more accurately forced to read) scholarly article on scholarly article. If I hadn’t attended college I likely would not have read even a tenth of the scholarly articles that I have. I don’t know anyone who spends their spare time perusing academic journals; many people aren’t even aware of the overabundance of articles that are out there overflowing with information, and why would they when people like me, who have a degree and are in the progress of getting a second, still struggle to understand them sometimes.

To combat this issue, Story suggests that researchers include a “General Public Summary” with their regular article. This summary would be aimed at the general public, meaning that it would be written at no higher than an eighth grade reading level and would be freely available to the general public on the publisher’s website. Although I think this is the start of a great idea, I think that the issue of making the public aware that this information exists and getting them to see value in utilizing it remains a difficulty.

I am NOT a very research oriented person; the idea of spending the rest of my life collecting, analyzing and writing about data makes me want to crawl in a cave and hide, and part of these reason for this negative attitude toward research is the result of its exclusive nature. I am a firm believe in the idea that research should be conducted for the good of the public, and research can’t help the public if it isn’t available to the public. I am trying to practice what I preach by making my thesis as practical as possible for the people involved and directly providing them with an “executive summary” that is created for the purpose of aiding them in applying my findings to their everyday work, but I am already finding that in order to make it “valuable” in the research world, I am sometimes limiting its practicality, and it’s a shame that this is the case.

research-meme

I would love to hear from some of you in other disciplines about how prominent this issue is in your field, and your thoughts on it.

 

Common Core: A Common Problem?

Today I came across an Inside Higher Ed article written by Arthur Garson and Robert Pianta that caught my eye. Read the full article here. In this article, Garson and Pianta explored college’s requirement of students to take “core curriculum,” or as we call them here at Virginia Tech Curriculum for Liberal Education or CLE, courses. The authors argue that these common core courses are arbitrarily selected, and are an expensive waste of time for students. They suggest that a more effective alternative would be to have “a group of successful people from across the country, from all walks of life, led by evidence-based educators” create a new list of subjects that anyone considered “educated” should know, and implement this new list of prerequisites at all universities. They say that colleges should then experiment with these courses to determine how they impact student outcomes to decide which courses should remain a part of this core curriculum.

Their second suggestion was that these core curriculum courses should be online courses, saying that “students’ on-campus time is better spend on other endeavors and it’s inefficient for every university in the country to design and teach the same core courses. They say it would make more sense to create “a marketplace of online courses” that can be used by all universities.

I think these authors have made an important point. I was lucky to come into Virginia Tech with a large portion of my CLE courses already completed. Already having these courses completed meant that I was able to finish my undergraduate degree in only three years, which saved me thousands of dollars. The authors mention that these online courses could be available for high school students to take before coming to college, and I think this is a great idea, especially for students who attend high schools that offer few college level courses. My high school offered very few AP or Dual Enrollment courses (only two I think). I was lucky enough to be accepted into a Governor’s school, where I was able to earn the college credits I mentioned earlier. The authors did not say whether these online courses would come at a lower cost than other courses, but since they would require no professor, I would assume that they would.

The authors speak pretty harshly about common core courses, and although I think they make a few valid points, I do not see all of these courses as worthless, and I do not think that all of them should be taught online. Some students simply do not learn well online. Virginia Tech’s online format for math classes would have been a nightmare for me if I hadn’t already completed all of my required math courses. I think it is important that courses also offer these core courses in an in-class format for students who don’t do well with online classes (maybe just less frequently).

I am interested to hear what your thoughts are on the common core courses and some of the suggestions that the authors have offered.

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