Presentation to the COSC Student Association 9/12/2017
Prof Rick Walker, MA
I was recently honored to have been invited to speak to the Charter Oak State College SA about the story of an important class that I believe has created some buzz, IDS 101, the Interdisciplinary Studies Cornerstone Seminar on college writing and research, that all students have to pass to continue with their studies. It has just been revised to feature Open Educational Resources, OER, such as free textbooks. Our provost once described the instructors for this course as “ambassadors for the College.” For some students we are seen as their last chance to succeed in their studies, having bounced around from one college to another.
I started teaching this seven years ago as one of the pilot faculty. Prior to this I taught first year rhetoric and professional writing at University of Hartford, where I have a long history of service as well on the staff, prior to teaching. Truth be told, I like the online classroom for this particular discipline with an exclusive focus on writing without distractions. I tried to create a hybrid class at UofH but they weren’t ready for it as many had a fixed mindset. Of course, it helps that we are so affordable and that we can be very organized as well, with all of the capabilities of Blackboard.
The level of engagement in research and reading, however, is the big question, and my theme for this discussion. This isn’t a MOOC but designed to be quite individualized as much as possible but that takes a lot of instructor time! Inspiration is where you find it, and transformation, but where do you find it? Inspiration depends on many internal and external factors and circumstances relating to where you’re born and when, “ways of knowing” the “joy of learning” and the “spirit of inquiry” using both critical and creative thinking or, as I prefer to call it “Good Thinking” and how much you know about what that is. Unfortunately, some two thirds of college students don’t care and use essay mills and cheating. To them, higher education is just another transaction, less about learning than obtaining a credential. The question is, how do you balance the workload for different student populations and encourage mistakes so they won’t get into this realm? In terms of catching plagiarism, or teaching student what that is and letting them correct it, we use Turnitin. It isn’t enough however, and the experience of the instructor also kicks in.
At COSC we engage students from many diverse walks of life and with myriad experiences, including some problematic experiences in higher ed prior to this. We often have to rebuild trust and deal with the repercussions of our failing schools in a global economy where we’re all in competition for the best jobs. That fierce competition is certainly a factor in the essay mills. A good report on this competition is Tough Choices OR Tough Times: The Report Of the new Commission On The Skills Of The American Workforce, by the National Center On Education and the Economy, 2007. http://www.skillscommission.org You can download the Executive Summary, a PowerPoint etc.
While the class can be transformational, we hope to at least be inspirational and that is more likely with the support of the Academic Advising community behind the scenes. Because the College has such long experience evaluating prior coursework and experience, and students get their own advisors – how often does that happen?! – the instructor has backup. At the start of this pilot program we were working pretty closely within that backup. We would assist students with their resumes as well as provide some structure for the creation of the Concentration Plan of Study. This was a great way to get to know the students. In the next version, however, this went by the boards. This was spun off back to the staff I believe and with good reason as this took time away from the focus on writing in a course that is already pretty intensive, only two months.
http://www.macmillanlearning.com/catalog/static/bsm/bb/history.html Now this isn’t a typical “writing” class anyway. It isn’t an English class, which the students take prior to this. It is basically a class in rhetoric; but rhetoric in the classical sense as the study of rational argumentation and ways of thinking to engage an audience. Not radical verbosity and bombast as in the popular misuse of the term at a time when there is a loss of faith in our communal and political institutions in what seems to be an Information Tower of Babel.
https://books.google.com/books?id=Otbqj3eRsUcC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA114#v=onepage&q&f=false So with the next revision, by two faculty this time, the students purchased three books displacing a nice handbook; The Craft of Research and A Rulebook for Arguments and, quite intriguingly, the bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, by pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell. We spend several fruitful years analyzing the heck out of this book, to good effect as the nature of success belies easy interpretation and that in itself has much value these days when facile, off-the-cuff judgments rule the world and we need to live sustainably.
One particularly vocal class last year offered a lot of feedback, maybe because they were mostly juniors and seniors. It happens. In the workplace today the ability to effectively process information is key, in what I call The Age of Distraction, however! I have a document in process that I’ve written on that if anyone is interested, “The Conundrum of Education in the Age of Distraction” downloadable at Merlot, a big OER site. https://www.merlot.org/merlot/viewMember.htm?id=924842
In order to help our students transcend these distractions I believe we need to have our own theory of knowledge, or epistemology, at a time when the study of epistemology is disenfranchised. This doesn’t mean that there is or should be a definitive, established body of knowledge, but neither should relativism reign supreme. I like E. D. Hirsch Jr and The Core Knowledge Foundation. I worry that the academic community seems to be going along with this relativism and rampant dualism in order to compete with the virtual world of infotainment. Students need to build their knowledge base, and certainly this can be exciting these days.
Using Action Research, something I learned about when consulting years ago to CCSU, I try to seed the ground early and provide some water tapping into new knowledge every day. This has to happen early on, starting in the first week when possible to encourage them to focus on their interests and start thinking about a research topic of their choice. I recommend lots of books, and even though they don’t seem to have much time to read them in this class, I keep trying.
One student wrote: “Professor, I love the book recommendations! I will add this one to my ever-growing list of books to read for fun. Thank you for relating to your students and inspiring them through your own experiences and “gems” learned along the way. Great course!” Another: “I ended up purchasing this book, along with a few others mentioned by classmates in the discussion boards, and books that were suggested to me via Amazon based on these purchases. I’m so pleased by the growth in my pile of books to read!”
Focusing on excellent sources early on, with support, saves time for the student, but this isn’t easy for many who prefer to wander by habit in the vastness of the Googleplex. One wrote:
“It does get easier the more courses you get through. I had two, both online, that made me consider quitting. They were both challenging, writing intense courses with professors who were far less involved with the courses than Professor Walker. It’s hard enough feeling overwhelmed but also feeling cut-off from the professors was difficult. One of them, I was ready to throw in the towel just before the final paper. I even went to church in tears because I was so miserable, but then I found inspiration and wound up quoting a line from the sermon in my paper. After weeks of poor grades for work I thought was good, I finally got a decent grade on that paper, which I wrote in one day. I was completely confused about the arbitrary grading, but incredibly grateful it was over. I think having a professor who participates in the course and is approachable for questions and help makes a world of difference.”
In the current course students read a brief essay about procrastination and how it worked for one person. When doing research, of course, and critiquing this methodology the student must ask how this could come to be? Did the writer just do such good research he assimilated the material effectively to crank it out perhaps? Did he already have an established body of knowledge to tap into? So this reading is a good opportunity to assess one’s thought process and mindset, building on another reading on that topic. Time for reflection is the big bugaboo in class these days, as well as the lack of an established body of knowledge that students can build on as existed in the School of Athens; not all students, of course, as in our class quite a few have a lot of knowledge from their jobs. Of course the College library and local community libraries are pretty established! And there are growing online libraries that are impressive. Again finding an ideal source can save lots of time, and choosing their own topics is also helpful as they know something about the subject already. And the variety of topics is amazing, ranging from teaching the history of Islam in the military by an old soldier, to the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean, and with a current student who is a VP at a global charity protecting kids, the issue of shielding children from bad stuff on the Internet and social media. Last term a student tried to justify using computer games in the schools as they build creativity better than anything! This would be a horror to Susan Jacoby! It’s happening.
So experience and the desire to get the degree is motivating, and then perseverance becomes part of the equation; as with all aspects of this work time management is the common thread and important for perseverance once other factors are in place, including the “growth mindset” mentioned in a first essay for review in the new class, and discussed by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (If you have the time, check it out. TED interview: https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve
A student wrote: “It was very challenging for me to meet deadlines from home with family life going on around me. It seemed that the first few weeks were filled with children’s colds, snow days, and holidays and I quickly accepted that nighttime and weekend hours would be required. It was also challenging to get beyond writing blocks and to retrain my mind to produce thoughtful written work on demand. In order to work through the challenges I complained, a lot. I complained to my family, and I complained to the professor. I complained, and then I sat down at my desk again. I persevered. In order to meet deadlines I read every night, I dedicated at least 25-30 hours a week to coursework – it was very slow going for me. I aimed to complete each assignment at least one day before its due date, which left me room to finish if something unexpected came up. I took the professor’s advice and just wrote: When I didn’t know how to start or what to say I just wrote anything on the subject that came to mind until I passed the block. I asked a lot of questions, and very much appreciate the thoughtful and informative responses of classmates and professor.”
So this is a student who believed in her herself, and had a “mastery oriented” mindset as Dweck would promote. To encourage students to take on a challenge, or seek a challenge, and put effort into critical thinking requires not only consideration of their busy lives, what we know if them which is limited I’m afraid, and trying to make adjustments in a defined curriculum, but a philosophy of life as a reference point.
While philosophy isn’t taught in the schools, as there are now so many relativistic and dualistic misleading “ways of knowing” this is needed more than ever. This necessity stems from “The Transparency Paradox.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/custom-media/scjohnson-transparent-by-design/transparencyparadox/ Each day humans generate at least 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, according to a 2015 IBM study. David Helfand, a professor of astronomy at Columbia and author of A Survival Guide in the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of the Mind, “sees our information-overloaded lives running headlong into some growing pains.” He says “The transfer of information is no longer enough. Our educational system needs to be completely redesigned to teach people how to construct their own knowledge, how to access and validate information and then combine it in interesting ways, using tools from a variety of intellectual fields, to create something of value for themselves or for society.”
This paradox is being addressed head on in the new course, which features textbooks that are Open Education Resources, free to share and alter as needed giving credit to the author or authors. Not only do students get free books but they get to now think about the origins of information and knowledge and how it is applied and utilized for the greater good. When they get a taste of real research, and with judicious watering I try to do that beyond the texts, students I hope will discover that it is possible to seek out and find the good news to balance out the bad. Inspiration is where you find it. Prior to earning my MA in English & American Lit at Trinity College I read a lot of fiction, but since then I’ve read mostly nonfiction. I’m not a scientist, but I read my Scientific American and Smithsonian magazines religiously. One of my favorite books lately, with a truly futuristic yet practical philosophy of life, is The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story, by Brian Swimme, a colleague of Thomas Berry, of late at my other alma mater, Fordham. I just missed taking a course with him in the late 60s! This is Swimme’s site, The Center for the Story of the Universe. https://storyoftheuniverse.org I’d love to teach a course on this subject, about moving beyond consumption into a new paradigm focused on our place in the cosmos. “Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the soul.”
While studying Outliers, students discussed the nature of genius and generally continued to subscribe to the belief as voiced by Thomas Edison that “Genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” It seems that geniuses, however, only work four hours a day! Working smarter is the new goal at IDS 101!WorkBetter002