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When did everything change to be so individualized and about money?

I thought about this as I took my bike ride tonight. I get very nostalgic around the Fourth of July, because when I was a kid, I often spent the Fourth and a few weeks on either end of it with my now-deceased grandparents in their house outside Pittsburgh. One of my most vivid memories was the year we had a cookout of hamburgers and hot dogs and then walked down to a park - that seemed very, very far away - to watch the fireworks with other local people. Then we trudged back home, scratching our mosquito bites in the humid, but cool, night air.

Tonight on my bike, I noticed how many people were setting off fireworks in their own yards. It's not a communal activity anymore. And in my current state of Pennsylvania, we can buy them now and shoot them off in our  own yards. A communal activity is now individualized. For money that someone is making.

I remember when movies were talked about for how good a story they told, rather than how much money they made at the box  office.  It was truly about the experience rather than the bucks. Sometimes I think back to the subjects I learned in high school and college that have stuck  with me. They are not very valued  now, perhaps because they  aren't easily monetized. Hatshepsut fascinated me in the ninth grade. Maybe I am just not resilient or entrepreneurial enough, but I have yet to  find a way to make a buck off of her and my interest in her pharaonic reign. But I'm happy with that. Too bad so much has changed  even in college that nearly everything is evaluated by how one can turn  it into cash.

I'm glad I grew up when we all collectively listened to the car radio. There were no individual airbuds to plug into our ears. Instead  we collectively turned up the volume on Boston, Zepplin, and American Top 40. I liked it when the collective buzz was all about Star Wars, not because of the money it made, but because the story just blew our minds. I liked that we all collectively went to the movies and watched it, and did not individually queue it up on our own Netflix accounts.

Forgive me if I'm a bit melancholic and nostalgic tonight; since my grandmother and last remained grandparent died two years ago, I find myself unusually wistful on this holiday. I realize the Fourth of July is not usually a holiday in which one battles emotions. But I do.

I wish everyone a Happy Fourth, and I hope you're enjoying and celebrating with  lots of people - in a community of friends and family.

I've not been writing much on the blog and to my subscribers, I apologize. It's been a long, agonizing year, with an "academic program prioritization" process that led to my major being cut from our college. I will continue to teach, albeit not to art history majors. Now we've made it to the end of the Difficult Year and I'm resetting the blog and my priorities in my position at the college.

Today's post is about setting assessments that don't match learning objectives. I did that for my "finale" for my nineteenth-century art class this past May. I did not want a memorization exam. Although such exams remain the bedrock of much of higher education assessments, especially for art history, I don't find that it tells me much about how much students have learned from my classes, particularly the nineteenth-century art class. In that course, I emphasize that I want them to learn visual analysis: to look and to observe and by doing so, to come up with a thesis of potential meaning just from the formal elements in the painting. For instance, in  Courbet's painting The Stonebreakers (seen below) the meaning of the painting can be gleaned from visual analysis.When we examine this painting in class, I ask the students to tell me what they see. They answer with such observations such as: their backs are to us, so they do not seem like individuals; one seems young and the other older; they have frayed work clothes; they are doing hard labor of breaking up stones; they seem in a closed-in space where the only light is in the upper right corner, and out of reach.

All of that is correct. And what that leads to is a thesis for the painting that is this: the men are trapped, in a sense, in labor that will continue. The younger man will continue working until he, too, is like the older man, unable to carry heavy rocks, and instead will kneel to chip them into smaller rubble. The cycle will continue, for there is no "escape" spatially in the painting for these men. There is no social mobility, no "changing careers" or "moving up."

That is all learned by visual analysis, and trusting that observations can lead to these kinds of potential meanings. Of course, art history is more than just this, and we talk about how one would solidify such an interpretation:  by researching to find out more about when roads were built, who built them, what was working culture like around 1850 in France, etc. But you can get started with interpretive analysis from just looking.

For the "finale" of the class, I decided to make a "Jeopardy!" type of game. There are lots of free templates on the web that will allow you to make a game of whatever topic you desire. We played, and I was dismayed. They did not remember titles of paintings, or some of the dates, or some of the names of painters.

But then we got to "Final Jeopardy." Each "team" was given a painting and they had to tell me everything they remembered about it, using visual analysis. I gave each team a chance to talk about the painting and then we had their answers.

They remembered so much. When the assessment matched the learning objectives - it seemed like magic.  Of course, it was not magic; in class after class after class I  structured our time to give them chances to build their visual acuity and trust that they could - and would - learn what the paintings were seeking to tell them just by looking, carefully, at what was placed before them.

I will admit to not being an assessment guru. My assessments often miss the mark in terms of what I have been teaching them. But this time the starkness between "trivia"-like answers versus visual analysis of entire paintings helped me see that it is so important to line up assessment that will focus on what you were seeking to have them learn. I really do want to know what they have learned. It's just so often that the assessments I have been told to use don't do that.

Do you teach and have an assessment that works well? How does it match the learning objectives you have for your course?

Students: how would you like to demonstrate what you've learned in a class? An exam? Something else? I would be curious to know!

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As a faculty member, is there such a thing as caring for your students too much?

It does increase your workload. Just today - one day - I had a student who told me he forgot to print out his paper last week, could he still turn it in? Another had sent it to me but forgot to hand it in out of his backpack. Another just had back surgery and has been out and missed the start of our Reacting game. Another has had serious issues with her anti-depression medication and has gotten behind in class. Another one today was in the hospital with issues related to a kidney stone.

Then there is the student who has missed a total of nine classes and the last three. I don't have the energy to chase after him. I noted another one with just about as many absences who got up and left the class to go to the bathroom about half way through the 90-minute course period. I don't think he came back. But I had 23 or so other students to try to engage and mobilize for learning.

It's the end of the term. We still have two and a half more weeks of teaching to go before the finals/finale period [I abhor the notion of a class having a "final" so I use the term "finale" which my friend Tony Crider has written about before].

I continue to try to think up engaging material for my students, while at the same time covering my material and trying to gauge that they are learning. And I still want to help them all. But sometimes I get overwhelmed, too. There are so many needs and so many issues and so many difficulties.

I realize I could stand up at the front of the class, not say hello to my students, and lecture to them. Let them learn or not - who cares!?!?  And yet, I care. I care about the student who needed to get to her doctor to have her medication changed. I care about the student who has missed 9 classes. I care about the student with the back surgery and the one who was in the hospital today trying to find out what was wrong.  It's more emotional work to care [which is sometimes undervalued and under-recognized in higher education]. It's more work, period, to care.

Yet I do believe that caring about students helps them learn. And my business is teaching. And learning.

 

There has been a litany lately of stories, commentaries, and op-eds that basically sound the refrain that professors have a lack of trust in students. There has been a report of a professor at Howard University, who has a stated policy on his syllabi that if there is a family death/funeral on an exam day, too bad. Another story reopened the debate about laptops being used for taking notes (there had been other studies saying that hand-writing notes in class is better) and then the usual refrain about whether or not laptops should be banned. These are extreme stories, but they have at their core the same message: students are not to be trusted.

The core message is also: we as faculty know better than you.

But do we? Do we really know what students are doing when they are not in our classes? All that "outside the classroom reality" does impact them when they are with us for our 3 hours (or so) a week. Do we really know the familial, financial, and personal stresses they are balancing? Could we try to be a little more generous about why they are on the phones or why they miss class?

I am not saying that I am always understanding. I had a frank talk with my classes this past week about how distracted I get when a student is checking his or her phone in class. I am trying to connect with every student in every class (which may or may not be a ridiculous goal, but I hold to it anyway), and when a student is on his or her phone, I get pulled "off my game." My students seemed to understand that. I tweeted last weekend about how I view my students as collaborators in the classroom, that we are learning together. A student from one of my classes saw that tweet and "liked" it.

But to be truly co-collaborators with our students, we have to trust them. I know that sometimes they do not read for class. They procrastinate. I try to set up my classes so that they want to read article or at least see why I am asking them to do it. I want them to want to start the paper earlier. True, not every student will, all the time. But I am willing to trust them to do the right thing most of the time. If they sometimes "get me," so be it. In fact, it is they who are missing an opportunity.

At the end of the day, I make the decision to trust my students and if they are not doing what they should be in class - and to my mind that means coming to class, being attentive, engaging with me and others and the material - then I talk with them. Because in partnerships, both sides try to meet each other in the middle. Since as the professor I have more of the power in the relationship, I feel it's my duty to take the first step and demonstrate my trust of them in the classroom.

Students, I am very interested in hearing from you: how do faculty demonstrate trust to you, and if they do, does that affect they way that you learn?

Another season is in the record books for the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. It was not the record that we were all hoping for, and I was not able to travel to the last game, which was away. But I watched it on the livestream, and once again I marveled at the grit, resilience, and indefatigable spirit of the players, the coaches, and the fans - parents - who I knew were in the stands. I've come to love all aspects of the culture of this game, but it's the people who make it the best.

First, appreciation must go to the coaches, chief among them Head Coach Michael Dailey, who said yes from the start when approached to have a female art history professor as the first faculty mentor to the team. We reminisce now often about how we were going to "figure it out," and we have. I'm grateful for his patience, his answering of my thousands of questions (I am an academic!), and his embrace of just about every one of my ideas. I have made it a point to get to know the other coaches a bit better this year, though I could have done more on that score. Yet, I know how busy they are.

Second, the parents have been fun to get to know, too. What a hardy bunch! And these people know how to party! I can't name names, but I have been gifted with more sausage, sweets, and alcoholic shots than I have ever in my life. At first, it was overwhelming and I did not know what to say or do, which makes professors as a rule uncomfortable. But as I try to tell my students: lean into what makes you uneasy and take a risk. I am glad that I did so because interacting with the parents has been a joy I did not anticipate when I took on this role.

And finally, but certainly not last, is my appreciation for the students. Among the graduating bunch this year are some of the first players who sought me out when I did not know what I was doing. I don't know why they trusted me, as I hardly think I gave off an attitude of confidence about my role. All I can think is that my desire to help and to support somehow came through. And I listened. By listening I learned so much. Because many people read this blog and because it's public, I will not name their names. However, they will always be among the most important students in my twenty-year teaching career in higher ed. They (hopefully) know who they are. They made me a better professor, by helping me see how they came alive in debates, games, and other active learning in the classroom. Several of them taught me about what it is like to be a black young man navigating today's society and some first-generation students shared with me the angst at the costs they were incurring. They taught me about grit and resilience, which I have blogged about here before. They taught me collectively about teamwork and why that is important.

In the end they have offered me a new way to express my creativity as a professor, a (sometimes) administrator, and a speaker on student athletes and teaching and learning. I've been given a new outlet for the next few years to help guide and shape higher education, specifically on how institutions can better support student athletes holistically at the (NCAA) Division III level. I've spoken at a few institutions, have a book proposal in about my experiences, and will be speaking at the NCAA's Annual Convention in January.

To the entire McDaniel College Football Team: a huge thank you from the faculty mentor. Thanks for making me a member of the team. And when is Spring Ball?!?!

The 2018 Team (photo: Katie Ogorzalek)

I have been thinking about the issue of helping students with issues and problems that are not always academic in nature. Students might come to faculty with issues about their personal lives regarding relationships, finances, identity; the list can go on. This type of listening is often referred to as "emotional labor" and is sometimes required to be done at colleges and universities. Often it is noted that this work is  disproportionately performed by women, and it is often not compensated financially. While harassment and other forms of discrimination also happen in the academic world that disproportionately hinder women, I am referring specifically to "the invisible labor of mentoring students [that] isn’t rewarded in the tenure-and-promotion process" that is discussed in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I would argue that this invisible work is not academic advising. This work goes well beyond the role of academic advisor.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, for my work as the mentor to the football team has me often wading in waters for which my Ph.D. did not give me much training. And it is work for which I am not specifically financially compensated by my institution. It could, of course, be lumped into that catch-all of "service to the institution," which can mean anything from committee work, to participating in faculty or administrative searches, to advising, and to participating in any number of "ad hoc" groups.

For me, this diagram offers a different way of thinking about my mentor work:

Related image

While I still believe that it should be compensated financially in some way, I am finding that there is a reward - an intrinsic reward - in doing this work. The gratitude that is expressed to me by my students when I listen to them and help them form a plan to fix whatever problem they are having reminds me why I teach at a small school that says we genuinely care about students. We are part of the Colleges That Change Lives book and the website for CTCL has this quotation for our entry:

“This [McDaniel College] is a community of nice, earnest, unassuming, quietly self-assured teenagers who realize they are getting a first-rate education and who regard their teachers as their friends and mentors.
Colleges That Change Lives

I am proud to be a part of that. While I work to make sure that the mentoring work that I am doing will one day be financially compensated, I will continue to realize that I'm in the sweet spot with my role as faculty mentor to the football team. I am good at it, it's what the world needs right now (at least on my campus), I can be paid for it (though my pay is for my teaching primarily), and possibly most importantly, I love what I am doing. As the diagram above shows, it's my profession and vocation, but it's also my mission and passion. They all align to that sweet green star that reflects my purpose.

May we all find a way to the green star of our purpose. And be paid for doing it. While this post doesn't advocate that this work should not be paid for, I would also say that it has its own rewards. If you're good at this work, and you're at a place that values it, I hope you'll continue to do it. And if you are a tenured faculty member, I hope you'll think about doing it. There are so many faculty on the tenure track - and many more off it - that expectations for this sort of work would be nearly abusing their roles. However, if you, like me, find yourself in the privileged position of tenured full or associate professor, think about this type of mentoring work. Because this world, and the young people trying to make their way in it, need people to guide them, friend them, and mentor them.

* After I published this post, this related article popped up on Twitter:, and my college, McDaniel is mentioned: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/showing-that-they-care-college-faculty-called-on-to-aid-floundering-students/2018/10/07/6b67d098-c6a4-11e8-b1ed-1d2d65b86d0c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b2771064700a

I have been teaching for over twenty years and higher education is under tremendous pressure and my college is experiencing this as well. I just started reading Jeffrey Selingo's book There is Life After College. I am doing this to try to understand the role of higher education in America now. It's very different than it was even a decade ago, and Selingo offers some context for that.

I have done a lot of reading because I want to provide the best education and experience for any student who comes across my doorway, either the doorway of my office or my classroom. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed at the different issues I must focus on. When I have a student  in my office, or when they come to my class, I am thinking of any number of things, like:

  • "It is my responsibility to teach this student and to be sure my course helps her on her way to graduation."
  • "I need to make sure this student understands and can communicate the skills he has learned in my class in any interview situation so that he can get the job."
  • "I need to retain this student because her continued attendance at my institution is important."
  • "I want to be sure that I engage these students so that they continue to want to learn and finish their degree."
  • "I want to be sure that this student doesn't end up a statistic of the millions who have some college, but no degree and student debt."

At times all of these thoughts can overwhelm and paralyze. And nearly all of those sentences should have an exclamation point after them, because each one seems pressing and necessary and URGENT. Sometimes I think I should just teach and NOT think about all of this. But is that really the extent of my job? Just teaching art history? I don't think so. I do think that my role at a small, liberal arts college is not just to teach. It's to help guide.

And yet, the more I read about our changing economy the more stressed I become for our students. The stakes are high. More and more it seems that the value that we place on individuals is really all about money. We do not hear about movies over the weekend that were good in a creative sense, just which ones made the most money at the box office. Everything is a value exchange.

I teach art history. How do I translate that so that my students can benefit from the skills that my discipline offers, while still helping them be successful in their eventual careers? How do I do that when art history is usually the degree that is maligned, as in a 2014 speech by then-President Obama (which you can read here). Or when it's mentioned in a podcast as a major that even students police among themselves: "Why are you majoring in Art History?!" according to William Deresiewicz in a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative podcast (you can read about/listen to it here).

My institution is wrestling with the big question of the role of our college in society, what we teach and our mission. We are a private, liberal arts college and I know we help students. I know we're important. Yet, so much is changing around us. I believe strongly in the core of the liberal arts and want my students to be successful. Ultimately that is why I am mentoring students that happen to be on the football team, because I see such potential in them, and yet also a reticence among some of them to be disciplined enough in academics to have it help them launch a career.

I'd love to hear from my former students about how their experiences launched them - or did not. What would you do differently? What do you wish your alma mater did differently?

And today, I'll decide how best to teach tomorrow, and I'll also be planning mentoring meetings this week with students. That work must carry on.

This Saturday the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team had their home opener. In the rain. In the pouring rain. As in I don't think it stopped raining for one play. I admit that I took shelter, thanks to my colleagues, in our Skybox. One of my colleagues was kind enough to give me a guest pass; I think she felt sorry for me, seeing me shivering in my wet clothes.

It was also the first loss of the season. As the mentor to the team, I talk with the students, get to know them, help them craft dreams and goals, teach them in classes. I love doing all of that. But it also makes it much harder when they lose. And even worse to see them get hurt. There were at least three injuries that I saw this past Saturday and each was like a gut punch. I don't know how parents do it.

But once again I was reminded as I sat in the luxury of the dry warmth of the box seat (I feel like such a wuss) and watched them: they love the game so much. They play with SUCH heart. They simply never give up. Even in the relentless rain and a sputtering offense, the defense came up big, again and again. One of the players I have gotten to know very well over two years in my role on the team had a huge sack and made the highlight real of "Play of the Day," which you can see in a link here.  Look at that speed!

They make me a bigger fan every time I watch them. And not that I want them to do it, but I think it is when they lose that I gain even more respect for them. One of my thoughts as I watch them all standing on the sidelines is that they are so devoted to each other. When I think about the strife and conflict in our society right now, a lot of it over race, and then see a team that is very diverse link arms together at the start of every game, work together to achieve a goal, and not give up on each other ever, well, it just makes me think that maybe there is hope for the world after all.

I'll be back at out there next Saturday, win or lose, sun or rain. They've got one fan in their corner always.

Officially, we have been back one week at McDaniel College, where I am Professor of Art History and Faculty Mentor to the Green Terror Football Team. The first week is always pretty chaotic, and this one was the same!

I had a water leak in my office which soaked my carpet and ruined a bunch of papers on my desk. They are testing for mold and for air quality. One of my friends is on leave this semester and she is graciously letting me use her office in the meantime. I met with several returning students in my temporary office. I met my two introductory art history classes (although I was so flummoxed by the wet in my office that I forgot to actually introduce myself to the class!). I am also teaching a Writing course about writing for art and art history, and I met them and gave them a diagnostic test which I have been assessing this weekend.

And...the football team had their first win against Catholic University on Saturday. I was not able to travel to DC (a bit far from my house in PA), and thus "watched" on the livestream. I put "watch" in quotation marks because the video was awful and there was no sound! So, it was difficult to see what was happening. However, one of my students, John Chamberlin, one of the "original football Romans," had a huge game of 111 rushing yards. He thankfully wears green cleats so that I could see. This story about the game recaps many of the excellent plays and stats from Saturday's season opener. The home opener is Saturday at 1 PM against Moravian! Hope many faculty can come out and support the team.

This is a shorter than usual post, as it is Labor Day here in the US. I am blending some work and relaxation today before I am back in the classroom tomorrow. I am thinking today of how grateful I am to have work and to be able to complete a job that is satisfying but also challenging. I listened to a great podcast about work on Innovation Hub, which is a really good podcast with interesting interviews. You can check out that show here. Happy Labor Day to those of you in the US.

It's been a busy few weeks, getting ready for the fall term to begin, so I have been a bit lax in getting my regular Monday posts out. I'm "faking" it a bit today, in that I am linking to another story, rather than writing a full post, on an article about my mentoring of the football team that ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education this past week. Here is the story link.

This story hit three days before we held the first-ever McDaniel College Green Terror Football Alumni Networking Event. Our college's Office of Experience and Opportunity has been offering alumni networking events for departments for several years. One day, I thought, these programs are great - but what if we did this just for football players with all former football players coming back to talk about how football helped them, but also how the liberal arts education that they got here also helped them. I suggested the idea to the CEO. It was deemed a good idea. And last night, 140 or so current players met nearly 30 alumni of McDaniel College, who also played football.

And I think some magic happened.

Students who attended can better explain what happened than I could:

"Thank you for taking the time to put that idea together, you have no idea of the potential futures you could’ve shaped by bringing all these people together."

"I'd like to give a HUGE shout out to Gretchen McKay and the CEO Office for organizing the first ever McDaniel Football Alumni Networking social. We all appreciate the countless hours of hard work you put into our program!"

Here are some pictures from the event. I would do just about anything to help these students and to ensure their success. I expect a lot from each of them, but I hope they know I will give just as much back to them in return.

Aaron Slaughter addresses current players of the McDaniel College football team.
Current McDaniel football players listening - and asking questions - of alums of the team and college

 

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