About SAGES -2: Implementation issues

When I talk about the SAGES program (see here for a description of the program and how it came about) to faculty at other universities they are impressed that Case put into place something so ambitious. They immediately see how the program addresses the very same problems that all universities face but few attempt to tackle as comprehensively as we have sought to do.

Of course, the very ambitiousness of the program meant that there would be challenges in implementation. Some of the challenges are institutional and resource-related. Creating more small classes meant requiring more faculty to teach them, more classrooms (especially those suitable for seminar-style interactions), more writing support, and so on. This necessarily imposed some strain on the system.

But more difficult than these resource issues was that the SAGES program was taking both students and faculty away from their comfort zones. Faculty and students tend to know how to deal with the more traditional knowledge-giver/knowledge-receiver model of teaching. They have each played these roles for a long time and can slip comfortably into them. Now both were being asked to shift into different modes of behavior in class.

Students were being asked to play a more active role in creating knowledge, in participating in class, and in taking more responsibility for their own learning outside of class. Faculty were being asked to play a facilitator role, talking far less than they were used to, and learning how to support students as they struggled to learn how to learn on their own, and generating and sustaining focused discussions.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone that when the program was made fully operational, that there would be many problems as both faculty and students adjusted to these changes. What surprises me is that both faculty and students seem to have unrealistic expectations of how smooth the transition should be, and when there were breakdowns, as was inevitable, tended to take these as signs of the program’s inadequacy rather than as the necessary growing pains of any change or bold innovation.

In my own teaching over these many years, I have tried all kinds of teaching innovations. The one common feature to all of them is that they rarely worked well (if at all!) the first time I tried them. Even though I read the literature on the methods and planned the changes carefully, I always made mistakes in implementation because the unexpected always occurs and until one has some experience with dealing with a new method of teaching, one does not always respond well to surprises. So even though I was an enthusiastic supporter of the seminar teaching mode, it still took me some time to work out some of the major kinks that occurred and to become comfortable with it. But even now, I keep thinking of many ways to improve it the next time I teach it.

I believe that teaching is a craft, like woodworking. One can and should learn the theory behind it but one only becomes good by doing it, and one has to anticipate that the first attempts are not going to be smooth. But during the period of transition from the old to the new, people tend to compare an old system that has been refined over many years with a new system that has not had its rough edges smoothed out. It was to be expected that faculty teaching in a new way would encounter situations that they had not anticipated and flounder a bit, even if they attended the preparatory sessions that were held for all faculty on how to teach in a seminar format.

I have noticed an odd feature whenever teachers are asked to try a new method of teaching. If the new method does not work perfectly right out of the box, it is jettisoned as a failure. But that is not the methodology that should be used. The actual comparison that should be made is not to some standard of perfection but whether the new method works better than whatever we are currently doing.

For example, I remember when I first introduced cooperative groups in my large (about 200 students) lecture classes and had them work in groups on problems in class. Some colleagues asked me whether it wasn’t possible that some students were discussing other things during that time, instead of the physics problem I had assigned. The answer is that of course some do and I knew that. But they could just as easily do these other things if I lectured non-stop. In fact it would be easier since when I lecture I would be busy at the blackboard more and thus even more oblivious to what was going on in the auditorium. I felt that the active learning methods I introduced increased the amount and quality of student engagement from that in a pure lecture, and that was the relevant yardstick to measure things by, not whether I had perfect results. I would never go back now to teaching such large classes without groups.

The SAGES implementation problems, from the faculty point of view, arise from them being uncomfortable with not being in complete control of the flow of information and discussion, being uneasy with not constantly imparting authoritative knowledge, worrying about students learning incorrect things from their peers, concern about time ‘wasted’ in discussions, discomfort with silences, and not trusting students to be responsible for their own learning.

As a result of these concerns, faculty can succumb to the temptation to relapse into a lecture mode and students take their cue and relapse into the listener mode. This leaves both dissatisfied. Faculty (especially those in research universities who tend to be highly specialized) also sometimes worry that students in seminars will talk and write about topics in which the faculty are not experts, and they will thus not have the ‘answers’ at their fingertips.

Another major source of concern, especially for faculty in the sciences and engineering, was their feeling that they were not really competent to judge writing and give good feedback to their students on how to improve since they had had little prior experience with essay assignments.

Faculty also do not realize that it takes quite a bit of planning and organization on their part in order to create a free-flowing, substantive, and seemingly spontaneous discussion. Running good discussion seminars actually takes more preparatory work than giving a lecture. It involves a lot more than strolling into class and saying “So, what did you think about the readings?”

The problems that students had with SAGES again stem from a discomfort with an unfamiliar mode of teaching. In seminar-discussion classes, much of the learning has to occur outside the classroom, in the form of reading and writing, by the student. The classroom discussions are used to stimulate interest and provide focus, but students have to do a lot on their own. But some first year students may not be able to handle this responsibility yet. After all, many of them have been very successful by simply going to class, listening to what the teacher said, and doing the assignments. It is natural for such students to prefer to be told what to do and how to do it and this new responsibility thrust upon them may make them uneasy. Some are also shy and speaking in class is difficult, if not an ordeal, and making a formal presentation may be quite terrifying. Reassuring such students and making them comfortable with different types of behavior in class is also a role that faculty may not know how to play.

In the long run, I think both faculty and student will grow from this experience. Personally, I have found teaching the SAGES seminars to be a profoundly rewarding and transformative experience. I have got to know all the students in my classes much better and that has been delightful. I have learned a lot from the research topics they have selected (for their essays and presentation) in areas that are unfamiliar to me. And I have learned a lot about what makes for good writing and how to provide the kinds of feedback and structure to help students learn how to write better.

Of course, there is still a lot more that I still need to learn in order to run seminar classes better. But that is part of the fun of teaching, the fact that you are always learning along with your students. As I said, teaching is a craft and it is characteristic of craftsmen, like say a violin maker, that one just gets better with time, learning from one’s mistakes and acquiring new skills and techniques.

In time, I am confident that faculty and students in SAGES will shed their nervousness about it and embrace the seminar method of teaching as well. But it will require patience and perseverance.

If the next posting, I will look back in history to see how law education was transformed in the US. The transition to the present system was extremely rough even though now the current mode is seen as so ‘natural’ and even inevitable.

POST SCRIPT: Mearsheimer and Walt Petition

As some of you may be aware, Professors John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard University) have written an article entitled The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy where they argue that this lobby has had too great an influence on American foreign policy. As a result of this, they have been subject to attacks and charges of anti-Semitism. You can see their article in the London Review of Books here and their longer and more detailed working paper on the same subject here, and read about the controversy generated by it here.

Professor Juan Cole (University of Michigan) has organized a petition to defend Mearsheimer and Walt from what he calls “baseless charges of anti-Semitism.” Cole says “I feel it is time for teachers in higher education to stand up and be counted on this issue of the chilling of academic inquiry through character assassination. At a time when the use of congressional funding to universities to limit and shape curricula and research is openly advocated, all of us academics are on the line. And if scholars so eminent as Mearsheimer and Walt can be cavalierly smeared, then what would happen to others?”

You can read Cole’s discussion of why he created the petition, its contents, and the signatories so far by going here. Cole is requesting that signatories be from those affiliated with universities, because of the way the petition is worded.

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