ornamental grass blowing in the breeze

CLAS Acts August 2018


Monthly newsletter for the tenure track faculty of the college.



Frederick J. Antczak, Dean of CLAS


So if a college education is indispensable, the challenge as I see it is how to make it more accessible.

~Gordon Gee

Every year as we get to August, I start hearing about the wonderful things that have happened to our faculty and students since last we met.  It is reminder that this is a season of a quiet campus but of great achievement afforded by the time for writing, travel, bench and field work, transformative workshops, and just to think deeply, and at leisure as Aristotle has it in his Ethics. As he says in Book 10, “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” 

I’ll welcome all of you back on contract on August 6, and I extend a special welcome to those transitioning into new positions or coming to Grand Valley for the first time.  You are eagerly awaited by your units and by the college as a whole.  And while soon we will be orienting you to within an inch of your ability to retain, not to say tolerate, all the information, I wanted to share in the meantime a couple webpages that may help you get your head around this place or back into the game. The page For New Faculty is a bountiful smorgasbord of information that our faculty tell us they wish they had been sampling sooner—seconds are always free!  And a new page has been added specifically for coping with Michigan weather if that will be new for you (I’ve lived here off and on for 32 years of my life, and I still often find it bogglingly new and unpredictable, sometimes within the same day).

Just as summer leads to a harvest, faculty coming back home into the new academic year always have some excellent ideas that really deserve to be shared.  Some of the conversations that launch great ideas happen informally—in hallways, over lunch, and in casual email exchanges.   The university may be officially “large” by Carnegie designation, but, emphatically, our culture is to keep communication open and the layers minimal. CLAS starts coming together soon, whether it be at the New Faculty Social, the FTLC conference, various retreats, and of course our CLAS Faculty and Staff Meeting on August 23.  Early in the term, the Associate and Assistant Deans and I meander your departmental hallways, not for want of things to do (really!), but rather in the hope of some chance meetings where we get to listen—often those meetings have been extraordinarily productive.  Later in the term I’ll have some open office hours to facilitate and extend dialogue.  And, as you know, everyone in the college office is responsive on email.  In other words, we know that student success is built on engagement, and that what is good for them is surely healthy for us, too.

There are a few more golden drops to squeeze out of summer leisure.  Savor them, and I’ll see you soon for the great adventure of AY 2018-2019. How lucky we are to do what we do—and to have the leisure that readies us to do it well!


From Kant to Can—Some Pedagogical Thinking with Kelly Parker

Philosophy Professor Kelly Parker is already having a pretty good day by 9 a.m. because he has restored the kind of order to his groaning office bookshelves that he knows aids his thinking.

“I like it orderly, but I’m not great at keeping it that way,” he admits.  This is perhaps emblematic of the way he approaches things.  Whether it is easy or not, sometimes putting in the work to create the structure where good thinking can occur is worth the effort.

In fact, this summer he is rethinking his approach to the General Education course on Aesthetics (PHI 220) that he teaches regularly.  With two sections coming up in fall term, Kelly is ready to experiment.

“At the Public Philosophy Network meeting last winter, I attended a session on gamification.  I want to improve the degree to which students buy into the Aesthetics course, and the PPN session got me thinking.”

The PPN session concentrated on the practical aspects of using online gaming to increase student engagement with philosophy.  The young faculty proponents running the session had even devised their own simple online game in which a character moved through the game world encountering philosophical issues.

Already familiar with the success of some of his GVSU colleagues using game techniques in Reacting to the Past pedagogy and with this additional input on using actual online gaming, Kelly started to think about the principles at work.  What about a game stimulates engagement?

“I was fortunate enough to have two students in a previous class with deep interest in online games who wanted to work on this with me.  The Philosophy Department for about 20 years has had an undergraduate teaching apprenticeship that is handled as an independent study.  It is great for students who see themselves going on to graduate school in philosophy.  They hold office hours and engage with the course students in other ways.  I imagine that this experimental gaming in my Aesthetics sections will be a special version of that.”

As he has pondered first principles, Kelly recalled his now adult son’s teenage online gaming.  Kelly had watched him play on a large screen and realized that he was very rapidly coping with five distinct channels of complex information: the character view, a map view, a readout of statistics, talking and listening on a Bluetooth earpiece to plan and coordinate, and also a running textual chat. 

“I can’t process all that.  I started to wonder if this is how it feels for my students when I walk into the class and start talking about Kant—with none of the helpful context around that.  Teaching is about enabling students to absorb and use complex information, but teaching is usually just one channel at a time, such as a lecturing professor, writing on the board, in-class writing assignments, and later receiving feedback.  There is no analog to the map or the coordination between players over chat or Bluetooth.”

Perhaps there could be.  While a professor is speaking, students could be provided with a backchannel to use to confer, for instance.  Kelly has experimented in the past with showing a documentary on Confucius while allowing students to use devices to chat during it (which seemed preferable to losing a couple students to dreamland during the video). 

“It worked.  I got good questions and observations, and a student volunteered that he had travelled to Confucius’ hometown.  The level of engagement with the material was way up,” Kelly found.  He notes that having a screen of the chat which is visible to the professor keeps the discussion relevant to the video.

Though he realizes that many faculty have a ‘no electronics’ environment in their courses, he is inclined to use technology to allow communication between students, not just with the professor.  Having a student assistant in the course will allow some monitoring of the chat environment during the professor’s lecture so that key questions or points can become a reason to pause the lecture and respond.

“I realized that a very important aspect of engagement in a game comes from the little rewards. They are very compelling.”  Just as with a one armed bandit or the flurry of balloons that launch when one keys in the word “congratulations” in Facebook, there is a psychological boost that comes from even tiny visual or auditory rewards.

“In the simple PPN game, that boost comes from figuring out how to get the sage to come to the door; it’s motivating. Rewards keep you going.”

Kelly realized that during his own undergraduate education he had gamified his own approach to his education.  “The professor would assign Chapter 7, and it was game on!  My task was to read and understand and come up with my take—which could become the subject of my paper.  I assumed that fresh takes on the material would be appreciated by my professors.  I had made my own rules for myself.  Now I want to see if we can overtly set out something like that as the game we are all going to play in the Aesthetics course.” This could help students who don’t have a coherent approach to their studies yet.

Kelly explains that his course is held at the downtown campus and that makes ArtPrize easy to tie in.  But when he gave an assignment for the students to snap images of two works of art, with brief commentary so that all the other students can choose three of their classmates’ choices to respond to, he didn’t get the desired outcome.  “10 to 15% of students just didn’t do the assignment.  So more incentive, a little reward, perhaps a new platform, is a worthy experiment.”

Kelly anticipates that it will take a great deal of experimentation to structure the course in a way the students understand.  He likens it to being a first year teacher again, using the sometimes mutually exclusive ‘best practice’ pedagogies to find what is going to work.  “You have to try every technique,” he smiles.  He adds that it is vital for faculty who have been at GVSU for 25 years like he has to keep working on their pedagogical approaches.  “Otherwise I could just laminate my teaching notes,” he quips.

“I am also very conscious of not wanting technology to become the content or to become a barrier.  I’ve used Flickr for group image sharing in the past, but that’s becoming a dated platform.”  Kelly is actively looking at various platforms that will be both easy enough to get students up and running easily and that will provide the experience he has in mind.

“In the first week of class, I think we will engage in a talking game with no technology.  I’m an intellectual historian at heart and love to have students read the primary sources, but I understand that this is challenging.  I find that a blog post equivalent to a couple pages can often help students to understand the primary source.  Familiar format, no expensive textbook, and it is easy to send students a link.”

“In the fall, with the help of the student assistants, as much as is feasible will be tried.”

Kelly Parker video