CLAS Acts September 2016

From the Dean’s Desk

Thank you for adapting with us as we met the challenges of the renovations in progress in the Performing Arts Center at our college meeting last week.  It seems that our reward short term is restoration of the D1 parking lot; and longer term we can enjoy the wonderful new facilities in Holton-Hooker Living Center.  Around here, progress is accompanied by new dust elsewhere.

In a roundabout way, that was also the theme of my opening remarks (available now on the website here). 

The Out of the Box Series your Faculty Council hosted last winter raised an important theme, and over the summer we continued to provide you with information on it.  To evolve in our profession, we need—collectively and individually—to adapt. I mean all sorts of adaptations: to the students we have, to pedagogical evolution at the cutting edge of our discipline, to financial realities, and to changes in technology, in the publishing industry, and even in the evolution of our own values in matters like sustainability.  Not all of the pressures to change are external—sometimes we discover that there are ways to lift our game and we find ourselves wanting to do so.  That is an important impulse.  It is also a charge to administrators to make self-improvement as realistic as possible—we can’t just recommend unfunded mandates or ask ever more of a faculty that was not resting on its laurels in the first place.

In our college culture, key to making the uptake of new technology or pedagogy less onerous has been the willingness to volunteer to pilot new approaches, and share the results.  In our unit head meetings, at the Teaching Roundtables and the Staff Roundtables, we share our experiences and results in what I think is the best tradition of collegiality.  Similarly, in our Faculty Research Colloquium, we reach outside of our departments to learn about research in another discipline–to the benefit of both parties. 

Your openness to these self-generated resources does you credit.  Whether our staff might hold the equivalent of a swap meet to better distribute office products and a Shred Fest to organize proper records disposal or our first Regalia Repair Clinic to address a few of the small niggles that attend to wearing your robes to key events, it’s the hope of our office to help you get the work done, and to inform you when you need it (with polite reminders!) so that you can concentrate on student success and faculty success as much as hours in the day will allow.

As you move into the Fall Term (with all its fresh excitement), let us know if there are ways we can assist you with Fall Breather, promoting your events, connecting you with collaborators and potential partners for your initiatives, locating information on the restructured website, and just generally keeping the ball rolling.  We hope you think of us as a partner in service to your academic goals.

Take a moment to look over the upcoming events on the CLAS Happenings poster and our web calendar.  The upcoming Carey Lecture could hardly be more germane to our current national discourse. September will bring you a voter registration initiative from our student groups, the Shakespeare Festival and more.   Please keep an eye out for wonderful opportunities like that which make the academic life so wonderful.  Take a new faculty member along.

A Conversation on the Modern Art of Teaching with Kay Losey and Hermann Kurthen

By Monica Johnstone

Based on the topics of their research, I invited Kay Losey of Writing and Hermann Kurthen of Sociology to have a conversation about the sort of teaching challenges faculty described at the Out of the Box discussions last Winter term.[1]  When faced with the many types of diversity our students now bring and the life hurdles they face which cannot help but impact their education, what sort of pedagogical strategies can help us provide the quality liberal arts education that our students need and deserve?

Kay and Hermann’s discussion had already started in preparation for our meeting with books and papers assembled.  Clearly, this is a charge they take seriously.  

Kay’s work has involved the development of multilingual students.[2]  “Many of the recommendations coming out of this field are good for teaching more generally,” Kay observes.  She describes the situation of a student studying in a second language as being a continual process of fine tuning.  “An international student can take up to 7 years of language acquisition to be completely up to speed in academic English.”  Until that point, lectures, conversation, reading, and paper writing are considerably harder.

Kay explains, “This can show up at the midterm paper, so it is a very useful practice to talk with the student early in the term about how long they have been here and how much experience of paper writing they have.  Depending on their answers, additional explanation of expectations and support of the teacher and the Writing Center may be critically important.” 

While international students make up a relatively small percentage of students at Grand Valley, similar strategies may assist those with dialect differences, differences in preparation, or lack of confidence in certain skills.

“Students who self-select into WRT 098 have usually made an honest self-appraisal which is a plus.  They are already on their way toward reaching out to the professor for help,” Kay observes.

Hermann wonders if in some cases, difference in preparation for college may be behind some requests for accommodations by students who have not been diagnosed with any learning issues or have not been to Disability Support Resources.  

Kay suggests that this is a reason to talk with students early about what they see as strengths and weaknesses, such as a fear of math, so that the strong array of campus resources can be explained.  

“The current generation is willing to talk about deficits,” Hermann notes, “and to complain!”  He sees that some students can fall into a consumer/service mentality.  He reiterates that some struggle adapting to a university environment, but stresses that this has always been the case but that we no longer take a “sink or swim” attitude about it.   “We address it differently these days.  We analyze the situation, think about alternatives, and do much more statistical reporting of issues now.”

Faculty become used to the amount of support provided by GVSU, but the students most likely to need it may be quite surprised to learn of these resources here.  It may even be wise to explain that they are free.

“The percentage of Americans going to college has changed.  It has become a must,“ Hermann nods.  “That can mean that it is less a reflection of a particular student’s intellectual curiosity and more of an expectation.”  But Hermann acknowledges that this is an opportunity for faculty to help engender that curiosity. 

Hermann and Kay agree that the resources for faculty, such as the Pew Teaching & Learning Center are also one of Grand Valley’s strengths.

Even with strong pedagogical support, Kay knows that if a student is underprepared in a subject, a single 09x course can’t solve the deficit, but can only be the first step--continued support will be needed.[3]  “Professors need to know that the support must continue.  For instance, passing WRT 150 is not the end of learning to write.”

Recently, Kay has been looking at five model programs for multi-lingual students and seeing what can be extracted as recommendations with applicability to the multilingual student and other pedagogical challenges. 

“It seems pretty clear that involving students’ interests in your course is good for developmental and multilingual students.  That involvement of their interests may take the form of allowing students to choose their topic for a paper or using examples in class selected from interests that came up in the one-to-one chats early in the term,” Kay finds.

“The exemplary courses make a conscious effort to have students think about their thinking.  For instance, instead of just trying to extract a correct answer, you might ask ‘How did you figure that out?’  The metacognition can be accomplished in conversation or in reflection notes—and doing it regularly is important.”

I point out that this could sound like an extra layer of work for faculty and ask if this sort of reflection needs to be graded.  

Kay acknowledges the concern and says, “Extensive faculty response is not required.  Good strategies for approaching the assignment can be discussed in class.  As a teacher, you have to get a good read on who in your class has a good strategy and who is chasing their tail.”

She extends the point to explain that those who bemoan that ‘nobody comes to my office hours’ may want to experiment with assigning everyone to come in during the first three weeks of class.  Kay notes how key it is to her teaching to get some of a student’s educational background and information that you will need if you are to be able to build on their interests.

Hermann points out that this can’t work in large classes in quite the same way, but will in those of the usual size of GVSU courses.  In larger classes, he advocates meeting with groups of students no later than just after the midterm and have a conversation about the class, their educational backgrounds, and even their critiques of the teaching.  “They are open and honest,” Hermann smiles.  “These meetings are a tool to reach everyone.  I give them an attendance grade for it and find these meetings help their confidence and serve as a good instructor feed-back tool, even if a few students will not come in any case,” he adds.

Kay’s research shows that some groups are less likely to come to office hours and that for these students a follow up by an advisor can be very helpful.

Both agree that meeting face-to-face is important but for discovering issues early even online quizzes are helpful.  “Email anyone who does not do well,”Hermann recommends.  “Make the contact.  They seem to appreciate the push and often tell you what is going on. A social Darwinist approach is not appropriate.”

Hermann decides to give his last remark some context.  “Now we are facilitators and coaches.  Information is ubiquitous, so we are learning facilitators, a responsible job.”  He has been involved in McGraw-Hill's Virtual Teaching & Learning Symposium, an online forum discussing the conception of the teaching role and in particular what to do about the source of that ubiquitous information, the internet.

Hermann admits, “I used to be one of those ‘no phones, no computers in the classroom’ people, but I don’t think we should be attempting to be entertainers in the classroom to compete with the attractions online.  Public opinion and personal beliefs are not knowledge.  Knowledge is science-based and must accumulate.  Acquiring knowledge is a serious effort to connect the dots--demanding self-discipline.  Grasping the meaning of what is foreign to you requires intellectual effort and typically is not fun in the conventional sense.”

This leads him to incorporate online resources in the classroom and help students to use them more critically and selectively to distinguish scientific facts from fiction. 

Hermann finds that group work can lessen anxiety as well as address difference.  His own experience with online teaching and follow-up research indicates that once you get past the 50% online threshold, the course becomes more efficient (though admittedly, setting up the course initially is significant work).[4]

Kay adds that multilingual students can sometimes participate better in the online environment because they can compose at their own speed rather than the speed of a lively in-class discussion.  In addition she notes, “Pronunciation is not an issue online.”

Hermann has done some recent research here at GVSU on classroom interaction.  He finds that quantity and quality of interaction are related.[5]  He also sees evidence that the instructor's efforts continue to be a central factor,  that the 'art of teaching' with high expectations, promoting interaction, and providing feedback matter as much as we hope they do.

Kay notes that class size matters too.  Good teaching has more impact and students have better interaction in the right size class.  For writing courses, she notes her disciplinary association recommends 20 --and for developmental or ESL courses 15 is preferred.  

She knows from some of her earlier research that the nature of the interaction with the teacher is critical.  In the Latina student group she studied, the Interaction/Response/Evaluation (IRE) teaching model in which the teacher asks a question, the student answers, and then the teacher critiques (overtly or otherwise) tended to stop Latina students from engaging.  Asking for a student’s real opinion worked much better to increase engagement.

Hermann suggested that active and problem-based learning tended to provide an alternative to IRE. 

Kay explained that teachers can get negative conceptions of those students who disrupt their IRE technique.  The technique itself introduces a kind of bias.  “Some students can’t compete in IRE discussions.”

Neither professes to have all the answers and both offered some areas they’d like to see faculty receive more help.  

Kay noted that while much is said about the pedagogy of writing, faculty could use more help to encourage reading skills.  While she finds telling students what she expects them to get out of the reading does help, she’s open to learning additional techniques to break down the misconception that the book and the professor will cover the same material.   Hermann has had some success getting students to check other sources online so that their reading assignments are coupled with other academically vetted perspectives that the students have found themselves.

Hermann is also trying to crack the nut of internationalizing our students.  In the past he experimented with transnational online collaboration with a colleague at our partnership program in Schwäbisch Gmünd. The online collaboration gave GVSU students the chance to virtually meet and work with their peers in Germany.[6] But a follow-up study he was involved indicated that online student collaboration did not change the level of ethno-centrism in the students as much as it was hypothesized. Because not everyone can study abroad, Hermann will continue to look for ways to build bridges and create the skills for an interconnected world.[7]

“We should make the effort.  I would love for the faculty to dream about that and to use our academic contacts abroad,” Hermann muses.  “Web-connectivity is better now than ever.  Students like it.  We should embrace it productively in the classroom—not ban it.”

Both Kay and Hermann want to move away from the ‘font of knowledge’ conception of the professor’s role and explore high engagement activities such as role-playing, simulations, debates, extemporaneous reports, and internet-based searching and fact checking during class.

When reading their joint publication” Dispelling Myths—Facts for Developing an Appropriate Education Policy in Immigrant Nations” (International Journal of Learning, Vol. 10, 2003) it becomes clear that their own model for teaching aligns with what they argue for as a more additive policy model.  Instead of creating “dissonant acculturation” as assimilationist policy tends to do, they are seeking a kind of teaching that provides wide access and actively values what the student brings.  


[1] Out of the Box and Beyond the Margins--Connecting with the modern student

[2] Teaching U.S-Educated Multilingual Writers: Pedagogical Practices from and for the Classroom (with Mark Roberge and Margi Wald, U of Michigan Press, 2015).

[3] See also G. Hull, M. Rose, K. Losey, M. Castellano. Remediation as Social Construct: Perspectives from an Analysis of Classroom Discourse, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 42, No. 3, Oct. 1991.

[4] G.G. Smith & H. Kurthen, (2007). Front-Stage and Back-Stage in Hybrid E-Learning Face-to-Face Courses. International Journal On E-Learning 2007, 6(3): 455-474

[5] H. Kurthen, What Influences College Classroom Interaction?

[6] Kurthen, H. (2008). Transnational Online Student Collaboration: Does it Work? In Bernadette E. Dietz and Lynn Harper Ritchey (Ed.), Scaffolding for Student Success in Learning: Effective Practices in Using Instructional Strategies. (pp. 202-210). Washington D.C.: American Sociological Association - ASA Resource Materials for Teaching

[7] See also D. Boehm, H. Kurthen, L. Aniola-Jedrzejek, Do International Online Collaborative Learning Projects Impact Ethnocentrism? & Other reference

September 1 and 14--Voter Registration


CLAS is partnering with Alpha Phi Alpha, NAACP and several other campus entities to have voter registration tables near the clock tower and in KC (9/1 and 9/14 respectively).  Popcorn, student entertainment, and love of democracy in large supply.  Come register or just encourage the volunteers and any unregistered people you encounter!