Monthly Archives: September 2008

Viral Video, Donor Dollars, and Academic Integrity: Poor Students versus Freedom of Speech?

This summer, two of my colleagues became the subject of a YouTube viral video. Maybe you heard about the swearing, pants-dropping debate coaches (well, only one dropped his drawers) videotaped (with their consent) at the national cross-examination debate tournament… It was quite a spectacle. Since then, the video has been taken down, the debate association has issued a statement, the mooner was fired (purportedly, for years of questionable conduct) and the other young coach sanctioned by her University. YouTube consumers have moved on to fresher fodder. Yet, as midterms approach, new “angry professor” videos are likely to surface – momentary catharsis for undergrads trapped in fill-in-the-blank purgatory. No college is immune from this new virus…


Though colleges have had to manage external criticism in the past, the viral video phenomenon is a different beast. Consider the issues our campus faced a couple of years ago with the fresh(wo)man text War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning…(New York Sun article: “Baruch Requires Students Read Book Some Are Labeling Anti-Semitic“).

Though the issue received prominent attention in the print press, the back-and-forth was short-lived, the college had time to craft a response (i.e., freedom of speech), and the exchange was largely print-based. The story reached thousands – not millions. The story lacked compelling oral and visual content (e.g., yelling, crying – mooning). It paled in comparison to the storm surrounding the viral debate video (e.g., print and television stories, a rumored Chronicle investigation, a 100% funding cut for one program and potentially related cuts at other colleges). Comparatively, the War controversy was tame. Importantly, it did not result in financial fallout…


College costs are rising, tax levy and financial aid moneys are in flux, and increasingly we need donor/investor money to bridge the gaps. Their money enables poor, working, and middle class students to enjoy the privilege of post-secondary education (aside: thank you for subsidizing my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. Ohio/national taxpayers!) If they respond to controversy by curtailing their support, students can be deprived of programs, perspectives, professors… To the extent that most students cannot afford the “true” costs of their schooling (i.e., a 100% tuition-funded institution…), we have to consider/manage how their underwriters perceive our campus. Viral video makes us more vulnerable… financially and intellectually…


Posted in Assessing Learning, Learning Goals and Objectives, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Viral Video, Donor Dollars, and Academic Integrity: Poor Students versus Freedom of Speech?

What’s in a Name?

Physicist and award-winning master teacher Robert Brown [1] taught me several years ago to learn every student’s name every semester. This begs a related question: what should students call you?

At many independent secondary schools (for example, Quaker Friends schools) and progressive liberal arts colleges, students have been on a first-name basis with teachers for decades. But there seems to be a formality at the university level in general and at Baruch in particular (even my administrative assistants call me “Professor”). Why is this?

Struggling with this question, I thought about Brown. He insists on being called “Doctor Brown,” and yet his students consistently rate him as the most helpful and approachable person they know. Brown tells me that he knows of many faculty who are called by their first name, and their popularity with the students, in his opinion, is really not closely correlated with whether they are on a first-name basis.

[1] Brown, R. 2005. “‘Lowfalutin’ Learning List”, The Physics Teacher, 43(1), 55-56. (This collection of 10 suggestions for young teachers is a “must read” for all junior faculty of any discipline.)

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Writing Better Learning Objectives

When I attended the Zicklin Business School Summer Teaching Seminar in 2007 (and again this year), the first thing I noticed was that the terms “learning goals” and “learning objectives” are used interchangeably. This seems to be the case throughout much of the College. From my training and experience in strategic management and following the approaches of Robert Mager, the behavioral psychologist known for his books on instructional design – to me, goals and objectives are two different things, although connected. I strongly believe that to write better learning objectives, we need to define these terms and use them more precisely and consistently across the Baruch College community.

A well-written goal simply states an outcome or end result to be achieved. In other words, where do we want to go? While goals should be specific, they are often phrased in broader terms that need to be operationally defined (called “fuzzies” by Robert Mager). Now that we know where we want to go, how do we get there? This is where objectives come in. They should be specific and measurable and state what must be done to achieve the goal. In the case of learning objectives, they should be phrased from students’ perspective, not teachers’.

From an instructional design perspective, learning objectives have three purposes:

  • Serve as a guide in designing a course
  • Communicate to students what they are expected to achieve
  • Assist in evaluating instruction

I found a good article summarizing Robert Mager’s approach to writing learning objectives: “How to Write Great Learning Objectives.” I don’t adhere to Robert Mager’s approach as a strict formula to follow, especially when it comes to less tangible subjects – instead I use his approach as a guideline in writing more specific and therefore clearer learning objectives. I have found his approach in writing learning objectives very useful in guiding and improving instruction. The place for us to start, though, is clearly defining learning goals and objectives and using these terms consistently.

Posted in Assessing Learning, Learning Goals and Objectives | 4 Comments

Animated Graphs

It’s football season . . . which reminds me of an interesting study. In it, Guadagno, Sundie, Asher, and Cialdini (2006) presented football statistics to groups of students-some were fans with extensive knowledge of the sport, some were unfamiliar with its intricacies. The premise was for students to act as recruiters and judge which players would be promising prospects for the team. The stats (yards gained, touchdowns, etc.) were presented in three different formats to the “recruiters:” typed lists of numbers, printed graphs, and animated graphs on presentation slides (e.g., bar graphs where individual bars appear consecutively instead of all at once). The researchers found that animated statistics were more persuasive than typed summaries or printed graphs. While the effect was more pronounced for audience members who were unfamiliar with football stats, even the experts found animated graphs most effective for highlighting performance.

I have since incorporated the topic of graph animation into one of my courses in international communication and find it enhances student presentations. The assignment is to compare two countries in an area of interest (e.g., education performance, income distribution, air quality) and investigate the reasons for performance difference. Students start by selecting a topic-either from a list I provide, or by consulting newspapers, almanacs, and statistical Web sites for additional ideas. For instance, last semester, a student, Alena, selected the topic “vacation time” from the example list I provided in class. She checked a statistical Web site,, and other online sources for preliminary information and then decided to compare the United States and Germany. Not to promote European ideas ;-), but Germans are getting an average of three times as many days of paid vacation as U.S. Americans. Alena then conducted research using the library’s databases and interviewing an exchange student from Germany. In the end, Alena determined that the factors contributing to longer vacations in Germany include a higher rate of unionization and a more pronounced value placed on leisure.


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Breaking Free of the Podium

Let me say up front that I’m a walker, a roamer, someone who likes to circulate around the classroom while lecturing. My intent is to make sure that no part of the classroom feels like a neglected corner (and perhaps to ensure that the sleepy students or the ones drifting away remember that I am still there). On those days, though, when I am doing a slide presentation, my desire to move about is undercut by the tedious task of returning to the podium to click the mouse or keyboard to advance my next slide. Last year, I invested about $25 of my own money to purchase a presentation remote control that would allow me to move slides forward (or backward). After using the remote extensively in the past twelve months, I can highly recommend it.

Setting up the remote is dead simple. There are usually two parts to the remote: a receiver unit that looks like a flash drive and is plugged in to any USB port on the machine you’ll be using and the remote itself, which is usually about the size of a thick highlighter pen. Once you plug in the remote, the computer will take a few moments to recognize just what kind of a device you are setting up and then let you know you are good to go.

Getting the hang of clicking while you walk about is easy and, ultimately, an act of liberation.

Posted in Using Technology | 6 Comments

.ppt? . . . pfft!

In 2002, after most of the initial kinks had been worked out of the Vertical Campus, I had the opportunity to teach a large lecture class (MSC 1003–the music appreciation course, a.k.a. Music in Civilization) using all the smart technology available.

I decided to try PowerPoint (known by its .ppt file extension). I slogged through the program, determined to make slides for three lectures. I compiled some nice illustrations of sound waves and musical instruments, discovered pleasant fonts and colors, added some zippy effects, and spent a lot of time trying out the various bells and whistles. In the end, I found the product ossifying. Something about the slides made them impossible to “riff off of,” as musicians might say. I was disappointed in the software, but figured, “It must be me,” since I was age 50, and this was a new technology that demanded a more malleable brain and a youthful receptiveness to the “new media” I suppose I had lost.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see two, much younger colleagues teach on straightforward music-historical topics using PowerPoint. The first instructor presented a mess of slides, filled with typos and formatting inconsistencies, quite an unstructured piece of work that was hard for me to follow. The second instructor was worse. Besides using a historically inappropriate illustration (a saccharine, late 19th-century rendering of Martin Luther), the second colleague provided too much information. Each of the slides comprised long lists of seven or eight bullet points with a mass of detail. Furthermore, he was incapable of reading the muddle of facts. The student seated next to me was furiously copying the useless text (e.g., “Luther married a nun, Katherine von Bora when he was 42 and she was 26”–remember, this is a music class). My other experiences viewing ppt presentations have not been much better than these.

Hmm. At that point I knew something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t me.


Posted in Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology | 12 Comments

Of Legos and Sock Puppets – Knowing When to Go Low-tech

My first-year students find Plato’s The Republic daunting – especially the part of the book that requires sewing. My M.P.A. students claim that creating nonprofit organizations is difficult – when another group has taken all of the yellow legos. Deprived of their i-whatevers and Power-thingies, my students reluctantly admit to the joys of low-tech learning semester after semester. What is it about toys and tactility…?

I’m no luddite, really. I willingly volunteered to blog about teaching. I check my e-mail frequently. I occasionally carry the cell phone my friends bought me… and as a rhetorician, I appreciate the deliciously rich communicative context of this and other e-exchanges. But there is something curiously wonderful about pretending that a tiny piece of molded plastic is “grass” or “brick” or learning where the thread goes to make a needle sew (i.e., the first question I get every time my PUB 1250 students make sock puppets for our productions of the Allegory of the Cave).

As we embark on this exchange about teaching, my inner-laggard could not resist the opportunity to invite ironic participants to engage in a discussion of low or no-tech teaching methods under the “Using Technology” heading. So, fellow “dancing animals” (a shout-out to Vonnegut), what sorts of low technology thrills you and engages your students? And if you expertly code-switch between the worlds of wired and unplugged, how do you decide when to engage electricity and when not to flip the switch?

For how and why I incorporate low-tech teaching into my courses, read more…


Posted in Using Technology | 5 Comments