Friday, June 20, 2014

The Gender Dynamics of Female Professors in.... Yes, John, you have something to add?

This article by Soraya Chemaly about women being interrupted in the workplace and the phenomenon of "mansplaining" is fun and familiar to all women. It made me think about being interrupted in the classroom. A lot of research has been done on gender dynamics in elementary and secondary classrooms. I don't know any research on college-level gender dynamics, but this isn't my field. I'm sure it's out there.

From my personal experience, I'd make three points about classroom interruptions:

1) Not all interruptions are equal. More men than women "interrupt" me in the classroom, but most of those "interruptions" are useful. They are requests for clarification, or they bring up issues that are important and relevant. I wish all of my students -- men and women -- were willing to "interrupt" in this manner, but men are over-represented in this category, probably because women are socialized to sit quietly, lest they appear rude.

The problem is with "unproductive interruptions", where the student is showing disrespect (either overtly or subtly, by failing to recognize their relative ignorance on a subject), or trying to score points by sounding smart, or just likes to hear their own voice. My favorite recent example of an "unproductive interruption": a student stopped my lecture to tell me I was wrong to say that primates show the primitive mammalian trait of five fingers, since the thumb doesn't count as a finger.

2) While a man is more likely to interrupt than a woman, unproductive interruptions aren't a masculine trait. They are an over-confident, clueless student trait. Students who make unproductive interruptions often don't understand basic concepts, but don't realize it. A number of studies have shown that men are more likely than women to be overconfident. Since men are more likely to interrupt than women (due to socialization), and clueless men are more likely to be overconfident than clueless women, most of my unproductive interruptions come from men. As Chemaly quotes Rebecca Solnit in her article, men who make unproductive interruptions are at the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.” 

3) Social dynamics between students and professors don't just reflect gender. Class, race, and physical traits are also relevant. I find that students from (as far as I can tell) lower socioeconomic classes are less likely to interrupt. Students of color are less likely to interrupt. This reflects larger power dynamics in our society. Also, the physical presence of a woman can make a big difference in how she is treated. I am very tall, large-framed, and don't project a conventional feminine facade. Comparing notes with other women, I don't have as many problems with students interrupting me in class, trying to pressure me into changing their grades, or trying to intimidate me. I once co-taught a class with a petite and more feminine colleague. Although I'm a push-over and she is not, all of the students went to her to ask for deadline extensions, re-grades, and extra credit opportunities. I have twice had students try to subtly intimidate me. In both cases they were football players, and in both cases it took me days to realize what they had been trying to do. Frankly, I'm just not that intimidated by someone who is shorter than I am.

Anyone else have stories about interruptions and "mansplaining" in the classroom?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Things I have learned from revising Biological Anthropology

I revised my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class this year. I included more active learning, added a new textbook (The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology, by Jonathan Marks), and changing the exam structure.

Here's what I've learned:

1. Active learning improved (most) student learning and provided feedback on the learning process.

In-class activities improved overall class understanding of major concepts. Partly, the improvement came from the activities themselves, but frequent feedback was also important. For example, students wrote short essays in class about race as a social construct. The feedback they received drove home -- in a way I'd never been able to drive home before -- that they didn't understand the concept as well as they thought they did. When they were asked to write a similar essay for the exam, the improvement was striking. This approach was particularly useful for deceptively simple-seeming concepts, such as race and evolution, that are hard for students to a) understand; and b) recognize their own failure to understand.

Feedback is a two-way street. I learned a lot about my students that helped me shape the class, and to intervene where necessary before the exam codified mistakes into grades. For example, I'd never known how many of my students were young-earth creationists (around 15%). Some of those students did well. Others did poorly. I've always announced at the beginning of the semester that students are free to believe whatever they wish, as long as they are familiar with the scientific evidence presented in the class, but this semester I was able to speak personally with students who had conflicts, and ease many concerns.

Much of the feedback I received was not from the activities themselves, but from the 5-min reflections that students wrote afterward. The students groaned every time I asked them to write one of these, so I stopped doing them about half-way through the semester. Next time I teach, though, I'm going to include them with every activity. Even if the students didn't like them, I found them invaluable sources of information on what students had learned, and what needed to be covered again.

2. The best students loved Marks's textbook, even if they disagreed with him. Struggling students struggled.

I gave weekly comprehension checks, which were 10-min essays designed to test understanding of basic concepts (for example, "why is race a culturally-constructed category, not a biological one".) Often, the essays were based on the readings, since I had other means to provide feedback on in-class materials. Most students did OK on essay questions from the Sylk and Boyd textbook, if they'd read the book. (There were a number of students who hadn't read the book, but that's a different problem!) When the essay was based on the Marks book, however, the results were discouraging. Most good students understood the his major points, if not all the nuances, and learned a lot. Several of them told me his was the best textbook they'd ever read. But a good 50% of students regularly failed to understand Marks's basic argument. Perhaps they were less inclined to read Marks, whose chapters are longer, prose denser, and pages less adorned with glossy photos and illustrative graphs.

3. Giving students exam questions ahead of time lowered grades (for some students). 

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this topic, giving students the database of questions ahead of time lead to an increase in As and an increase in Fs. After the first exam, I gave my students a survey asking when they began to study for the exam, whether or not they'd worked their way through the questions, etc. Not surprisingly, most students who did well on the exam had begun studying well before the exam, and had worked their way through all the questions. The students who did poorly didn't fail because they had answered the study questions incorrectly; they hadn't done them at all. Unfortunately, the database of questions seemed to intimidate/depress students who were already unlikely to study long hours, and they skipped studying altogether, rather than substitute a more standard study approach.

4. This was not the outcome I was expecting.

When I changed the class, I was hoping to: A) improve concept comprehension for the average student; B) decrease the failure rate for the class (which is about 15%) by helping struggling students to learn; and C) focus the course on skill development and the application of concepts to daily life. At the same time, my biggest fear was that the class would be too easy for high-achieving students, that they wouldn't get enough in-depth coverage of materials, or they wouldn't be challenged.

Point C is a topic for another blog post. I believe that I succeeded with point A. Exam essay questions suggest that the average student did improve their comprehension of major class concepts. But I failed on point B. In fact, the class failure rate increased, and struggling students did more poorly this semester than in previous semesters.

In retrospect, I should have expected that outcome. Most of my students aren't struggling because they can't understand the material (although students with poor science backgrounds do face barriers). In general, students fail because they don't come to class, don't do the readings, and don't study. The new structure of the class exacerbated these problems. In-class activities were more important, so students who didn't come to class were missing more (both in materials and in graded activities). I demanded (and assessed) engagement with the readings, and held exam performance to a higher standard. Students who did not wish to read or study were left behind. I hoped the focus on active learning would engage students who were otherwise likely to skip class. That was clearly naive.

On the other hand, my fear that top students would find the class too easy was unfounded. In fact, students were more engaged and the grades for the top 25% of students went up as students produced some of the best essays I've read in the 7 years I've taught this class.

So, changes that were meant to increase learning for average and struggling students instead improved outcomes for average and high-achieving students. This wasn't the outcome I was expecting, and not necessarily the one I desired (although improving learning for any student is good). Students don't come to class/read/study because they are prioritizing non-academic activities over academics. To the extent that those activities are sports, games, organizations, partying, or loafing around, I consider that to be the student's problem. To the extent that the student is struggling because they work full time, are caring for their family, or face other structural barriers because of poverty, race, or gender, however, I want my classroom to be a place where they can succeed, without having to be twice as good or work twice as hard as other students. For those students, I consider the revision to be a qualified failure, and I need to rethink my policies to allow more flexibility for students with outside responsibilities.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Are Phone Interviews Useful?

I've been on both the "giving" and "receiving" side of phone interviews (sometimes both in the same week!). I remain unconvinced that phone interviews are useful. The skills necessary for doing well on a phone interview just don't seem to translate into the skills necessary to be an excellent professor.

Phone interviews tell you the following things:

1) can the candidate make a personal connection with someone over the phone, without visual cues, and under massive pressure where the slightest misstep could leave them living in their mother-in-law's basement next year.

2) can the candidate speak clearly and coherently under the aforementioned circumstances, with potentially severe penalties to anyone who speaks with an accent, has a speaking impediment, or just mumbles when nervous.

3) can the candidate speak off-the-cuff on complex subjects, with no warning, and just happen to hit the one piece of information you, the interviewer, were most interested in hearing. 

The phone interview process is advantageous to out-going, confident candidates with less at stake should the interview fail. Out-going and confident describes precisely zero of the graduate students I've known at the end of a grueling PhD program. Yet, many of those students are highly empathetic toward their students, committed to both research and teaching, and extremely collegial. 

More problematic, phone interviews put international candidates and candidates with disabilities at a disadvantage, even when their accent or speech impediment would have little or no effect on the classroom; for example, if it's only problematic when you can't see the person talk so you're not getting visual cues, or when normal static on the phone line makes it hard to understand them.

I am sympathetic to the idea that asking candidates to speak off-the-cuff tells you something about how well they respond to student questions. That does seem to be the only real justification for phone interviews. But most of the questions I've been asked (or have asked) during phone interviews are not good substitutes for the questions students ask during class. Student questions usually come out of the material discussed, they don't drop in out of the blue and cover any topic related to one's profession. They also come from people with whom you've had time to develop some rapport, and whose relationship to yourself is well defined and whose whims are not able to derail your future career. This has a profound effect on how comfortable candidates are in answering the questions.

Furthermore, if a student asks you a question you can't answer, it is both the ethical and educational to say "I don't know", and then look it up (preferably with the student). I still remember the student who asked me how tarsiers were able to turn their necks so far. I had no idea, but we did some looking on-line until we found drawings of their cervical vertebrae and compared those to other primates. Education happened, for both of us! In a phone interview, saying "I don't know", or "I'll have to look that up", would be a kiss of death.

Finally, in a phone interview, the content of the candidate's answers must be taken with a grain of salt. Their answers are merely what they could think to say when blindsided by a particular question and told they had some vague or unknown time limit in which to answer it. And, yet, search committees tend to treat their answers as complete. Candidates may be eliminated because they didn't mention running a fieldschool when asked what classes they would like to teach. Yet, had they been asked specifically if they were willing to run a fieldschool, they may have enthusiastically detailed their plans to do just that. 

Sometimes universities mandate phone interviews (I think ours might), and many faculty members really like them. I'll admit, they make it easy to whittle down a list of otherwise equally-well qualified candidates because the outcomes of phone interviews tend to be radically different. I'm just not sure we're whittling the candidates down on the right basis.

The best "phone interview" I ever had was an e-mail. I was given five questions and asked to write a paragraph answer for each. I didn't get a campus visit, but at least I felt my true voice had been heard. If search committees actually care about complete and comparable answers to their questions, I'd say that's the way to go. It's easier on everyone's schedule, and more honest than the phone interview.