Threading the Helpfulness Needle

When I came up for my reappointment review three years into my professorial career, I was given a list of required materials to submit, which included a “statement of teaching philosophy.” The same thing had been required for my job application, and at that time, I wrote about techniques and methods that had seemed particularly useful to me as a student (I had basically no teaching experience when I was hired), so for my reappointment, I wrote a statement looking back at what I wrote when I applied and talking about how I tried to incorporate those things into my teaching.

I passed the review (obviously), but after I had passed, I had an extremely awkward meeting with the dean, who dismissed what I had written as just being “pedagogy.” She was looking for something “more philosophical,” and what I had written clearly wasn’t what she was looking for at all.

I thought of this when reading this blog post about education linked by Rhett Allain on Twitter, which spins off a story from the business world:

“I’m supposed to make this brochure for the client, but the client won’t tell me what they want. All this lady says is, ‘the brochure needs to be exceptional.’ So I give her a cool brochure, she rejects it, and her only explanation is, ‘It’s not exceptional enough.’ I re-do the brochure, thinking that this has got to be exceptional, only to get rejected again because, ‘it’s not exceptional enough.’ When I ask her to give me some details or hints about what her kind of exceptional might look like, she says in this snooty voice, ‘if you don’t know what exceptional looks like, then maybe we shouldn’t be working together.’”

This is the starting point for a call for more transparency in education– that is, for making expectations and feedback on those expectations clear when giving and grading assignments. Which is kind of hard to be against, given that pretty much everyone has some experience sort of like the above, running afoul of somebody with very definite expectations for a vaguely worded assignment.

And yet…

Rhett also linked to this video from Dan Meyer, whose advice for educators is always to “be less helpful.” That is, by being overly specific in statements of problems and providing examples, most teachers crush students’ ability to think, instead turning them into textbook-repeating robots (and he’s no fan of modern textbooks, either). And listening to Meyer talk about how he runs math classes does, in fact, sound really cool and inspiring.

Which means there’s a certain tension between these two aspects of teaching. That is, you need to be helpful, in terms of providing clear feedback and expectations, but not too helpful in leading students through their assignments. If you’re too obvious about what you want, you’re just going to get dozens of papers parroting back exactly what you said in class or on the assignment.

And when you get out of school, eventually you’re going to run into somebody like that client or my former dean, who has very definite ideas about what they want for something they describe only in vague and unhelpful terms. Learning how to deal with vague but weirdly particular superiors is probably as useful a career skill as any of the specific mathematical techniques we teach.

I wish I had some insight on how to thread this particular needle– how to be specific enough that students don’t feel ambushed by the grading criteria, but vague enough to teach them how to think for themselves in a useful way. Sadly, I don’t. If you do, please leave pointers in the comments, because this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, without really getting anywhere.

Comments

  1. #1 Johan Larson
    August 1, 2011

    You could try talking about what qualities you are trying to cultivate or select for in your classes, beyond the specific knowledge and skills you are providing instruction in. That should be fuzzy enough.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    August 1, 2011

    Oh, I managed to improvise some bullshit on the spot, and I’m past needing to do that sort of thing. Or at least past the point where my job hangs on my ability to write in that mode.

    If you set out to design a system to instill corrosive cynicism in young faculty, though, it would be hard to do better than this.

  3. #3 Matt Leifer
    August 1, 2011

    The problem you are describing also exists on the research side of academia. Most job adverts, at least at the postdoctoral level, are not very specific about what you should write in your application. They tell you to submit a “research statement” or “research proposal” without giving you any guidance about what should go in to such a thing.

    Now, there is a more or less standard format for such things, but my experience sitting on hiring committees suggests that many (even most) Ph.D. students have no clue what that format is. The number of research “proposals” that I have read that include no proposals for new research, but merely summarize research done to date is mind-boggling. The lucky ones will have received good advice from their Ph.D. advisors on how to write a proposal. The smart ones will have realized that the way to complete such vague assignments is to find someone who can tell you what is expected, and that the right person may not be the most obvious choice. In the case of the “exceptional” brochure, you may get no useful information from the client, but you could find out who has done work for them in the past and establish how they dealt with it. In the case of research proposals, you may get no useful information from the institution itself, but current and former postdocs who have been through the application process can tell you how they did it.

    It always surprises me how few people have the initiative to make use of such resources. I suppose one could argue that having such initiative is one of the things being selected for in the application process. However, since it is so rare, institutions could do a better job of specifying what is expected. The only place where I have seen this done well is at the Santa Fe institute. There, they ask you to write a “Description of interest in SFI” and in the application materials they say (quoting from the website):

    “Consider addressing one or more of the following: What kind of input from other fields would most improve your future research? What type of multidisciplinary workshop might you want to organize during your Fellowship? What aspects of your present or future research are difficult to pursue in a traditional academic environment?”

    Now these are very specific questions, so the applicant has something concrete to shoot for. No doubt it was born of years of experience in which applicants had no clue what to write in a “Description of Interst”. Why can’t we be equally specific in what is required for a research statement? My own proposal for such a specification, at least for fellowships that are self-directed, would run as follows:

    - Briefly summarize the research you have done to date and explain how it relates to the concerns of your specific field and to the wider subject area.

    - Explain if, how and why you intend to extend your exisiting research.

    - Give at least one idea for a research project, distinct from your existing research, that interests you, and that is feasible to complete given your current background knowledge and the timeframe of the position.

    - Give at least one idea for a research project that you would like to complete in an ideal world where you had no constraints of time or expertise. The project can be extremely speculative. Explain why this project interests you and what its impact might be.

    How hard would it be to put a specification like this into a job advert?

  4. #4 John Novak
    August 1, 2011

    One of the nice things about engineering culture is that I would have no hesitation asking, point blank, “What exactly the difference between a pedagogical statement and a statement of teching philosophy?” One of the bad things about being a grad student is that educators (even of engineering) tend to react very badly to questions like that, especially when they’re most at fault.

    That said, yes, I understand the dilemma between being cookbook-precise and being completely vague. I’ve complained about it in both directions in other forums, my chief precise (and personal) complaints being:

    – Profs who actually refuse to write assignment terms down
    – Profs who forget to mention critical details (like “must use this technique,” or “any technique but this one”)
    – Grad students who whine about homework not being EXACTLY like the textbook examples

    Aside from that, I’ve come to only a few general conclusions in my looooong and multiple careers as a grad student:

    – Specificity and drill is for underclassmen. I could give an A in good conscience to a freshman or sophomore who did nothing more than master techniques and forms.

    – Abstract thought and creativity is for upperclassman, and most definitely for grad students. I can’t imagine giving an A to a senior who only mastered forms and techniques. For grad students, I have a hard time imagining giving out even a B. (That doesn’t mean doing dissertation quality work in every class, obviously. Just knowing how to string multiple techniques together without being spoonfed counts for something.)

    – Abstract thought and creativity is damn difficult to test for on an exam. So I favor projects of one form or another. My absolute favorite (although toughest on the professor) is the extended project, where you get to work on and elaborate on something for the span of a full semester. It’s hard not to be creative in that setting.

    (A hidden feature of the “project” motif is that it allows the students enough time to think things over and then come for help and clarification if necessary.)

  5. #5 Mu
    August 1, 2011

    If you want to experience a true change in teaching philosophy, look at German universities. The whole concept is reversed. First, it’s relatively easy to get in. You have a university qualifying diploma, you’re in, even with a 2.0. Unless the general subject (like medicine), or the subject at a specific university, have special quotas you’re guaranteed acceptance. And there’s no tuition, so there’s some administrative fees of less than $1,000.
    BUT – it’s the students responsibility to study. Professors present the material to you at a given time, that’s it. No homework, few exercise/problem study classes, few intermediate tests. All that’s required is to show up for the exam at the end of the class and pass.
    In a lot of cases the idea is to fail as many students early on, not to make them graduate in the allotted time. Low graduation rates are a sign of quality education, not the other way around.
    I would not recommend that kind of philosophy for your next review so, a tuition dependent private college might take a dim view.

  6. #6 Walt Garage
    August 1, 2011

    I had a great history teacher in high school. Every Friday was a 10 point quiz with a few ambiguous answers. 2nd half of class was lecture. First half of Monday’s class was arguing over the correct answers to Friday’s quiz. If the teacher said the answer was “b” but several students had chosen “a”, they were given their chance to argue their point. If the argument was acceptable, they would get their answer accepted as well.

    Lots of learning took place during the argument phase.

  7. #7 becca
    August 1, 2011

    A simple thing to help balance ‘clear expectations’ with ‘building coping skills for ambiguous situations’ is to have different types of assignments.

    It’s ok for some things, e.g. lab reports, to be expected to be ‘cookbook precise’.

    For assignments that have more ambiguity, I would just say that if you have a grading rubric, always be honest that you have it and open about what it consists of (at *least* after the assignment is done).

    An aside- as a student, I could never tell if professors defending vagueness with ‘well the majority of students got this question right’ was a compelling answer. Let’s just go with “don’t tell students you value creative thinking and then use this defense” as a rule-of-thumb.

    One thing that I liked as a student was professors who would not grade for attendance, per se, but did award points for the index-card comment/question… at the end of each lecture, you got an index card where you were asked to write something pertaining to the lecture- it could be a ‘main idea’ summary, a statement of confusion (sometimes students can’t even formulate a simple question) about the least clear part of the lecture, or a totally tangential question (as long as it was related to the science). That’s one good way to get people thinking during lecture. It’s pretty much open-ended, but also low pressure enough that I think the prof got only compliments about it.

    As far as discussion sessions, leading socratic dialog is complicated, but so worthwhile when it works. And group tasks that are open ended can be extremely engaging.

    Group discussion also helps when it comes to evaluation criteria. Weirdly, what is ‘hopelessly vague’ as criteria for evaluation to one person can be clear as day to another. It’s one of those areas in class, and life, where there might actually be some wisdom to crowds. And if there is a consensus that your criteria meant something OTHER than what you thought it meant… well then. That’s a valuable thing to know as well. Kind of like what Walt Garage said about his history teacher- the argument phase is very instructive.

  8. #8 Liz
    August 1, 2011

    I always appreciate getting a sample of a paper (or teaching statement, or whatever) that the professor has received in the past and considered to be excellent. I’ve found it to be the best way to get a sense of things like how much detail is expected in different components.

    This can be problematic if this year’s class is being given the same assignment that last year’s class got. It’s nice when this year’s class is assigned a five-page policy memo on Problem X and last year’s class wrote five-page policy memos on Problem Y.

  9. #9 Lord
    August 1, 2011

    Exceptional is anything she wouldn’t expect, thus she couldn’t tell him what she wanted as she didn’t know.

  10. #10 CCPhysicist
    August 2, 2011

    You didn’t specify the academic background of your Dean, which might give some insight into your problem.

    Pedagogy IS the means for implementing your teaching philosophy, so it sounds like your original essay was about the nuts and bolts rather than a broader view of education. (I just went back and looked at mine, and saw a mix of both types of items.) Further, it could be that the Dean wanted a more reflective look at your original ideas, particularly because they had been based on zero teaching experience.

    Perhaps three years in is not the time to challenge your views about teaching — unless you are really being ineffective in the classroom — but everyone needs to learn from what they do as a teacher just like they learn from what they do in the research lab.

    So, how have your views about teaching changed now that you have been a professor at a SLAC longer than you were a student at one? How has your pedagogy changed? Do those changes reflect an underlying philosophy you were not aware of when you started? What challenges have you faced that you didn’t even know existed when you were a student?

  11. #11 John Novak
    August 3, 2011

    One last thought occurs to me, here, which I can at last post since my internet is now functional again.

    Vagueness and inconsistency are not the same things. Either one alone can be dealt with: Vagueness by asking for or demanding answers (sometimes asking people who have past experience), inconsistency by paying attention to circumstances as they happen.

    Those are both annoying, but they’re not fatal. Dealing with them is part of life.

    It’s only those (mercifully) rare people who are vague and inconsistent that are impossible to deal with.

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