Interview with DeMillo on “Abelard to Apple” on how faculty need to change

September 14, 2011 at 8:16 am 14 comments

I enjoyed the interview with Rich DeMillo in Inside HigherEd (linked below).  I had a meeting with Rich on Friday, soon after his book hit Amazon, and we commiserated on the challenges on trying to change undergraduate education.  One of the failing of Georgia Computes was getting more faculty to attend workshops on how to change their curriculum and teaching practices in order to encourage broader participation in computing.  We got a lot of faculty in the first few years, then fewer and fewer, and this last year: Our grand total statewide was three faculty who attended any GaComputes workshop.  As one faculty member (not at Georgia Tech) told our external evaluator, “In any department, only about 20% of the faculty care about undergraduate education. You got them all.”  Rich told me about his efforts to change education practices, where he gets lots of interest from research scientists and staff, but no tenure-track faculty.  That matters, because the tenure-track faculty own the curriculum, and are the ones who stick around the longest.  Change their practices, and you change things for long time.  But if you can’t get their attention, it’s hard to get more than short-term change.

I just got my copy of From Abelard to Apple yesterday, and I’m looking forward to reading it!

People have asked me about the title of my book, Abelard to Apple. Peter Abelard was an 11th-century French monk who is today mainly known for his disastrous love affair with Heloise. Less well known was his influence on the course of Western universities. He was maybe the first true professor. I use Abelard as a metaphor for the ideal of university teaching. He was a charismatic, compelling figure whose ideas provoked debate and thought and who was able to draw and engage students in large numbers. “Apple” refers to Apple’s iTunes U, a technology platform for the most gifted teachers to reach and engage with students in huge numbers.

There is a message in the journey that higher education took from Peter Abelard to Apple Computer: professors who do not provide value, who are excessively, inwardly focused on the concerns of their profession, who confuse lecturing with teaching, who confuse scholarship with winning sponsored research grants, are usually swept to the margins.

via News: ‘Abelard to Apple’ – Inside Higher Ed.

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Teachers should not tailor information to different kinds of learners Physics students grok that they need computing

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Max Hailperin  |  September 14, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Mark, this is the second time you’ve used the quote about only 20% of faculty members caring about undergraduate education. Because of the repetition, I feel a need to point out that this quote only represents one category of institutions. Plenty of us are at institutions where nearly all we do is undergraduate education. (In fact, one of the challenges we face is making any time for the other things that are also important to us.)

    At institutions where undergraduate education is practically the exclusive mission, the percentage must be much closer to 100%. Certainly in a high-opportunity field like computer science, I don’t know of anyone who chose to take a job focused on undergraduate education without caring about it.

    Admittedly, there are other disciplines where someone might be so grateful to get any tenure-track offer at all that they wouldn’t quibble about the category of institution. However, in those disciplines, the hiring committees have lots of applicants to choose among, and in my experience do a good job of sorting out those who really care from among those claiming to care.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 14, 2011 at 10:11 am

      Max, I can’t speak for your institution, or any other than the University System of Georgia units where we have done our studies. That quote is from a school that has a teaching-primary goal. The University System of Georgia (USG) includes two-year, four-year, and research Universities. Our findings cross those categories.

      In one of Lijun Ni’s studies, she interviewed faculty around the state and asked them, “What do you do to be a better computing educator?” At a new teaching-primary institution in the University system, her interviewee told her, “I don’t! I don’t call myself a computing educator! I’m a researcher!” Even at the teaching-mission institutions, the faculty we interviewed perceived that their tenure and promotion was dependent primarily on their research production (“publish or perish”), only secondarily on their teaching. This was the downfall of our DCCE efforts to get University and high school faculty to talk together about teaching — by the time we organized our third cohort, we couldn’t get enough USG faculty (any category) to participate. We ran the third cohort as high school teachers only.

      I believe you that there are those institutions where more than 20% of the faculty care about teaching. I’ve visited some of those institutions. It’s not a category, though. I fear it’s an aberration, an exemption to the rule. When we have tried to do large-scale/state-wide sampling, that 20% figure seems right.

  • 3. Bonnie MacKellar  |  September 14, 2011 at 10:30 am

    There are disincentives even at teaching-oriented schools. One is that many teaching-oriented schools are increasing their publication requirements for tenure. Another is that tenure-track faculty, even at teaching oriented institutions, don’t want to take the risk of doing something in class that might affect their teaching evaluations, because those figure heavily into tenure as well. Finally, there are issues of time and finances. At schools with a 4/4 load and little travel money, it is hard for faculty to even GET to these workshops.

  • 4. Max Hailperin  |  September 14, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Mark, I have no reason to doubt you that someone in the USG has screwed up big time. I’ve seen that happen plenty of places. You may well have a university whose mission is education, yet has put in place tenure criteria that don’t emphasize education. Or you may well have a university whose formally stated tenure criteria emphasize education, but which has allowed those who carry out the tenure process to have different, unstated criteria that they actually apply. Or you may have a university where even the real tenure process emphasizes education, yet tenure candidates are allowed to persist in believing that they will be evaluated in some other way — perhaps the way that their grad school advisors warned them of. I’ve seen all three of these things happen.

    Actually, the third of these failures, mistaken beliefs about the criteria, can be quite hard to counter. If you tell tenure candidates that there is no conspiracy to use unstated criteria, many of them will just assume you are either part of the conspiracy or have been successfully fooled by it.

    But just because you are part of a system that has failed in one of these three ways is no reason to doubt that there is another category of institutions that has a much better track record. I refuse to believe Gustavus is just an exception. When I talk with my colleagues at meetings of the Liberal Arts Computer Science consortium (LACS), none of them tell me that only 20% of their department cares about undergraduate education. When I serve as an external reviewer at other non-LACS liberal arts colleges, I don’t come away thinking that only 20% of the faculty cares about undergraduate education. When I take a team to the regional programming contest and hang out with other coaches from liberal arts colleges, none of the commiserating we do is about how few of our colleagues care about undergraduate education.

    Some of the commiserating we do *is* about the disincentives and barriers that Bonnie mentions. Sure, we care about undergraduate education, but we can’t afford the time and money to attend workshops to improve our effectiveness. And she’s right, even at our institutions, we may for a variety of reasons put time into publishing that we therefore can’t put into improving our teaching. But none of those things mean we don’t care about undergraduate education — they just mean we are frustrated by how difficult it is to act upon that caring. If Bonnie and the other coaches I kvetch with didn’t care about undergraduate education, they wouldn’t even find those circumstances frustrating.

    Returning to Mark’s comment, without seeing the details, I’m a bit suspicious about the large-scale, statewide sampling. My impression was that the largest category of post-secondary institutions was two-year colleges. So any large-scale, statewide sampling ought to be dominated by those; and although I’m nowhere near as familiar with them as with four-year liberal arts colleges, I’d be surprised to hear that only 20% of their faculty cares about undergraduate education. But even assuming that Mark is right about the statewide statistics, that wouldn’t refute my claim that there is a category of institutions with different statistics.

  • 5. Nathan  |  September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    “Facutly need to change”

    What if the facutly just don’t want to change?

    Perhaps trying to turn researchers into undergraduate educators is just a lesson in futility. If we really care about improving undergraduate education, shouldn’t we seek out those who have a passion for it and have a background suitable to teach the applicable content.

    Why are we surprised when we hire undergraduate educators from a pool of PhD-holders who then turn out to prefer researching to teaching?

    • 6. Max Hailperin  |  September 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      There is no inherent contradiction between being a PhD-holder and caring about undergraduate education. I’ve served a total of 5 years on our college-wide tenure and promotion committee, and so I’ve had a chance to take a pretty hard look at my colleagues in other fields. And without breaching too much confidentiality, I can say they are darn impressive. They don’t just “hold” PhDs, they’ve earned them fair and square. And yet they really, really care about undergraduate education, and work at it, and know more about how to do it well than I ever have or likely ever will. Hiring people that impressive in computer science is hard. But it is possible, and I don’t think we ought to just give up. It’s even possible to hold a PhD from Georgia Tech and care about undergraduate education. I can think of an example who even ought to be in Mark’s “statewide sample,” given that she teaches in Georgia.

      • 7. Nathan  |  September 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm

        I apologize if I came across as belittling the efforts of PhD earners (it was certainly not my intent). Back in my undergraduate years, I attended a college similar to the one you described in your earlier comments. My professors were of the “closer to 100%” category, regarding their enthusiasm for teaching. Many of their research contributions were quite significant too! I think that these are the places that are doing a great service to their undergraduates, by attracting faculty who are quite capable and passionate about teaching. Comparing my professors at the SLAC I attended to the faculty at the R1 I’m at now, however, provides quite a stark contrast — where the enthusiasm for teaching is more similar to the 20% figure that Mark mentioned.

        It seems the goal here is to find, make, or ultimately acquire good educators in order to improve undergraduate education. My intuition is that those who prioritize research over teaching don’t end up at (or stay at) teaching schools and therefore the teaching schools (which you and I are quite familiar with) end up attracting those for whom teaching is a higher priority. With that said, it’s my estimation that research-oriented schools have a smaller percentage of faculty who make teaching their priority than at the teaching colleges. Perhaps this relates to the “closer to 100%” vs “closer to 20%” difference that has been mentioned.

        My point is, I’m not terribly shocked when research-oriented schools claim a low percentage of faculty interested in teaching. They have a habit of attracting those who aspire to research more than to teach. Convincing such faculty to spend more time on teaching sounds like a losing battle. An alternative, which I presented in my previous comment, is to invite the willing and capable who don’t necessarily have PhDs.

        • 8. Max Hailperin  |  September 14, 2011 at 9:03 pm

          I wish I could remember the exact words that Ed Feigenbaum said to me when I was a new grad student at Stanford in the mid 1980s. It was something along the lines of: “Max, what you need to understand is that Stanford is a loose cluster of research centers that have a degree-granting body affiliated with them.”

          So yes, sure, when a place like that wants to get serious about education, they hire people like Eric Roberts, Nick Parlante, and Julie Zelinske, rather than thinking that they can get more than 20% of their regular faculty to care about undergraduate education. Some of those people have PhDs, some don’t; all are high quality and undergraduate-focused. One wonders why at liberal arts colleges, it is possible to hire the same sort of high-quality, undergraduate-focused individuals even limiting the pool to just PhD holders. Is it possible that such individuals find it more attractive to be at an institution that is more unambiguously committed to the same values as they are?

          • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  September 14, 2011 at 11:03 pm

            It is *possible* for R1 institutions to hire undergrad-focused people, but there is little incentive for them to do so. With promotion based more on research $ than anything else (certainly more important than research quality, which no one can judge easily), R1 institutions hire people who they think will bring in research grants. (Note: this cynical observation applies only to those fields where grants are routinely expected, not to pure math and the humanities.)

  • […]  But that doesn’t make it the wrong desired goal.  (I’m reading in the middle of Abelard to Apple now, so I might be particularly receptive to learning-with0ut-courses these […]

  • […] not quite done yet with Abelard to Apple.  I’m really enjoying it, but I’m realizing that it has nothing to do with me.  Rich […]

  • 12. Darakhshan Mir (@sciencemeandyou)  |  October 28, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Great discussion, I am surprised though that nobody made the point that teaching isn’t valued in one’s graduate education. As a graduate student in Computer Science in a big public research University, I find there is nothing in my training as a graduate student that prepares me to be a better educator. There is a singular, razor-sharp focus on research and an implicit assumption that everyone who graduates with a PhD will either end up in a research position in a company (google, yahoo research etc.) or in a doctoral degree granting University through a postdoc or otherwise(primarily evaluated on research). I have come to know that at least four other students in my department care about teaching and being better educators, but we have very almost no resources to guide us. Most graduate students work as TAs, at least, for some time during the duration of their graduate studies, but it is largely viewed as an inconvenient necessity while pursuing your research. Graduate students just aren’t prepared to be better educators, just better researchers, so why is it surprising if this reflects among the faculty, especially in a tenure-granting system that is heavily biased in favor of research. The question is how do we address this, how do we provide and advertise opportunities to graduate students like myself that help us become better educators? I have noticed that there are slightly better resources for students in our Math department here, since many of them end up applying to largely under-graduate colleges, but because of the industry employability in CS, we face a lack of places to turn to. How to reach out to the CS departments that are actually producing these potential educators, I think we need to address this problem at that level.

  • […] argument being made here in this NYTimes piece suggests that the sluggish response to calls for higher-education reform has a real cost.  We know how to make STEM classes more successful, in terms of motivation and […]

  • […] DeMillo argued in his book Apple to Abelard that higher education institutions need to differentiate from one another.  Offering the same thing […]


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