Author Archives: mickbeltz

Reflection on a First Year

This post is the fifth in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Michael Niedzielski, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of North Dakota

Who among us, as educators, does not want their students to apply classroom knowledge to the real world and to think critically? After my first two years of teaching after grad school and many formal and informal discussions and workshops on engaging students with active learning techniques, problem-based learning and service learning that filled my head with various pedagogical methods, I approached my first year of teaching at UND with excitement as I was ready to incorporate some of these student focused techniques in my technology courses. My experiences with one of these courses, Geog 471/L Cartography & Visualization are the focus of this blog entry.

I wanted to incorporate active learning techniques in this technology course because of the passive, teacher-to-student information transmission that I experienced as a student and teaching assistant in this and similar technology courses. While I personally succeeded in such a non-engaging environment to grow my critical thinking skills, I quickly discovered during my first experiences as a teacher that such an experience is not necessarily true of all students. Moreover, I was not a big fan of separating the theoretical from the meaningful real-world applied context, thinking that it should be possible for students to work on a project that is meaningful beyond the university walls. A cartography course seemed like a great opportunity because maps are communication tools and they can be deployed in the service of a local community. Thus, the idea of a semester-long service-learning community mapping project idea was born. Instead of conventional final projects being mere stand-alone exercises based on faux scenarios, this non-conventional approach allows students to simultaneously demonstrate and apply knowledge learned in class by fulfilling real community mapping needs.

The fall 2011 Geog 471/L course was run as a service learning version. The idea of a service learning course is that the benefits accrue to the students and the community, because the students engage with the local community, experience how their work can help local problems, and expose their work to the larger community, and the community receives tangible products that help to solve local problems and promote community cooperation, and experiences how the academic ivory tower can help them. Specifically, the students worked with the Near North Neighborhood community in Grand Forks, including local residents, the city’s Urban Development department, the area’s city council member and UND’s Community Engagement Center. The students listened to community needs and developed maps based on that input. They interacted with the community for their data needs, and presented their maps at the end of the semester to the community. Maps topics included neighborhood capital improvements by the Knight Foundation, sidewalk conditions, or area services among others.

By some accounts the course was successful, though on reflections some aspects could be improved. Though hard to assess, students seemed more committed and worked harder to produce cartographic output of higher quality than conventional output. Students commented that they felt these maps meant something and that if they failed they would let other people down, not just themselves. After the semester was over, students volunteered to make minor revisions to the maps prior to printing that were then distributed to the local community. One student, being inspired by this project, expressed a desire to perform something similar when becoming a teacher after the doctorate degree. However, apart from one or two students expressing their dislike with service learning and public presentation aspects, some students indicated that they felt rushed and overburdened with work toward the end of the semester. On reflection, that is a fair argument as in the last two weeks of class they were still collecting data for the maps and designing them, preparing for the presentation of their map drafts as well as working on the last, somewhat complex, lab assignment with Thanksgiving in the middle of everything. Tweaking the lab schedule so that there aren’t gaps between successive assignments as well as reducing some less complex labs to one week would help. Another aspect that I need to pay more attention to in the future is to keep track of student progress in the community mapping project, checking in with them earlier and more frequently so that data collection happens earlier and the focus of the end of the semester is more on map design. Some students also indicated they would have preferred more interaction in class meetings. While I did incorporate group work and discussions on map critique, I want to improve that assignment as well as include others on topics that demand critical thinking, such as map projection choice.

As I am reflecting on my almost completed first year at UND, I believe the support that UND provided me has helped me in many ways. The bus tour and Alice T. Clark program have allowed me to make connections with new faculty like myself and other established faculty on campus and continue to think about and expand my engagement with the scholarship of teaching and learning. The formal monthly meetings have been important in that regard, but I want to highlight the importance of the connections made with new faculty that allow informal exchange of ideas on teaching and research and to decompress after the stress of everyday life as an educator.

Reflections on My First Year at UND

This post is the third in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Julia Ernst, Assistant Professor of Law, University of North Dakota School of Law

Dr. Anne Kelsch, who leads the Alice T. Clark Scholars Mentoring Program for new UND faculty, asked me to submit reflections about my first year teaching at the University of North Dakota School of Law.  I readily agreed, as I have had such a wonderful experience since my arrival in North Dakota.  Looking back over the past ten months, three major themes emerge that have significantly benefited my teaching:  UND’s strong support for new faculty, the mentoring and guidance provided by my law school colleagues, and our students’ enthusiasm about experimenting with new methods of learning.

The University of North Dakota devotes substantial resources to ensuring that new members of the faculty are well supported in all three primary aspects of our roles as professors – teaching, scholarship, and service.  During the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in January, I described UND’s programs to faculty from other universities, who expressed surprise and great interest in learning more about them, giving me the impression that UND is at the cutting-edge in offering this depth of support.  For example, the UND Bus Tour led by President Robert Kelley just before the start of the academic year enables incoming faculty to learn about our new home state of North Dakota, the communities from which many of our students originate, and key economic factors such as agriculture and energy that will shape the future careers of many of our students.  The UND Office of Instructional Development (OID) provides numerous resources to enhance pedagogy, such as On Teaching (a UND newsletter), The Teaching Professor (a national newsletter), the On Teaching lunch seminars, and books such as Effective Grading:  A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. OID also offers support for programs such as the two-day Collegiate Learning Assessment Performance Task Academy at North Dakota State University to help faculty develop exercises designed to enhance students’ critical thinking and analytical skills.  I will also be participating in the Teaching with Technology Workshop sponsored by the Center for Instructional & Learning Technologies, as well as the Teaching with Writing Course Development Workshop sponsored by OID and the Writing Across the Curriculum program.  Finally, through the Alice T. Clark Scholars Mentoring Program, including its seminars, reading materials, mentorship support, retreat, and other events, I have gained innovative ideas about how to become a better scholar, teacher, and active contributor to my department and to the university as a whole.  These trainings and materials have provided me with fresh insights and teaching methods with that I will continue to utilize over the coming years.

Since my arrival at the UND School of Law, I have benefited tremendously from the warm welcome, mentoring, and guidance provided by my colleagues at the law school.  Their generosity in sharing insights about pedagogy and scholarship, information about events and speaking opportunities, course materials and other resources, and their friendship, has made my transition to UND smooth, enjoyable, and stimulating.  I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to work in such a collegial environment with a faculty dedicated not only to maintaining the highest standards in teaching and scholarship, but also to fostering constant improvement.  The law school supported my participation in the Workshop for New Law Teachers and the Workshop on Women Rethinking Equality held consecutively in Washington, DC last summer and sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools.  My colleagues have shared resources from the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning and have compiled a collection of books in the faculty lounge on best practices in legal education, which have proven to be invaluable.  Moreover, they support using alternative approaches in the classroom, creating an environment that enables and encourages us to try new teaching methodologies and share the results through our informal discussions and through the evaluation process, so we can each learn from one another.

Finally, I am grateful that our students have generally demonstrated substantial enthusiasm about participating in a variety of learning and teaching methodologies (as compared to the traditional Socratic method of legal education to which I was exposed as a law student a few years back).  For example, the students in my Health Law seminar provided feedback on an informal course evaluation that I conducted part-way through the semester to elicit their input and observations about various components of the course.  The following segments describe facets of the seminar along with examples of student responses:

•    A typical format for our classroom discussions began with a dialogue about the reading assignments with the entire class, followed by the students working in small groups to come up with solutions to problems outlined in the reading materials.  A student commented that “I love interactive discussion because you get to learn and benefit from the diverse backgrounds and opinions of your classmates… I like to discuss the main concepts and then transform that discussion into policy debates/problems in small groups.”

•    Each student interviewed, and was interviewed by, another colleague in the class to draft a mock Advance Health Care Directive (otherwise known as a “living will”).  The goals of this exercise were 1) to educate the students about Advance Health Care Directives, 2) to enable them to practice their interviewing skills with mock clients, and 3) to allow them to gain experience having conversations about difficult issues, such as death and dying, end-of-life decision-making, how religious and other perspectives influence major life decisions, and so on.  A student commented that “This exercise is critical if we want to understand the impact it has on end-of-life issues.”  Another wrote “I felt this was a great way to think about and practice client interviewing, and how to establish rapport with a client on sensitive issues.”

•    The students worked in small groups both in and outside of class to draft a public comment on a proposed administrative rule by a federal government agency, which they then submitted to the agency.  In response to a question about this exercise, one student wrote “Very interesting.  Have used regulations.gov in other courses now.  Great exercise.”

•    As a primary learning and assessment mechanism in this course, the students write a major legal research paper on a specific health law issue.  They select and post their topics on our course website during the second week of the semester, and each must be different from any of their classmates’ topics.  Throughout the course, they post interim assignments related to their papers, such as a research assignment, a 1-2 page paper topic statement, a detailed outline and initial bibliography, and a first draft.  They are encouraged to read and learn from their colleagues’ posts, fostering a very interactive and collaborative process.  A student commented: “The preliminary assignments greatly help us to stay on track.  It was the perfect alternative approach, so we won’t be scrambling at the last moment.”

•    We had trainings on 1) researching health law with librarians from the Law Library, the Medical School’s Library of the Health Sciences, and the Center for Rural Health; 2) interviewing skills with the Career Services Director (since part of their research assignment included interviewing experts on their paper topics), and 3) writing and editing skills with the Director of the UND Writing Center.  A student commented that the research training was “very helpful – reminds us of how many areas of research we have available to us and keeps class interesting, too.”  With respect to the interview training, one wrote that “I liked this a lot, not just for our interview assignments, but for future use.”  A student noted that the Writing Center training was “Very, very good.  I have used their services twice because I have trouble fleshing out all my thoughts on paper in a concise way.”

•    During the last several weeks of class, the students each gave 25 minute presentations (including Q&A) on their paper topics, which were videotaped.  I gave each of them a DVD of their presentations, which I asked them to watch before our individual meetings to discuss their draft papers.  They were required to come prepared to discuss at least one aspect that they had done well, as well as something that they would change.  Although some cringed at the prospect of seeing themselves on video, most expressed that the exercise was useful and was not as intimidating as they had initially thought it would be.

•    At several points throughout the semester, I distributed 3 x 5 cards and asked the students to complete a two-minute “quick-write” exercise, jotting down on one side of the card factors that would positively affect, and on the other side of the card factors that would negatively affect, a particular activity (such as working effectively in teams, managing emotions that could arise in conjunction with a health law practice, having difficult conversations on controversial issues, giving effective presentations, conducting interviews, developing successful legal careers, and getting what they want to out of law school).  We then discussed their responses with the entire class.  With respect to these exercises, a student commented that “They make me stop and think critically, which I often don’t do otherwise.”  Another wrote:  “Reflecting periodically is an effective tool for health law and hard conversations.  I think it’s important to do, and it surprisingly goes fast.”

Of course, in addition to reflecting upon aspects of the course that they liked, the students also provided insightful appraisals of components that could be improved in future years.  For example, one suggested that I provide more detailed feedback on the public comment exercise.  Another recommended that I emphasize in the prior week how emotionally challenging the exercise on the Advance Health Care Directive could be, discussing end-of-life issues.  A third advocated for inviting a speaker who practices health law to lead a discussion in class with the students.  Yet another suggested having the due dates on weekdays instead of weekends, noting that “I don’t have Internet at home, so I have to walk all the way to campus to turn in an assignment on Sunday.”  Several suggested that the reading materials and work-load be reduced or that the number of credit hours should be increased.  I appreciate their observations and will carefully consider all of their comments in preparing for my next Health Law seminar.

To conclude, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to my colleagues at the law school and to the university community for making my first year at the University of North Dakota so fulfilling, meaningful, and fun.  I look forward to continuing to learn from everyone here of ways in which I can improve my performance as a teacher, scholar, and fellow servant of the law school, university, community, and profession.

First Year Reflection

This post is the third in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Cheryl Hunter, Educational Foundations and Research, University of North Dakota

As a new faculty member here at UND I was honored when asked to contribute to the Teaching Tuesday Blog. My “assignment” was to reflect upon my first year of teaching. My initial thought was, “that was a long time ago.” In 1997 I walked into an elementary classroom and was terrified- thank goodness students were all around 3 ½  feet high and too excited to notice my nerves. My students today are a bit taller and some a bit less excited but I still get nervous those moments before class. Even though I might initially consider 1997 my “first year,” in all reality, every year since then has been filled with “first year of teaching” reflections.

Every new year, every new semester, even every new class session is a “first” for me. Let me explain. To me, teaching is fundamentally a process, a process always evolving and never mastered. Yes, the content while essential is in many ways static. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that there are not new concepts, applications, theories, and discoveries as new research and ideas emerge. However, teaching that content changes constantly, with each new session and with each new student. From the previous class session to the upcoming one, we enter the classroom in a different time and place with students who, while they may look remarkably the same (same pajama pants and flipflops or suit and tie as last time), have inevitable changed in some way over the course of the day or the week. We have all taken in new knowledge, theories, experiences that result in reflections and new thoughts. In many ways, we never see the same student twice. In fact, they are likely different upon leaving each class from when they entered. We may not ever even notice all the changes students make or growth they accomplish, we simply plant the seeds. Likewise, we are never the same teacher after we spend a day in the classroom, students have a profound effect upon us; this is not a one-way relationship and while I hope to impact my students I can guarantee they impact me.

So, if teaching is always an act of becoming, becoming a better teacher, then what have I learned? I guess I would say this year of “firsts” I have learned two things. First, never underestimate the complexity of the task. Second, students will forget what you say but never forget how you made them feel. Okay, I actually borrowed those sayings. The former comes from the Dalai Lama and the latter from Maya Angelou. However, they do summarize my year of “firsts” at UND.

Never underestimate the complexity of the task. Teaching is a great feat of planning, reading, thinking, reflecting, creating, … and that is just in the prep work! In the teaching act we have to engage, think on our feet, reflect in the moment, and bring forward storehouses of knowledge to share and explain to students. That is no small feat! But this year I tried not to recreate the wheel and finally realized that teaching does not have to be an act in isolation. We have great colleagues that have taught for years with stockpiles of wisdom and a wealth of resources to excite and inspire learners. I was so happy to learn about the Office of Instructional Development. Imagine, an entire office dedicated to the act of good planning, design, and teaching.

Teaching is part science; we know more and more about how students learn and can connect the brain and cognitive acts to good pedagogy. Teaching is also part art; we know that there is beauty in good teaching and harmony when those teachable moments arise and we feel the learning in action. However, both the science and art of teaching takes time, practice, skill, and commitment to the craft but not necessarily in isolation. I would love to see more team-taught interdisciplinary courses because not only do students benefit from the multiplicity of experiences and expertise but faculty benefit from collaborating in the act of teaching. I learn more about my teaching when I collaborate than when I enter the classroom alone. So, never underestimate the complexity of the task but don’t go it alone.

This leads me to my second point, as teachers we have the potential to imprint upon the human mind and spirit. It was John Steinbeck that captured the essence of teaching as an art and the medium as the human mind and spirit. “A great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit (John Steinbeck).  However, Maya Angelou reminds us “that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I believe there is another element beyond the content that we teach and the methods we employ. I can deliver the most amazing engaging class session ripe in content with the most recent research but if I fail to see where they are lost or when they disconnect then what have I accomplished for that student?

I was recently in a conference presentation when a discussant failed to offer constructive feedback and preferred to demean a presenter. While not a class, the situation was unfortunate because the opportunity for open and productive dialogue was closed. As an audience member I felt uncomfortable. I was not uncomfortable for the presenter because she was actually correct in her assertion. I was also not uncomfortable for the discussant in that his assertion was accurate but misapplied. I was uncomfortable in the situation because the energy was one of negativity, of an unnecessary assertion of power, and clearly changed the tone of the room.

As the professor, class facilitator, we perform a role that necessitates us to work toward honoring all perspectives of students, even those with fundamentally different beliefs and work toward building a classroom model that honors both the mind and spirit of the student by outwardly accepting difference, protecting against intolerance toward that difference, and moving toward constructive dialogue. What we say is important. What we do in class is important. But how we make that student feel while he or she is in our class may be the biggest take-away lesson of them all.

‘Just Tell us the Answer’ – Finding New Objectives for a Large Enrollment Introductory Course

This post is the second in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Brian Darby, Department of Biology, University of North Dakota

My first year experience was learning how to manage effectively a large enrollment introductory lecture course of around 150 students, many of which are taking their second or third course in the major. The logistics of managing such a course are challenging, but I found more than enough support through CILT, OID, and the Alice T. Clark program to help make the lecture environment a worthwhile and meaningful experience for the students. I’m certainly no expert yet, and I expect that my skills will continue to improve over the next couple of years. Even more difficult than class management was figuring out the learning objective of the course. How far up on Bloom’s taxonomy do they need to be at the end of the course? How do I balance time spent on clarifying the basic terms and concepts with time spent on active learning activities? I suspect that as I gain experience I will continue to learn how to best maintain this balance and will likely find out that the two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

But I think that the most instructive lesson that I learned over the last semester came during one of my first lectures. I was excited to find a published research paper that made the popular press and even integrated several of the concepts of genetics, evolution, and selection that were being covered in the class. Not only did it use much of the exact same terminology, equations, and notation, but it also demonstrated that what they’re learning is actively being researched in the scientific community and being applied to real-world examples! I described the main parts of the paper to the class and asked a few basic questions that tested their comprehension and recognition of course concepts. They did well. I ended with one final question that was a bit more challenging and required a level of critical thinking that I’m sure some, but not all, in the class were capable of, so I thought I’d give it a try anyhow. I gave them a moment to think about it, and even brainstorm with a neighbor or two. Ultimately, though, the class was silent, until one student in the front said “Just tell us the answer”

“No!” my inner monologue wanted to shout. “Just tell us the answer” should not be an acceptable sentiment among science majors, or any college student, but I fear it is, and I think I have a better understanding of one the course learning objectives. As much as other faculty depend on me to teach the basic concepts, terminology, and technical skills required for the upper-level courses they will take in the department (in my case, Biology), I’ve learned that it is also partly my responsibility to convey the understanding that they are now responsible for their own knowledge acquisition and that answers may not always simply be handed down to them. My students who will become a forensic technician, or a game warden, or an emergency room doctor won’t necessarily be able to ask their employer “just tell me the answer”. I assume this is true for your respective fields as well. My goal for the upcoming years is to use the introductory courses that I teach as an opportunity to instill the sense of excitement and ambition that would make a student eager to pursue their own answers.

Attention all UND SurveyMonkey Users: Now is the Time to Convert to Qualtrics

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Earth System Science & Policy

I have been a long-time user of SurveyMonkey. It has been a helpful tool for my research and also for gathering anonymous course feedback from students; I find it more helpful when I can ask course specific questions rather than just what the University collects in the end-of-semester USAT surveys. But, like many, I have found that the subscription cost of SurveyMonkey is now a burden I can no longer afford. Last semester I had heard that the University was considering purchasing a survey software program, but I was skeptical that any other program would be as useful and convenient as SurveyMonkey. But when I received the CILT flyer announcing a workshop titled “Stop Monkeying Around with Surveys and Check Out Qualtrics,” I realized I should at least see what it had to offer because it may soon be my only available option.

I have to admit that half-way through the workshop demonstration, I was converted. You can view the presentation for yourself on the CILT website here: http://und.edu/academics/cilt/qualtrics.cfm. Many UND people have been involved in ‘test-driving’ Qualtrics and they found it professional and so useful that UND was convinced to purchase a University-wide license; so anyone with a UND login/password can now utilize it. From the workshop presentation, the Qualtrics program appears to be user-friendly, especially if you are comfortable with SurveyMonkey. Qualtrics has many of the same features as SurveyMonkey, so don’t worry that you might lose some features. In fact, based on the one hour CILT workshop, I would say Qualtrics probably has more options available for tailoring a survey to meet specific interests; for example, I could embed a video clip (from YouTube or elsewhere) directly into a survey so that respondents watch it and then answer questions on the same page.

I was also impressed that students will be allowed to utilize Qualtrics as well, which could be developed into interesting research assignments; for example, it would allow faculty to help students learn how to design a survey for a class project. Plus, with the University wide license, I have the convenience I value, I will be able to continue gathering anonymous course feedback from students, and will not have to worry about out-of-pocket subscription fees. There is the additional bonus of CILT support and training workshops on campus, which you can sign up for here: http://und.edu/academics/cilt/workshops/workshops.cfm. Or you can just jump straight into exploring Qualtrics for yourself by using your UND login and password here: https://und.qualtrics.com. Despite having been comfortable as a user of SurveyMonkey, I see great potential in making this transition to Qualtrics; I would encourage others to take advantage of this program.

The Last Day to Withdraw from a Course

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

At the University of North Dakota, Thursday, April 5th, marks the last day of the Spring semester that students can withdraw from a full semester course. This date has vexed me for several weeks. It is not because this is a sign that the semester is coming to a close, but because it causes me to think about my educational responsibilities toward a specific set of my students. Like many faculty who teach introductory level courses at the university, I am surprised that some students are still enrolled in my courses because I have not seen them. In my 100-level course, this semester, I have a small number of students who have not attended class in over six weeks; these students also have not completed major assignments for the course (such as an exam or major writing assignment). When I look at the grades these students have earned throughout the semester, many of them no longer have the ability to complete the course with a passing grade. This has caused me to worry that these students might have forgotten they are enrolled in the course.

These factors have got me thinking about whether instructors have an educational responsibility to these students. Do instructors have an educational responsibility to contact students who cannot pass a course, do to their own negligence, to remind them of the deadline and encourage them to withdraw from the course?

Several faculty who I have discussed this issue with have given strong arguments against this responsibility. The argument that is presented tends to follow the same trajectory. Students bear responsibility for being an equal partner in their educational success. If a student fails to meet the most minimal level of their responsibilities, such as not attending a class in over a month, not completing their work, and not seeking instructor’s guidance, then those students have relinquished their claim to instructor advice on this issue (including a reminder that they are enrolled in a class that they have not been attending. A second argument has also been given that focuses on paternalism. This argument claims that this type of reminder and encouragement would be a form of unwarranted paternalism. The students in our classes are adults, who may have different values and goals than the instructor. Attempting to intervene in this type of student decision would deny the students’ autonomy to determine their own educational path.

I am sympathetic to these concerns, but they do not necessarily convince me. The first argument hinges on the idea that there is a minimal threshold of student activity that must be surpassed in order for the instructor to have an educational responsibility towards them. This seems mistaken to me. Instructors have a responsibility to any student enrolled in the course. Fundamentally, instructors have a responsibility to provide each student with the tools, resources, instruction, and aid that the student needs to reach their own standard of academic success. If we accept that some students would not define failing a course as any level of educational success, then an instructor has the responsibility to provide the tools and resources necessary for the students to make informed decisions about whether to stay in a course or not. This seems no different from the responsibility an instructor has to make sure that a student has the necessary prerequisite course work to enroll in a class. If a student cannot be reasonably expected to be successful in a course, the instructor ought to inform the student of this, whether that occurs before enrollment or before the deadline for withdrawal.

The second argument hinges on student autonomy in their educational decisions. However, true autonomy relies on both an understanding of the student’s educational goals and an understanding of the relevant information in how to accomplish those goals. If an instructor is, as I am, concerned that some students on the course roster might not remember they are enrolled in a course (or if the student might have believed they withdrew from the course earlier), then filling in this information gap encourages, not discourages student independence and autonomy. If a student is informed of the relevant deadlines and the fact they are registered for a course, and they still choose to stay enrolled, then that is their choice. However, an instructor does have an educational responsibility to provide this basic information to students.

As such, I feel that it is an educational responsibility to take responsible steps to inform students of this deadline directly. A statement on the syllabus and an announcement in class are not enough for me. A reasonable step, to me, seems to be a blanket email to all of my enrolled students reminding them of their enrollment in my courses and this withdrawal deadline.

The Future of Term Papers

Once the staple of academic assessment, the term paper is now being challenged as an ineffective and harmful to student progress. Does the term paper still an important tool in higher education? This topic was recently brought up in a the New York Times by a Duke professor that argued that the term paper should be replaces by the blog as a teaching and assessment tool. It was also highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education as being potentially anachronistic. Over the next several weeks, Teaching Thursday will be exploring a wide variety of perspectives on term papers and blogs.

Bill Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Since the 19th century, the term paper has stood as a central component of the professional training of historians. Inseparable from the seminar system developed by the first professional historians in Germany, the term paper represented the standard delivery method for new historical knowledge. Grounded in primary sources and situated in relation to secondary literature, the term paper encapsulated the professional standard of the discipline and formed a first step in training students to produce theses, dissertation, scholarly articles, and eventually monographs. Along the way, historians have argued that term papers introduce students to a number of transferable skills from clear writing and organization to research skills, precise argumentation, and respect for the work of others.

The digital revolution and the changing landscape of higher education have begun to challenge the value of traditional terms papers with their roots in professional, vocational training of historians.  In my classes, I am shifting to shorter (<1500 word), more structured and focused assignments that have less room for creativity, but also owe less to traditional models for professional training.  I suspect that these shorter more focused assignments have more obvious applications in a wide range of setting (such as web writing, memo writing, and other professional, non-academic areas of work). I am also starting to include more “public” types of writing into my class with students having to prepare discussion posts – for example – that can be read by their fellow students. This not only adds a level of peer pressure to the assignment, but also creates an immediate and easily recognizable audience for their work.  Finally, I am beginning to toy with more collective writing assignments that would leverage resources like the Scale-up classroom (where students work in teams linked digitally) or using Wiki type interfaces that allow students to produce synthetic works but still get recognized for their contributions to the final product. These kinds of corporate, public, and focused writing assignments mark a serious departure from the traditional practices of term paper writing and the goals of those assignment.

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

One of the subtle arguments forwarded in the debate over the future of term papers focuses on the disconnect between the term paper as a formal assessment tool and long-term, job-related skills. Several writers have argued that the term paper does not correspond with the main skills that are applicable to the modern workforce or modern citizen engagement. These authors tend to highlight alternative assignment and assessment tools that have a more direct relationship to non-academic activities. Coupled with this criticism is a corresponding argument that the term paper is an assignment with no clear audience and assignments like blogs avoid this by having a more immediate and intimate audience.

I think that this set of criticisms is a red herring argument that misses the role of the term paper in two ways. First, in many ways all of the assignments and assessment tools used in higher education have limited connections to non-academic life skills. Most formal examinations and quizzes have limited connections to the non-academic life; on the job or at home, it is rare that we will every encounter a fill in the bubble form or have to do a term-matching exercise, under time constraints, for our supervisors. Students are unlikely to be in moderated large or small group discussions on the theoretical concepts in an academic article. Even the blog is not directly applicable to non-academic life, since instructors put significant constraints on topic, structure, tone, and style. Personal blogs and interest-based blogs, in non-academic life, do not have the constraints. Equally important, the issues that authors of personal blogs and interest-based blogs have to deal with (like flaming, trolling, anonymous posting, etc) tend to be structured out of academic blog postings. I am certain that many people will be able to find examples from non-academic life that provide counter-examples to my individual points above, but it is my contention that in general there is a disconnect between most academic assignments and non-academic life. The term paper seems different in some ways, but this seems to be more of a problem for all assignments rather than just the term paper.

The second way that I think that this argument is a red herring is that it underestimates the relationship between the term paper and non-academic life. It is a mistake to think that the term paper is an audience-less form of writing. The term paper has a specific audience, even though it is an audience of one: the instructor. However, much of the writing that is done in non-academic life is written for an audience of one. Reports, performance reviews, letters, policy prescriptions, white papers, policy memos, etc. all have a very narrow audience size (often only an audience of one). The fact that different disciplines and different instructors have different expectations and requirements for term papers strengthens the skills taught by term papers. These differences demand that students learn how to address an audience of one and how to be adaptable in their presentation of ideas. However, these varied term papers help students develop: the skills of research, a deep understanding of a new topic in a short period of time, the ability to use evidence to make claims, and the ability to reach reasoned conclusions based on this research. The term paper probably should not be the only assessment tool we use, but that does not mean that the term paper is a relic of the past that should be abandoned as outdated.