Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Bridge

Casey WelchCasey Welch

Department of Sociology & Anthropology

Though overwhelmed, as most of us are, with myriad demands, I am honored that Dan Richard invited me, a sociologist housed beneath psychology's lofty third-floor offices, to participate in this new pedagogical project he has set up.

Teaching is both a profound endeavor and a mundane task. The profundity bubbles up from what Adam Carle and Rakita Gordon both describe as the pursuit for knowledge. This involves the search for truth, the subjugation of truth to hermeneutics, the recognition of our sub-rational ontology, and on and on into the boundless universe of ideas both sagacious and loopy. Education, of course, is not exclusively a Socratic search for knowledge. We are enveloped in a bureaucratic and mechanistic educational system that has schedules, specified subjects to teach, boundaries between departments, accreditation requirements, attendance, exams, academic discipline, and students with varying needs, demands, desires, and abilities. It is also a system that issues certifications or degrees that will get students better paying jobs. Because of these two often competing aspects of education, we find ourselves pursuing the high-brow aesthetics of knowledge while turning the knobs of the low-brow machine. And this is why Jules Henry, in his book Culture Against Man, describes modern education as simultaneously "fettering and freeing the human mind."

This split in our academic reality can be managed with thoughtful pedagogical philosophy. Indeed, I believe this is one of those areas where philosophy really does matter because it will guide us in disentangling the mess of reality and rearranging into a productive operation. In the contemporary pedagogical zeitgeist, one of the eminent concepts is student outcomes. Active learning is no longer measured solely by nifty course designs. On this issue I am aligned with popular discourse. To wit, taking into account, even measuring, student outcomes is an appropriate consideration in teaching philosophies.

In light of this popular and personal shift in pedagogy, I have been involved in several new course designs, including panel presentations, meeting with small groups of students to discuss their work, assigning students to structured study pairs and having them take the exams together, and bridging two courses in different departments. I would like to spend a moment describing the last course design, which John Davies and I call the Bridge Design.

When John, who is in Communications, and I began this project, we realized that his media course came from a psychological angle, and mine more from a sociological angle. Our first thought, then, was that the students from both classes would benefit from learning the information from the other class. That's the side of knowledge. We wanted to facilitate the exploration of endless ideas.

We also wanted to make the courses more interesting for students and more fruitful for them. With that in mind, and with a some preliminary research, we felt our courses would benefit from more student-to-student interaction. In other words, we wanted to improve student outcomes. We wanted students to enjoy the course, get personal attention, and improve their grades. This is taking into account the mechanistic reality of bureaucratic education--how to make a 75 minute chunk of time interesting and useful--and the student issues of varied learning skills and the desire for good grades.

Our third philosophical goal was that we wanted to be able to monitor both the delivery of knowledge and the impact on students. We wanted our courses to allow for more formative assessment.

Our new student-centered course design emerged out of an intricate collaborative faculty effort. The Bridge design allows students from two courses to teach students in their partner class. Students from one class, the summary class, read an assigned seminal article, discuss it with their professor, and then type a summary and critique of the article, which is posted on Blackboard for all students in both classes to access. These summaries become the teaching tools for their classmates: all students from both classes read and discuss them. Later, a panel of students from the second class, the panel class, presents to the summary class concepts they have learned in their own class that extend or otherwise critique the article. This course design allows for dialogue-based, active learning that crosses departmental boundaries and affords professors a formative assessment tool. Preliminary qualitative data indicates strong positive student outcomes.

Clearly this design has a variety of pedagogical philosophies under girding it--active learning; student-centered learning; dialogue-based education; student-teacher interaction; faculty collaboration; and formative assessment.

Philosophies alone, however, are not entirely adequate. We cannot assume outcomes are an automatic function of intentions. Our next step is to measure the impact on students. We are currently analyzing quantitative data that measures academic performance, student attitudes, and student collaborative behaviors.

When we finish coding the data and crunching the numbers, I hope to update you on the statistical measures of student outcomes.

For the time being, you can link to our first article, which describes the course design and qualitative findings.

Thanks for your interest,
Casey Welch

Friday, February 22, 2008

Just an Anthropologist

Gordon RakitaGordon Rakita
Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Hello! My name is Gordon Rakita. I’m an Assistant Professor of Anthropology here at UNF. While I like to think of myself as a scientist like Adam, as an Anthropologists, I’m also aware of multiple ways of understanding a given phenomena. As I tell my students, one of the wonderful things about the discipline of Anthropology is that we can use a range of epistemological standards including the sciences (both the ahistorical and historical ones), social sciences, and the humanities. Anthropologists study human culture and biology in all its global diversity. That seems like a pretty tall order, and it is. I joke with colleagues that Anthropology is the real central discipline in the College of Arts and Sciences and that all other disciplines are just derivative. (We know this isn’t true, but it does make us feel good.)

I was trained as an Anthropologist. I spent nearly a dozen years as an undergraduate and graduate student learning the empirical, methodological, and theoretical aspects of the discipline. But in all that time, not once did I take a course in education. I was never encouraged to consider what being an academic at a primarily teaching institution would be like. I wasn’t encouraged to do anything to prepare myself for teaching courses. Sure I taught some courses as a graduate student; but in my program these opportunities amounted to being thrown to the wolves.

So when I first came to UNF, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the best ways to teach. Luckily, UNF has a wonderful venue for faculty to explore this aspect of their careers…the Office of Faculty Enhancement. (The OFE does much more than just help faculty with teaching, but we’ll save that for another post.) In the past five years, I’ve had the pleasure to be involved with the OFE in a variety of ways; as a faculty seeking advice and consultation on teaching and learning, as an OFE Faculty Fellow, receiving a Transformational Learning grant, presenting and participating in OFE workshops, and most recently as the chair of the Faculty Enhancement Committee.

Through my involvement in OFE, I’ve learned a small bit about good teaching practices. But I really feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. And I’m still struggling a great deal with my role as both a scholar and a teacher. Here at UNF, faculty are expected to be excellent in both endeavors. This is a tall order. But I believe there is the potential for synergy between the two. That good teaching can enhance your research and top quality research can positively impact your teaching.

Anyway, I very much look forward to reading the posts of the other bloggers and your comments on our posts.



Saturday, February 16, 2008

Science in Mind

Adam CarleAdam Carle

Department of Psychology

Do you know how your mind works? Have you ever stopped and wondered how you learn? As a Psychological Scientist, I ponder these types of questions regularly. I wonder how the brain works. I marvel at the human animal’s capability to gaze at the world and learn from it. I am continually amazed by peoples’ ability to understand the world, however limited. And, despite years of studying the subject, I remain fundamentally awed that we can sit in classrooms, read books, observe others and learn.

What does all this have to do with an Office of Faculty Enhancement blog? And, for Pete’s sake, what does this have to do with life as a faculty member at the University of North Florida? Good questions! In the coming weeks, I hope to show you. I expect to share a few of the things I’ve discovered in my pursuits and reveal why I adopt a Scientific approach in all of my professional activities, from my research, to my classroom, to my service. Yes, even my service.

Quite simply, as a Scientist and professor, I want to best understand how the mind works so that I can most effectively teach. I seek to engage the best practices in my research so that I can correctly understand the nature of the world, including human behavior, thought, and emotion. I want to accurately understand how people tend to work in groups so that I can efficaciously communicate with my peers. I feel that a Scientific approach allows me the single best method to do this. It lets me peer at myself, uncover my own weaknesses and failings, and utilize Scientific findings to correct them. In the end, this lets me give the most to my students and colleagues.

If you read that and thought, “sounds like a heavy weight to place on the shoulders of Science and research,” I suspect you remember Science as a field that forced you to memorize boring facts. Few Scientists would describe Science as memorization and most would portray it as a process of exciting and rigorous inquiry (Pinker, 2007). Please join me in the next few weeks as I travel the roads of research and Science and their relation to the classroom and learning. In the meantime, I’d love for you to share of your thoughts. Where do you turn when you consider altering your life? What sources do you consult when you make changes in classroom? And, importantly, how do you evaluate the effectiveness of those modifications? How do you know what you adjusted made or failed to make a difference?

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Dan RichardDan Richard

Office of Faculty Enhancement

Welcome to the UNF Faculty Enhancement Blog. Faculty from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and interests will post items that relate to being a faculty member at UNF. Please stop by and feel free to comment. You can subscribe to this blog and receive posts in your inbox or RSS reader as they are created. If you have any questions or other issues, please feel free to contact me: