Monday, February 27, 2012


Just some leadership videos I wanted to have somewhere I could get to easily. The last one is just funny more than anything, but the first three have some important principles behind them, although it's far from a comprehensive list.

What are your favorite video clips for teaching leadership?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Syllabus Crap Detector

As I've been working recently on designing several courses, I've found some weird stuff, as usual. Part of our process is to review syllabi of similar courses being taught at other universities. We perform somewhat of the equivalent of a literature review to determine what is being taught and how, in order to determine what minimum standards need to be covered and where there may be places that we can make our programs better by filling in the holes missed by others.

The following are a few quotes that I have found interesting for various reasons:
  • Regular attendance is rewarded because you will be exposed to what I think you need to know.
  • When I talk, be quiet.
  • Put newspapers away 20 seconds before class starts.
  • I will clear the memory of all programmable calculators before each test.
  • Get yourself a notebook or 3-ring binder, and start a journal to record your impressions/analysis about what you’re learning from your journalism reading. (in a class with large blogging, twitter, and social media components)

I found a particular faculty member, though, whose syllabus really takes the cake. Looking up his profile on ratemyprofessors, student comments seemed to confirm what I observed: unorganized, hard to follow, illogical, makes no sense whatsoever, don't expect straight answers to your questions, writes smart remarks back to the students, and gets off subject very easily. He seems to be the opposite extreme of the faculty who wrote the first four statements in the list above. He may be friends with the person who wrote the inconsistent final statement above.

So what is so illogical or hard to follow? Let's go to the syllabus (which happens to be in comic sans of all things), shall we?

The course has a subtitle of How to build your "Crap Detector" which is only referred to in one other place in the syllabus. I was hoping the other reference would help in understanding what he's talking about. You can probably guess that it doesn't. One of the learning objectives of the course is to "provide personally and socially meaningful responses to what Roland Barthes once called the 'question par excellence': 'Why the world? what is the meaning of things?' (e.g., design and use an effective 'crap detector')". So I looked up Barthes and found that he was a French literary theorist. Good enough, but what of this question par excellence?

I looked that up also. In talking about the difference between the technical and artisanal functions of writers and authors, Barthes discusses a paradox that occurs. "And the miracle, so to speak, is that this narcissistic activity has always provoked an interrogation of the world: by enclosing himself in the how to write, the author ultimately discovers the open question par excellence: why the world? What is the meaning of things? In short, it is precisely when the author's work becomes its own end that it regains a mediating character; the author conceives of literature as an end, the world restores it to him as a means; and it is in this perpetual inconclusiveness that the author rediscovers the world, an alien world moreover, since literature represents it as a question-never, finally, as an answer."

It's pretty deep stuff. Mull it over. Ponder. Enlighten yourself as you discover the hidden meaning of Barthes' paradox. Apply it to your own life and career. Then come back to the question at hand, and ask yourself what this has to do with a crap detector. I'm still not totally sure what a crap detector is, but if I had one, it would be going off right now, and we've got a ways to go.

In terms of inconsistency, in one area of the syllabus regarding how grades are earned, it states that you can receive an F for class abandonment, which in a different part of the syllabus he explains means more than 3 absences. In yet a third location in the syllabus talking about attendance, he seemingly confirms that excessive absences may result in unsuccessful course completion but then immediately proceeds to state that more than 3 absences will result in a reduction of one full letter grade. His syllabus also states that students may fail if they do not demonstrate mastery of writing and numeracy skills. He may fail his own class given his apparent lack of ability to think and express himself effectively in quantitative terms.

According to the syllabus, a student can be considered cheating by communicating in any way with another member of the class. This sounds like something the faculty who wrote the first four statements above might want to adopt in their classes.

There's more, but I'll end with this professor's teaching philosophy from the department's website:

I love mental spelunking. Each semester I get to take students through a dark cave of stalactite and stalagmite ideas, pointing the light at the ceiling-stuck cat or a three-legged donkey. “Over there,” I yell, turning the light in another direction. “Can you see it? Can you see it? . . . the NAKED CHICKEN, caught mid-stride in the next room?” With furrowed brows and searching eyes, students squint at the dark shadows, searching for even a hint of beak or comb. “Where? Where?” they ask. Then at last . . . “I see it! I see it!” one cries.

Then here is the really best part. She takes the light herself and points it far into the cave. “Can you see the lovely apple tree? Don’t you just love apples?” she says. My eyes follow the light, and there it is, right where it has always been, apples and all. But I SEE IT for the first time.

“Is that the tree of knowledge?” one asks. And, “was that the naked chicken of wisdom?” chimes another. “A look under the feathers.”

Then we all laugh together at our possibilities till our joyful tears form new mystery-shapes of our own on the floor, someday to be discovered . . . and I am once again blessed.

I have to say that as strange as it is, the more I read the teaching philosphy, the more I actually like it. I'm not so sure about the naked chicken; I believe the idea is a sound one, even if execution is lacking.

The extremes of the first few items in the list at the beginning of this post and of the who-knows-what-you're-going-to-get class by the naked chicken of wisdom both need to be tempered. If we bring the two components of structure and creativity together, we might come up with this college composition course based on The Simpsons. Now that's a syllabus!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


All universities have course codes and course names. Most course codes follow a pretty similar pattern, with 3-4 letters signifying the department and 3-4 numbers that mean various things, including the level of the course.

At USU when they switched to the semester system back in 1998, they changed from 3 digits to 4 digits to distinguish between the quarter system and semester system courses. I've never done the math on it but always wondered how much it has actually costed over time to have all the extra zeros they added to the end of every course code. At the time, they still printed course catalogs. I don't know if they even do that anymore. Whether it's incremental ink or digital storage space, it's probably not much more than several tens of thousands of zeroes, which would be a few hundred printed pages or several megabytes spread over more than a decade. I'm sure that by far it cost more to make the switch than it has been to deal with the extra zeroes. The nice thing is that recently they started allowing departments to use the extra number as something other than zero, so you could have a lab just differ from the corresponding course by the last number, for example.

At WGU, the codes are quite different, but they have realized that their numbering system needs to change. They are currently 3 letters followed by 1 number. It used to be that the first two letters were something to do with the name of the course (like basic math started with QL for quantitative literacy). The third letter was a code stating what type of assessment the course used, whether project-based or objective, and the number was supposed to tell if the course was undergraduate or graduate.

Every time something major happened to a course, the code had to change, so you can see that they're going to run out of codes quite quickly. In the mean time, you get some funny things here and there with the nearly random course codes that are generated since the ones that made sense have been all used up. For example, a course I'm about to start teaching contains the initials of my boss who has been teaching that course. I might ask that they change the course to my initials if I didn't know they were already planning the renumbering anyway.

One course that's always been funny to me is AZC1. It's not like ROTF funny, just an interesting coincidence. The course name is U.S. Constitution, Law, and Citizenship. The way I always read it in my mind is Arizona Constitution, with the irony coming into play with some of the issues they are dealing with in terms of the citizenship or lack thereof of many of their residents. Without getting into the politics or what should actually be done to solve their problems, their situation has at least served as a useful mnemonic device as I try to remember hoards of less than meaningful course codes that seemingly everyone else has memorized. At least we'll all be on the same level when the codes change, and we all have to memorize them anew.

photo by pagedesign

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

IPv6: The Day the Routers Died

I don't know if the mainstream media is ignoring this problem hoping it will go away, not aware of it, or perhaps the network techs have us prepared and don't want another "overreaction" like Y2K, but I still don't hear a lot about IPv6.

If you're not familiar with the problem, think about what happens when a state or city runs out of phone numbers and has to add a new area code. But what happens when we run out of area codes? Or what will happen when we run out of Social Security Numbers?

We have been talking about it for awhile.

There's this video from 4 or 5 years ago (long but funny).

And this video from just a couple years ago (long, not so funny, but informative).

It goes back further than that, but suffice it to say it's not taking anybody by surprise. It's now been a year since all the IPv4 address blocks ran out (No more IPv4 addresses, Internet Runs Out Of IP Addresses), although it will be awhile before individual addresses are all completely allocated. There are plenty of techniques to run multiple devices behind one IP address, and there may be some ways to recover some previously unused or unusable addresses. These workaround can cause as many problems as making the IPv6 jump might make, so it makes sense to get moving. As Randy Bush explains in the second video, those people and companies who get it figured out now will be leaps and bounds ahead of those who wait until crunch time.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Intermediate Writing

English. Sigh. Where do I start with this one? I'm going to just throw it out there. This was a terrible class. Yes, it's English, so it was probably doomed to begin with, but of all the bad English classes I've taken, this was the worst one. My junior year of high school I had an awesome teacher, but other than that, I've had little success in that department. As much as I enjoy reading and writing, you'd think I would enjoy the subject, but I've learned more about writing from my business communication course and from Marion Jensen's blog than any English class.

I was able to skip English 1010, which is more of a creative writing course, because of my AP English and ACT scores. English 2010 is research and/or persuasive writing, and there isn't a way of getting out of it. Since there is no way out of the course and since writing is a fundamental skill, it is often a prerequisite for many other courses, and there are always hundreds of students each semester trying to get in the course.

Part of the problem of this course is that it is taught by 20-30 grad students each semester. With that many grad students teaching the course, every section is wildly different from all the others. It is a hallmark of a teacher-centered education system where the biggest influence of how a course is taught is who is teaching. If our education system was more student-centered, it would be student needs rather than instructor preferences that drive learning, but that is a completely different conversation.

I admit that a big problem in this course was that it was at 7:30 a.m. I took it at that time, because I wanted to fit all my courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I could work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Unfortunately, that meant that I often was a few minutes late from just rolling out of bed. Unfortunately, that meant that I often missed the first couple questions on the teacher's quizzes that he started each class with. He always had extra credit questions, but they were random, obscure things that nobody in the class knew the answers to. But who starts every class with a verbal quiz anyway?

Beyond learning the few random extra credit facts during the be-on-time quizzes, there was really just little point to the class. The thing we really could have spent a good chunk of time on was actually doing real research. Instead, we did a little half-hearted fake research. I asserted in my final paper that the university should convert the large free parking area by the stadium to a paid parking area, which is something they were considering at the time, with the stipulation that rates stay minimal. Of course, they did implement the fee, and they have more than doubled since then. What I was thinking is that the parking lots for students who lived on campus and paid a lot of money for were falling apart, and it didn't make sense to let off campus students park for free while charging residents for a ripped up lot. A decade later, they finally saved up enough money to refinish the resident parking lots, so my recommendations kind of worked.

A big problem they have with the lower level English courses is that with grad students as the instructors, student ratings of instructor performance are part of the evaluation criteria used to determine who to let continue teaching. So even if they come up with a standard curriculum, grad students who want to keep their job will do everything they can to keep students happy (aka water down the course) to get good evaluations. Except not the dude I took the class from, apparently. Seriously, why did I get that one guy?

There is a reason that the business communication course had to add a grammar test as a prerequisite. English was supposed to be the prerequisite to ensure students would be able to write. It doesn't ensure anything.

What I would recommend is a class based on Wikipedia and blogging. Students would still do research papers on whatever topics they choose, but they would be opened to the world for review. If you can make substantial additions to a new or existing Wikipedia article and participate in the collaborative effort to bring those contributions to the level that they are accepted by the community, you've demonstrated an important skill and contributed to the community. The same goes for blogging. The important difference is that Wikipedia has a specific style that the community enforces, where a blog takes on the preferred style of its author (along with a few commonly accepted blogger protocols).

Don't waste all this half-hearted research effort that neither teaches students to write nor to research. Step it up into full-on research efforts that are vetted by and contribute to the internet community. Forget banning Wikipedia as a research source; make them write Wikipedia articles!