Posted by Melissa on June 27, 2011
In the past few months, I have been involved in several conversations where someone mentioned that a particular faculty member or administrator was or was not an alum of a small liberal arts college (SLAC) in a manner that seemed to suggest their status as a former student of a SLAC (or not) clearly explained why the individual took the particular action or made the particular decision being discussed. (Generally the tone of the discussions has been that “good” decisions/actions are attributed to someone having attended a SLAC and “bad” decisions/actions are attributed to someone not having attended a SLAC.) I’ve heard this type of conversation before, and every time I hear it, it bothers me. Institutions are enriched by the diversity of experiences that faculty and staff bring, and the experience of having been a student at a liberal arts college does not by default make an individual a more valuable or wiser member of the community.
I am an alum of one small liberal arts college teaching at another small liberal arts college. I value the sense of community that exists at this type of institution, and I am committed to the liberal arts mission and undergraduate student-centered nature of these colleges. That being said, I feel strongly that having been a student at a SLAC does not make me a better fit as a faculty member than someone who went to a large research university. Despite my supposed familiarity with the SLAC environment, it took me several years of being at Carleton before I felt comfortable, and I still have occassional moments of feeling like an outsider. After all, each SLAC has its own character, traditions, and mores. Assuming that one can transfer a knowledge of the values and norms of one SLAC to a different SLAC is arrogant. Additionally, the institutional perspective one has varies depending on position. My interaction with the college and the college community as a student was very different than my interaction with the college and the college community as a faculty member. Perhaps if I had been involved with student government, serving on college committees, I would have gotten a sense of how the college ran, the behind-the-scenes politics, and the competing demands. As it was, my significant involvement with my alma mater came through residence life, where I was first an elected (unpaid) house president and then an appointed (paid) head resident. Through these roles, I got to see the nitty-gritty of how residential life worked at one college, but that realm intersects little with the current realm I inhabit as a faculty member.
I’d be interested to hear others’ perspectives. If you are a faculty member, do you often call upon your experience at your undergraduate institution as you navigate your current institution as a faculty member?
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Posted by Melissa on June 1, 2011
I’m elbow deep in lab write-ups and lab notebooks to grade, which means it is the perfect time to procrastinate by blogging. This term I’m teaching labs both for our sophomore level E&M class and our junior/senior level advanced lab class, so I’ve been reading LOTS of lab notebooks and lab reports. The AAPT’s advanced-lab listserve last month had a discussion about writing lab reports and, in particular, what is an appropriate amount of time to ask students to spend on lab reports. The question of how much and what type of writing is appropriate comes up again and again if you talk to those of us who regularly teach intermediate and advanced lab classes. I’ve blogged before about alternatives to traditional lab write-ups and also about the difficulty of getting students to keep good lab notebooks.
The good news is that I observe huge improvements in the depth and quality of the lab reports between the sophomore and the junior year. Seeing the development is a helpful reminder that writing skills improve with practice over the course of a four year education. A single course cannot be solely responsible for making students better communicators. I’ve often wondered why the expectation for writing journal style reports is always left to the experimental courses. After all, theorists write papers just as often as experimentalists so why not ask students to write up a proof or a simulation that they complete for a non-laboratory course? More practice can only make students better writers.
The May 20th issue of Science had a thought-provoking article by Cary Moskovitz and David Kellogg on writing in laboratory courses. The article brings up a number of good points about the artificiality of writing assignments in laboratory courses ranging from the lack of an appropriate audience to the misalignment of writing assignments with level of student preparation. I agree with many of the criticisms that the authors direct at traditional writing assignments for laboratory classes, but I also think they fall into the trap of expecting that all of the substantive writing in the science curriculum must be affiliated with the laboratory portion of a course. The authors suggest paring down writing assignments to targeted activities that are aimed at developing skill sets as needed throughout the curriculum: “Students can concentrate on a limited number of skills that are essential for writing science but rarely the subject of instruction: how to decide which data to present; how to use graphs, tables, and other visual displays effectively; and how to discuss those graphic supports in accompanying prose.” While these skills are important, they are not the exclusive domain of the laboratory. Improving student writing should be addressed by infusing writing throughout the physics curriculum, not by relying on a few courses to teach key writing skills.
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