06 February 2015

Learnig Curves

As the semester progresses, the weaker spots in my teaching and in student comprehensive become visible. The class discussion this morning revealed the steepness of our learning curves. While I have come to a comfortable acceptance of the discomfort associated with learning curves, students tend to fear those curves as possible barriers to getting good grades. This creates an interesting tension.

I have a teaching philosophy which has only become stronger over the years, particularly as it relates to doctoral student education. The philosophy centers on challenging ourselves to think about things (phenomena, problems, solutions, theories) from different perspectives and using different lens for the purpose of finding new questions and alternative ways to frame the problems we wish to solve. In challenging ourselves to become more conceptually nibble, uncertainty enters the picture. Learning to  live with uncertainty includes not having a handy, bubble sheet "right" answer. My responsibility as a teacher includes fostering independent thinking and supporting the students through the uncertainty of that.

Curves becomes an appropriate analogy, especially curvy roads and mountains. Being on a mountain road involves the hidden faith that the road continues around the curve, that the going up and the going down have a purposes, and that the curves cumulatively take you from place A to place B. I prefer this interpretation of learning curves, rather than the x/y plot showing a steep slope. For me learning curves are more about distance, angles, and perseverance. Doctoral students have a path that involves distance between what was formerly assumed and what have since been learned and questioned. The path involves angles, an acquired ability to view life from almost 360 degrees, and to appreciate the views from that width. The path definitely involves perseverance, as in determination to do finish the grey cell exercises and and to go beyond the comfort of long straight roads.

As the professor, I am on that path with the students. Experiencing their questioning faith. Getting sore feet walking the distance. Getting a sore neck from looking over my shoulder for that new angle. Getting worn out grey cells from the impromptu examples and answers to their wonderfully challenging questions. My teaching philosophy is that the teacher and the student, for a short while, share the same path and get stronger together.  

26 September 2014

Conference Learning

Earlier this month, I attended the state public health association meeting. The location changes each year, moving around the state in a effort to engage a broader audience of individuals who work in local health departments. Attendees included dental assistants, directors and administrators of the health department, environmental engineers, public health nurses, medical directors, and health educators; to name a few.

I've now been to such meetings in three different states over my career. These state meetings are interesting in several ways.

The ratio of practitioners to academics favors practitioners, unlike many large public health conferences. What that means is the conversation differs from what you hear at the large academic conferences. The conversation stays close to "what does this mean for agency and my clients?" The desire and inclination to mimic a successful neighbor creeps into the thinking. While this maybe helpful, it may not be completely thoughtful. It does reflect the reality that the most visible evidence is likely to be what my immediate peers are doing, rather than the latest RCT published in an expensive, inaccessible academic journal.

The scope of problems stays local, not national or global. Local epidemiological data guide attention mainly to health conditions for which the local situation is near the bottom (worst).  The thinking takes the form of: If the problem is not in my backyard, I don't have the energy, resources, or time to worry about it.  This is by no means a critique. When resources are tight, it's a practical approach.

The other interesting angle centers around an underlying desire to find "what works." This might include finding ways to leverage connections to academics. Across the nation the culture has been shifting away from "ivory tower vs real work" toward "let's collaborate." Naturally, such a culture shift take time for complete uptake. But, I view the shift as a positive one, and one that I tried to help along.

Going to such meetings is always humbling for me.  I enjoy being reminded of what the details really look like. And, I have multiple opportunities to silently practice empathy.

19 September 2014

She mentioned Height-Ashby. That launched the conversation into a history lesson, beginning with the question: What is the curve of discoveries over the past 150 years? Linear? Exponential? Flat?  The surprise to me was how difficult it was for the graduate students (ages mid-20's to mid-30's) to name inventions. Their lack of a deep modern time scale and of milestones along that scale leaves them without a past that exceeds their first Facebook post. This has some of us as faculty worried, concerned. Why?

What's the value of knowing when the telephone was invented? Or the silicone chip? And how long was that after the transistor radio had been invented? Or, how long before the internet was created? What difference does it make to decision making or the development of scholarship to know when the birth control pill became available in the U.S.? And how long was that before the beginning of the AIDS epidemic?

It matters that they don't know Walt Whitman or Woody Guthrie. It leaves them with a diminished appreciation for the amount of suffering, effort, sweat, and failures it took to get to the amenities, the freedoms, and the opportunities of today. It distorts the distribution of effort across historical figures and those on the edge of their shadows. It makes shallow our culture, rather than deepening it. It leaves us all with fewer and weaker cultural references. Weaker too in the sense of not understanding nor appreciating the distance, differences over time.

The big inventions (e.g., nuclear fission) and the small inventions (e.g.,gram stains) have collectively changed how we as humans live, especially those of us who live in wealthier, more developed countries. That change in living logistics comes with changes in culture, relationships, and expectations about the future. And, therein lies the rub...

22 August 2014

Readiness and Capable

In my role as the Director of a PhD program, one of my responsibilities is to over see the student admission process. In general, the admission process follows the standard formula.  Students submit an online application which includes transcripts, standardized scores, letters of reference, and a personal statement.

The entire packet is reviewed by a committee of faculty. We consider past performance, career goals, and the fit of applicant's research interests with the existing expertise of faculty. We do our best to be fair, meaning equitable and balanced. Assessing the capabilities of potential students to complete the program tends to be somewhat straightforward using the quantitative information in the packet. What tends to be more difficult to assess is the psychological and financial readiness of a potential student. We don't ask for financial information in the application packet, nor do we do conduct psychological readiness tests. We have to rely on the personal statement and what the potential student reveals about the desire to be in a doctoral program and what has lead to his or her decision to apply.

I wish I could say that Admissions Committees always make perfect decisions. But, nothing in life is perfect. We do tend to be pretty good at making the accept/deny admission decisions. We want our students to succeed by graduating and we would not intentionally accept an applicant who is not likely to finish.

We can make a decision error based on misjudging the applicant's capability to do the work; such students tend not to finish either at the Exam or the dissertation stages. We also can make an error based on misjudging the applicant's readiness for the 4-7 year intellectual and financial commitment of being a doctoral student. These students can drop out or merely fade away at any point in the program.

Ultimately, the Admissions Committee strives for decisions that become win-win's for the student and for the faculty how have foster the student through the program.

08 August 2014

Change and Differences

People have been asking, "so, how was your first year?"  I reply, "I'm glad my first year is over." Then I explain that although I think I did okay, I'm glad to be past finding a new doctor, new dentist, new hairdresser, new dry cleaner, new nearby gas station, and a new route to the airport. These are the little realities that come along with having moved across country for a new faculty position.

How was my first year in my new faculty role? That's really what others want to know. When pressed on the issue, I usually talk about the differences I noticed between institutions. Change always seems to highlight differences ~

Travel arrangements and reimbursements: do it yourself online versus having a secretary do it all a month in advance and on paper.

Budgeting: carry-over funds across fiscal years versus zero out accounts two months before the end of the fiscal year.

Student advising: ad hoc process of notifying students of availability versus putting advising hours in the online advising schedule.

Parking: one hanging tag with annual new little dates and a swipe card versus a radio frequency hanging tag that is replaced each year.

Student textbooks: university owned and run bookstore versus Barnes and Noble as the bookstore.

Graduate School: no coordination across program directors versus quarterly meetings of all graduate program directors from across campus.

Clearly, one side or other is not better, just different. But, it's coming to accept the differences, embracing the accompanying learning curve, and getting fluent in the new jargon that makes it no longer the first year.

As campus fills with the new students, new faculty, new enthusiasm, new anticipations, and new hopes, I feel ready to step from being the new faculty to being the old faculty.