27 January 2007

Motivation on Campus

Being a college professor--or department chair--involves more responsibility than power. Sure, as chair, I do annual performance reviews and fill out worksheets that set salaries for each of my colleagues for the year, but the average raise amount is set by the dean within limits set by the university trustees, and our raises of late have been 2% a year. Most of the time, I'm trying to persuade people to action--which is my style anyway, but still, I'm aware of the fact that in some respects, I have little power to make things happen. I have influence, but not much power in some respects.

I teach a lot of required classes--as composition director, I always cycled through our comp program's offerings, teaching one version or another of Comp 1 or Comp 2. Even the upper-level courses I teach are taught because they're on a list somewhere (for the English education curriculum, or because the English major requires an upper-level course in X and mine is the only one at night, for example). This term, I have a 400-level seminar, mostly juniors and seniors, who have elected my course from the options on their lists. But motivation seems an issue.

I teach often at night, and my students are tired. 2/3 of my class comes to campus after working all day. They're tired. So problem number one: how to make the windowless seminar room seem energized. They do the reading the night before class (or at least that's when they get around to posting the reading notes I'm requiring them to put on the blogs I asked them to set up), so problem number two: they haven't left themselves much time for letting ideas kick around in their heads. And they think I assign too much work, so problem number three: they don't always think they can do it. And so I'm trying to persuade them that yes, they can.

This dynamic fascinates me. In many respects, I think college should teach people how to tackle things that seem too hard at first. A good course should move a student through a text that seems to hard or a writing project that seems challenging, with the right support. We're reading a lot of work that's not written for them--so far, we've read 3 articles from the top journal in my subfield. These articles assume a network of knowledge in the citations, knowledge my students don't have. It's not easy to walk into that reading, especially when they are used to reading literature. Literature is easier to read, they told me last week in class. I'm not sure about that, although I do think literature may seem more familiar to read.

So I've started preparing reading guides for them, partly summarizing the harder articles and pointing out the structure within those articles, partly telling them what they should be able to do (understand the relationship between X theory and Y practice, or list 5 objections to Z) at the end of the piece. I try to tell them why we're reading the piece together, and how it relates to some other things we've read. Nonfiction reading needs to be purposeful, and I don't think they know how to create a purpose for their own reading at this point int the term.

I'm not whining here: my students fascinate me. They're eager to do the right thing. But I'm puzzled at how much they seem conditioned to expect things to be easy, and how they want reading to be so transparent.

Last week, we read a group of case studies, so I started class asking them to write for 5 minutes about which person in the reading they most related to. We used those short writings as the introduction to discussion, jumping around the table to find ways into the reading. We're doing a writing project now in which they'll make the reading more personal, charting the ways the theories we've been reading have worked out in their own lives. I'm enjoying writing the reading guides, since they feel like a little essay or promise from me to them about why the reading matters. And I'm trying to work up other ways to get discussion started in ways that brings their connections to the fore (but keeps us tied to the readings).

I'm in the midst of reading reports by each of my colleagues about their activities from the past year. We talk a lot about how things should count. People who spent a lot of time doing things that don't count on the annual report are always mad about that, and some of my colleagues have taken some odd routes to getting things into various sections of the report (to take a fictionalized example, if you do a lecture to the Mathematical Forestry Guild on quadratic equation metaphors in 18th century zoologic manuscripts, and the guild puts your handouts on its website, is this a publication?). Counting is important, but only counting is suffocating. It's not motivating. I've been to tons of workshops where the message has been that things need to count in the classroom in order to be meaningful (and I've given those workshops myself--one principle in my grading workshops is always that one's grading scheme should reflect one's priorities and values for the course). In the past, I've used counting mechanisms to try to motivate students--giving attendance points, or points for participation, or daily HW points. I still do that to some extent, but this year, I've been starting to think more about other dimensions to motivation. How to make people realize that they can do things, for example, is a part of motivation.

So that's what I'm working on with my students, and with my colleagues, too. I'll write about some of the departmental aspects of this issue separately. But I'll happily soak up suggestions for how to motivate students to work through hard material. It's not easy to do, but it sure is fascinating to try to figure out.


Arwen said...

Promise them that the secret to life, the universe, and everything is mystically unlocked by reading the article, but only if they really read it carefully.

Bardiac said...

I really like your idea of helping them tease out the hard readings, whether with guides or in some other way.

One of the difficulties comes with the issue of "what counts." On some level, at some point, what should count with most things is the personal reward we get from doing or learning. But it's hard to move to that point when grades or pay raises are involved, especially because doing one thing always means not doing something else.

LilySea said...

Tricky, tricky, tricky.

I know what you mean about them expecting it to be easy--or entertaining, for that matter. Or expecting that the money they are paying in tuition buys a degree, not a shot at a degree.

One of my favorite techniques to put the responsiblity on my students is to have in-class writing every class meeting, for ten minutes at the top of class. If they come in late, they lose their own writing time.

The writing is worth between 2 and 10 points (2 points for showing up and putting your name at the top of the paper). If you miss class, you miss the opportunity to get these points.

If I'm teaching two days a week, I'll give three extra credit assignment opportunities worth 10 points each. Want to miss class one day? Make up the lost points in extra credit. If I teach one day a week, I give one extra credit opportunity worth ten points.

This way, I don't have to deal with how to grade attendence. The in-class writing means that everyone can be called on to at least tell the class what they wrote, so that ups participation.

I've used this for years and love it!

Anonymous said...

You constantly amaze and impress me with the depth of thought you put into your work. I think it is really great and I hope people at our school know how lucky they are to have you! I'm bummed I never got to take one of your classes!