Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: September 2006

This Seems Strangely… Familiar…

Via Urban Planning Blog, an image from Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) comics that is perhaps particularly poignant for us ARC Linkage Grant PhD students…

But I write it up using the Scientific Method...

Note: This image copyright Jorge Cham “Piled Higher and Deeper” http://www.phdcomics.com

How Advanced Is My Class?

I’ve just received a “graduate capabilities” survey from my university, asking me to indicate how advanced are the skills conferred by my History and Theory of Planning course. The form is divided into subcategories for specific topics and skill sets – sustainability, economics, IT skills, etc. I would imagine this sort of information is used for overall course planning, to make sure that, as a degree program, we offer students the capacity to receive advanced training in all of these areas through an appropriate combination of courses.

The trick for me is that the form requires a comparative knowledge of other courses – knowledge that I don’t necessarily have. I feel reasonably comfortable, for example, indicating that my course doesn’t provide advanced training in sustainability, because I knew when designing the course that students have other opportunities for detailed work in this area, so I didn’t emphasise this topic. I’m less sure, however, how to evaluate some of the other topics and skills – it’s harder to tell, from the information I have available, how other courses cover, for example, topics like economics, or skills like critical thinking…

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve made the blank form available online, in case lurking students would like to help me out with a bit of comparative feedback. If you have time, could you fill in your personal perception of how the skills covered in my History and Theory of Planning course compare to the standards across the degree program as a whole, and email the results to me. Or, if you prefer, post comments below on the topics that interest you.

I have a couple of weeks to respond, so any feedback between now and early October would be most helpful. The form is available here.

[Note: this form is not used to evaluate my personal teaching skills, so don’t worry if you need to indicate that the course doesn’t cover something, or covers something very superficially: no course will cover all listed skills at an “advanced” level.]

Chocolate Covered Homework

Guess what I just dug out of my backpack…

My son apparently decided to file a chocolate bar in my bookbag, which I then crushed under a large stack of student papers. It gives a certain chocolate gild effect to the edges of the assignments…

I suppose it’s better than the time he got to my desk while I was grading, and left his own “comments” all over a student’s assignment…

Becoming the Teachers We Didn’t Have

Like parents who want to spare their children the worst experiences from their own childhoods, academics often choose pedagogical strategies in the hope of sparing their students from their own worst university experiences. A post from See Jane Compute reminded me of this issue. Jane reports:

The story of how I teach intro courses has to start with my own first experience with a programming class in college. In short, it was a complete disaster. Now, I was not a complete newbie–I had taken a few computer courses in junior high and in high school, although none on the “serious programming content” or AP level, so I at least knew a bit about how computer programs worked. And for the first few weeks, everything was fine. But about halfway through the class, we were introduced to a concept–and I don’t even remember exactly what it was anymore–that I just could not understand. Unfortunately, programming courses build heavily on previous material, and so this pretty much sealed my doom. Also, the class picks up steam and more material is covered in the second half, so I quickly found myself drowning. On top of everything, the professor was one of those brilliant types that have no business teaching undergrads (i.e., couldn’t teach you if you weren’t already a programming genius), the TA spoke little English, and I was intimidated by the fact that all of my classmates either (a) seemed to get things much faster than I did, or (b) cheated their way through the class. By some miracle, I got a B in the class–to this day, I have no idea how I pulled it off. But the damage was done: I now *hated* programming, an activity that had only brought me joy in the past.

She then goes on to say:

This experience, more than any other experience I had as an undergrad, colors the way I approach teaching. My number one goal in teaching intro courses is to make sure that my students’ first experience with programming is overwhelmingly positive (or as positive as possible). I remember the despair I felt, and I keep that in mind as I introduce concepts, make up homeworks, and talk to my students in class and in office hours. I try to make sure that my interactions with students, and what I do in the classroom, encourages them rather than discourages them.

I have a similar undergraduate memory that haunts my teaching practice. Read more of this post

You Don’t Know You’re in Trouble When…

Seeking reasons to procrastinate in the face of the mound of marking that sits on my table, I’ve been spending a leisurely Saturday morning reading various studies of cognitive bias. (Note to self: this is probably not the best way to prepare for marking first-year undergraduate work…)

In the process, I stumbled across a very entertaining article by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6., p. 1121-1134). The article begins with the story of the hapless McArthur Wheeler, who in 1995 robbed two Pittsburg banks in broad daylight with no disguise. Arrested within an hour of the broadcast of the bank security footage, Wheeler expressed shock that he was identifiable on the security tape, protesting “But I wore the juice!” Apparently Wheeler believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would render him invisible to security cameras… (Kruger and Dunning 1999: 1122).

While Wheeler most likely would meet anyone’s definition of “incompetent”, what Kruger and Dunning are primarily interested in are… er… relative incompetents – folks like you and me, who may be quite skilled in some areas, but are likely not so skilled in others. In those areas where we aren’t so competent, Kruger and Dunning ask, do we know that this is the case? Their hypothesis is that, below a certain level – they isolate out the bottom 25% in the specific skills (logical reasoning, grammar, humour) they test – we may be so poorly skilled that we actually don’t know enough to realise how far off the mark we are – we may, in fact, not know enough to recognise competent behaviour, so that we can begin to model it to improve our own performance.

The study is worth a read (any lurking methods students might particularly enjoy the discussion of how to test whether someone is in the bottom 25% in terms of their sense of humour…). I make no specific claim about the broader validity of the study’s findings, but some of the specific results have a certain intuive plausibility: The authors cite, for example, findings that study participants in the bottom 25% tend to overestimate their skill level considerably, and that they do not tend to revise this positive self-assessment, even after being provided with samples of higher-quality work to “grade”. Interestingly, the authors also mention that participants in the upper skill levels tend to systematically underestimate their compentence – until they are given an opportunity to view others’ work, which then allows them to revise their self-perceptions in a more accurate direction.

Both of these observations track reasonably well with my teaching experience. Struggling students often view suggestions for improvement as unfair and as impositions of impossible standards; they need assistance to get a very concrete sense that better work really is possible – and that it is realistic to expect them to produce such work. At the other end of the spectrum, extremely talented students are generally acutely aware of how much more is possible in ideal circumstances – and can come to measure their work against a standard of perfection that would make anyone depressed, causing their self-perception to become inappropriately low… This can actually be a bit more difficult to manage, since you wouldn’t want to lower someone’s sensitivity to how their work could be improved, but an unrealistically harsh judgment of one’s own work can also be counter-productive…

I’ve been experimenting recently with types of assessments that provide students with an opportunity to view and edit one another’s work, in part to address these sorts of issues (and also to decentre the teaching process a bit – particularly in advanced courses where it’s quite reasonable to expect at least some students to know more in many areas that I do). I’m not completely happy with these experiments to date, so I’m continuing to tweak, but I think there is value in providing students at various skill levels with an opportunity to see what kind of work is possible – and also what kind of work is common…

Betting on Wikipedia

Two of my first-year students approached me this week to play Solomon in a bet they had apparently made with one another, over whether Wikipedia were an acceptable resource for university students. The provocation for the bet was apparently an interaction with another tutor, who had instructed them strictly that Wikipedia was unreliable and therefore had no value for university-level work.

Since many students in fact do find Wikipedia valuable, this advice contradicted their practical experience, and was therefore disregarded: its impact was essentially a social one, causing the students to feel that it is vaguely disreputable to admit to their Wikipedia use in polite circles – or at least in front of teaching staff… The result is a strange social situation that I’ve also seen in some of my other classes, where students with an unusually high respect for teaching staff dutifully stop consulting Wikipedia, while others continue using it clandestinely (one imagines them looking over their shoulders in computer labs), while disguising their use by never citing it…

I’m obviously not present in other classes and tutorial sessions when this anti-Wikipedia advice is meted out, so I don’t know exactly how other staff try to justify that Wikipedia is somehow a pariah resource for anyone with academic pretensions. My sense from what I get second-hand is that the objection involves one of two issues:

(1) doubts about how reliable Wikipedia content could be, when it has not gone through peer review and {{shudder}} can in fact be edited by anyone; or

(2) a more general objection to encyclopedias of any kind, on the theory that the use of encyclopedias as source texts for student writing encourages students to think of knowledge as a static given that they must learn from other people, rather than as a dynamic construct they must actively participate in creating.

I’ll address each of these objections in a moment, but I wanted first to mention in passing that these two objections actually sit in tension with one another, and rely on conflicting notions of how students should position themselves in relation to knowledge construction: the first objection relies on the notion that there are certain sources of information that students can and should treat as authorities – as materials that have been appropriately vetted so that students can cite them as true – while the second relies on the notion that claims about knowledge are arguments, and that students should therefore assume an active, critical relationship to all of their sources. So, from one perspective, Wikipedia is “bad” because it’s not a good enough source while, from the other, Wikipedia is “bad” because students might be tempted to treat it as a source. Read more of this post

In Case You Were Worried…

For those concerned about the fate of Channel Seven’s Naomi Robson, currently being detained by Indonesian authorities for attempting to work as a journalist while on a tourist visa, I can offer one piece of reassurance: The Age report suggests that Peter Meakin, the chief of news and current affairs for the station, is taking pains to reassure everyone that Today Tonight has no plans to deviate from its established journalistic standards. According to The Age:

He [Meakin] denied the story was an attempt to boost Today Tonight’s credibility.

“It was an attempt to get a good story,” he told ABC radio.

“We don’t decide what stories to do on the basis of journalistic credibility.”

Overheard in a University Coffee Shop III: Simple Pleasures

Man: “Call me simple, but I like to shoot things.”

Overheard in a University Coffee Shop II: Ashes to Ashes

Student 1: “I really want to do a dissertation, but I have no idea what to do one on!”

Student 2: “Oh, you can do a dissertation on anything – just interview twelve people and do a qualitative something-or-other on their… I don’t know…”

Student 3: “Dust. Do a dissertation on dust.”

Student 1: “Dust?”

Student 3: “Yes: The History of Dust.”

Student 1: “The History of Dust?”

Student 3: “Oh, well, you know, it might need to be A History of Dust…”

Excuses, Excuses

It occurs to me occasionally that a random reader of this blog could easily be excused for not being aware that I’m supposed to be doing a dissertation on urban planning… This insight has also occasionally occurred to my supervisors… My normal excuse for not blogging more on planning issues specifically is that I don’t believe it’s appropriate to write in a rapid-fire draft form on the somewhat sensitive issues I’m observing in the community where I’m conducting my research. Then I read something like Russell Degnan’s Knotted Paths, which reminds me that, of course, there’s more to the field than what I’m intending to cover in my dissertation – like, for example, Russell’s recent comment on the media coverage of “obesogenic” environments

Now I’ll have to think up another excuse for why I don’t write more about planning here… ;-P