By Doug Ward

American higher education has taken a beating over the last 40-plus years.

Many of those blows came from the outside. Many others were self-inflicted. I won’t rehash those here, other than to say that higher education has done a poor job of fighting back. Much of the time, it has seen itself as above the fray. Its arrogance not only blinded it to its own shortcomings but let critics paint an unflattering portrait that has lingered in the minds of millions of Americans.

A board at the AAC&U meeting asked participants to share their thoughts about higher education. The theme of the meeting was “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?”

Thankfully, colleges and universities have awakened from their slumber and started to realize that they must live within the broader society, not separate from it, and that they must make a case that higher education plays a vital role in democracy and the American dream. Yes, that sounds lofty. But it is crucial if we hope to maintain our colleges and universities as places of knowledge, aspiration, and above all, hope.

That sentiment was clearly evident last week in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Speakers were alternately determined, defiant, pragmatic, searching, and hopeful. Like so many others, I came away energized by conversations with colleagues who are determined to reinvigorate higher education, and by sessions that focused on the core elements of AAC&U’s new strategic plan:

  • Championing sustainable models for high-quality undergraduate education
  • Advancing equity
  • Articulating the value of liberal education
  • Pushing for innovative approaches to change higher education

Speakers at the conference’s opening plenary were blunt about the problems that higher education faces. The United States used to be the world leader in degree holders, Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U, told participants. It now ranks 15th. Public higher education was once a truly public venture financed mostly by taxpayer dollars. Now it is public in name only as colleges and universities rely increasingly on private fundraising, tuition dollars, and grants to pay the bills. That, in turn, pushes institutions to obsess about rankings, which pushes them to seek students with higher test scores, which pushes them to build luxury facilities, which forces universities to seek private financing and push up tuition costs, which puts college further out of reach for more and more families.

That chain of events has led to both a financial and moral crisis in higher education, said Linda Martin Alcoff, a professor at City University of New York. Privatization has turned students and faculty into “human capital,” she said. Rankings have “infected” every faculty search as departments seek out stars who can improve rankings, Alcoff said. Faculty achieve star status by attracting private grant money, which has deteriorated the civic nature of higher education, she said.

“We’ve become beggars at the table,” Alcoff said. “Every time there’s a search, our chairs are beggars at the table with deans and provosts for positions that are ultimately decided by corporate boards of trustees and ranking mechanisms. … We’re all quite aware of the problem, but we have been lulled into quietude.”

New pressures on a college degree

Tamara Draut, a vice president at the public policy organization Demos, said that we in higher education must work to “unleash that era of possibility” that allowed so many people to get through college without enormous debt. Debt has poisoned higher education by creating an obsession with rankings and a need to recruit increasing numbers of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

“There’s a lot of perversion that has happened in the academy because it has become connected to debt,” Draut said. “It has put pressure on a college degree to do something it was never supposed to do, which is show some ROI for the degree you get.”

She gave the example of a young woman who called in to an NPR show that Draut participated in. The young woman, who had an art degree and was working at a community center teaching art to children, was having a difficult time paying off her college debt. The next caller ranted about the young woman for “daring to get an art degree” rather than an engineering or technical degree.

Debt, Draut said, is “putting all kinds of burdens on institutions and on degrees that they were never meant to carry. And it’s making us devalue the learning and the doing that are the high marks of civilization: art, music, philosophy, education, doing good for others. That is what we should be lifting up. But the reality is, if you get an art degree and can’t pay back your student loans, we are saying to people that you did something bad and you should have studied something different.”

AAC&U members clearly took an inclusive view of higher education, as they should. College was once only the purview of the elite, and the rising cost of attending is clearly pushing it that way again.

“What happens is a lot of working class and poor people hear us saying you need to go to college,” Draut said. “The reason you are struggling is because you didn’t go to college. You made bad choices.”

That either/or narrative only sours people on higher education, she said. College is important, she said, but it is not a solution to poverty, prejudice or the growing gap between the ultrawealthy and everyone else.

“Higher ed is great, but it’s not all we have to do to fix society’s economic and racial inequality,” Draut said.

The importance of access

Panelists throughout the conference issued a call for educators to push for policies that provide broader access to higher education but also help re-establish a broad middle class.

“Teaching the poor should not be a niche market in higher education, but that’s what it has become,” Alcoff said.

She added: “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in any kind of labor can have financial security.”

Wes Moore of the Robin Hood Foundation urged educators and alumni to tell their stories about the importance of higher education. Statistics can be helpful, he said, but they can also be manipulated.

“Make sure people understand the human implications of what we do,” Moore said. “It’s important to remind people not just what we are talking about but who we are talking about.”

Alcoff offered a similar point, saying that we must espouse the importance of higher education without alienating those who choose not to – or can’t – get a degree. By linking a college education to social mobility, we leave out a large portion of the American population.

“The goal of social mobility is the wrong goal in the United States today,” she said. “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in manual labor – or any kind of labor – can have lives of dignity, can own a home, can send their kids to a good state university, and can have financial security.”

We must also make room for less-than-perfect students who aspire to the intellectual challenges of college, Alcoff said. With what she described as a “checkered past,” she never would have made it through college in today’s environment, she said. She was on her own financially at age 16, earned a GED, dropped out of college, found her way back, and eventually graduated. College is no longer forgiving for such students, she said, especially with costs that weigh on students for years.

Naomi Barry-Pérez, director of the civil rights center for the Justice Department, tied decreased funding of higher education and many social programs to a backlash against the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Government programs aimed at making society fairer were demonized once women and people of color gained more power, she said. We are the richest nation on earth, she said, but we life in a perpetual state of austerity.

“We have to be champions of reinvesting in ourselves,” she said.

Conflicting ideals

As passionate as the speakers were, they offered few solutions to entrenched problems that have been exacerbated by polarized politics. In most cases, there are no clear answers.

In the closing plenary, the author William Deresiewicz told conference-goers that higher education had been in crisis “since the beginning, perhaps since 1636.” The problems have changed, though, with the biggest today being the decline in education funding.

He said, though, that academics needed to delve more deeply into their own beliefs and actions. We talk about freedom, equality and justice, he said, but rarely think about the conflicts inherent in them. Equality often demands the diminishment of freedom, he said. We want to encourage creative expression, but at the same time, we have a need for all people to feel safe. That, in turn, often requires restrictions. Dealing with those conflicts is difficult and troubling, he said. Nobody wants to think about their own beliefs, values, and assumptions. At colleges and universities, that inaction silences voices and distances academia from the rest of society, he said.

“We live at a time when progressive opinion, which dominates most campuses, has hardened into something approaching religious dogma,” Deresiewicz said. “There’s a right way to think, and a right way to talk, and a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity occupy the center of discourse.”

There really is nothing to debate, he said, saying that he shared those beliefs, but “the fact that it’s inconceivable to think otherwise is precisely the problem.”

“The assumption on the left is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth,” Deresiewicz said. “We already know what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right, what’s wrong. There really is nothing to discuss, except how to put a belief into practice. Dogma makes for ideological consensus, and consensus is enforced through social means.”

He told of a recent experience in teaching a writing class for college juniors and seniors. All of the students were ill-prepared to read deeply, analyze others’ work, or to make strong arguments. These were smart students, he said, but they had learned only a technocratic form, one in which difficult question could be worked out in predictable ways. They also thought of writing as “something that just happened,” rather than as a process that requires persistent revision and questioning.

He pointed to several things he said were at the heart of the problem: social media and its fast-paced, anything goes mentality; grade inflation; adjunct instructors who can’t afford to spend time with student papers; and professors who lack incentives to take the time. If we spend all our time focusing on skills that can be scaffolded and measured, he said, we miss opportunities to delve into bigger questions like values, purpose and meaning that can transform students during their time in college. All too often, the humanities converts open-ended questions into things that can be assessed and tested, he said. As a result, students think fundamental questions about life and meaning have been settled. They learn to spout opinions, but recoil at the idea of public argument. They talk about things like patriarchy, intersectionality, trigger warnings, and microaggressions, but they are lost when they have to think outside those categories or are asked to examine what they mean or how others might feel differently.

“Big questions are big questions because no one has the answers,” Deresiewicz said.

What he failed to mention is that the dogma that afflicts the left also afflicts the right, making meaningful conversation and compromise even more difficult. Like other speakers at AAC&U, though, he was spot-on in calling for higher education to take a deep look inside itself. That’s the only way we will find a way forward.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Students try to assemble a Lego creation after instructions were relayed from another room.

By Doug Ward

Here’s some sage advice to start the semester: Don’t be a jerk.

That comes from a student who will be an undergraduate teaching assistant for the first time this spring. Actually, he used a much more colorful term than “jerk,” but you get the idea. He was responding to a question from Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning, about things that undergrad TAs could do to set the tone in classes they worked in. More about that shortly.

Lyles’s workshop on fostering an inclusive classroom climate was one of half a dozen sessions offered for 94 undergraduate assistants in STEM fields this week.  Other sessions focused on such things as grading; team-building and communication; sexual harassment reporting; and expectations of undergraduate teaching assistants.

Molly McVey, workshop organizer, checks in students at a training session for undergraduate teaching assistants.

The workshop was organized by Molly McVey, a teaching specialist in the School of Engineering. McVey organized the first such workshop a year ago after the number of teaching fellows (the name for undergraduate assistants in engineering) increased from four to 25. The school had no formal training program, so McVey created one.

Other fields, including math, have their own sessions for undergraduate assistants. The program McVey started is unique, though, in that it brings together student assistants and instructors from a variety of disciplines. In addition to engineering, students at this week’s session came from biology, physics, and geography and atmospheric sciences. Department representatives had time to speak with students in their specific disciplines, but the overarching goal was the same for everyone: to help undergraduate assistants in STEM fields better understand their role in the classroom.

McVey added another element this time, based on experiences with the previous two training sessions.

“We realized that we really needed to get the faculty in the room, too,” McVey said. “Some of the things we were communicating to the teaching fellows, faculty needed to hear, as well, so that everyone was on the same page.”     

Students assemble Lego creations at the workshop.

The need for undergraduate TA training has grown as active learning in STEM fields has expanded over the last several years. These TAs perform a variety of duties, but their primary role is to move about large classes and help students with problem-solving, discussions and questions. Instructors choose the TAs from among the students who have taken their classes in previous semesters. That way the TAs know the subject matter, the class format, and the needs of fellow students.

Undergraduate assistants have been instrumental in improving student retention and learning in such fields as engineering, geology and biology. Many other factors have been involved in those improvements, but the assistants provide key support as instructors shift courses from lecture to hands-on class work. They offer additional eyes and ears in large classes, and they provide additional contacts for students who might be reluctant to speak up in large classes.

The training sessions this week helped undergraduate assistants understand some of the challenges they will face. Lorin Maletsky, associate dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, led a workshop in which teams of students assembled Lego contraptions using instructions from teammates who listened to descriptions in a different room and then raced back to explain – or try to explain – the appropriate steps. The scene was occasionally comical as students dashed in and out, gave colleagues blank looks and grimaces, and tried to put together pieces based on sketchy directions.

The exercise was eye-opening for those involved, though, in that it simulated the challenges that students face in trying to understand information that instructors provide in class. Sometimes that information is clearly understood. Most of the time, though, it comes through in patchy and incomplete ways as students struggle to grasp new concepts.

Students consider questions posed by Ward Lyles (in the background)

Maletsky offered another analogy between the Lego exercise and teaching: Good teaching requires instructors and students to bring together many pieces, put them in the right order and create a coherent whole.

“That’s not easy,” he said.

In the diversity workshop that Lyles led, participants grappled with questions of student motivation, preconceived ideas, student perceptions, and class climate. Toward the end, he asked the undergraduate assistants to think about things they could do to help foster an environment that encourages learning.

The student who told his fellow participants not to be jerks said he spoke from experience. An undergrad TA in a class he took in a previous semester was pompous and unapproachable, souring the atmosphere for many students in the class. He vowed to approach his job in a more appropriate way.

Other participants offered these suggestions:

  • Relate your own experiences so that current students better understand how you learned course material.
  • Call students by name.
  • Find something unique about each student to help you remember them.
  • Pay attention to student struggles.
  • Be an ear for instructors and listen for potential problems.
  • Work at leading students to finding answers rather than just giving them answers.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

 It was excellent advice not just for undergraduate assistants, but for anyone working with students.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

If I were to design the perfect learning experience, it would have all the components that Chad Kraus included in a studio architecture class he taught this fall.

Chad Kraus with a prototype of the Haitian center his students designed.
  • Start with a problem that has no single or simple solution.
  • Study the problem, the context and the people involved.
  • Learn the skills that will help solve the problem.
  • Practice the skills with teammates.
  • Get feedback from instructors and peers.
  • Apply the skills in an authentic assignment.
  • Teach others the skills you have learned.
  • Reflect on the work.

The project in Kraus’s class, ARCH 600, even goes beyond that, though, by adding a study abroad component. In a little over a week, Krauss and another professor, Lance Rake, and six students will board a plane for Miami and then fly to Haiti, where they will spend two weeks helping build a community center the class designed.

Kraus’s class, called Global Studio, has been creating, prototyping and revising plans for the community center all semester. The class has 12 students, though only six will travel to Haiti. Kraus, an associate professor of architecture, is the lead instructor for the class. He has been joined by Kent Spreckelmeyer, a professor of architecture who directs the school’s health and wellness program; and Rake, a professor of design. Cécile Accilien, associate professor of African and African-American studies and associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, taught an accompanying one-hour class that helped students learn about Haiti and its culture.

That’s only a small portion of a cast of instructors, students, consultants, fundraisers, planners, engineers and organizations that has been involved. The School of Architecture and Design raised more than $12,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to help defray student travel costs. Students and faculty at the American University of the Caribbean, and Haiti Tec, a trade school in Port-au-Prince, will join the KU team at the building site. Frank Zilm, who leads the Institute of Health+Wellness Design at the School of Architecture and Design, has been involved, as well. All of those involved have been working with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Leawood that is financing the construction.

If that sounds like a challenge to plan and coordinate, it is. And yet Kraus approaches the project with a quiet equanimity that leaves little doubt that all the pieces will fit together.

“It takes a village to do something like this,” Kraus said. “Part of that is we’re trying to string together different expertise. This whole project is a labor of love for everyone involved.”

Chad Kraus critiques final plans for the building project. With him are Kenneth Wilson (in windowsill) Melissa Watson (in red) and Sarah Wages.

How the project evolved

The new center will be built in Torbeck, a rural area near Les Cayes on the southwestern peninsula of Haiti. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew roared through the area with 140-mph winds and torrential rains. The area had few shelters, and 150 people took refuge in a birthing center in Torbeck. The center’s staff continued to offer all of its services – delivering babies, offering prenatal and postnatal care – even as they worked around the unexpected guests.

“It was really difficult for them, and it sort of catalyzed in their mind the absolute necessity of building a community center,” Kraus said.

The birthing center, Maison de Naissance, was established by the Global Birthing Home Foundation. The foundation shares oversight of the center with a Haitian organization, provides operating money, and handles all the center’s programs and operations. The foundation reached out to the School of Architecture and Design for assistance, and that’s when Kraus became involved. He and the foundation’s executive director traveled to Haiti during the summer to begin the planning process.

“They were looking for a way to build a strong, stable, long-lasting, secure building,” Kraus said.

To do that, Kraus and the students settled on rammed-earth walls and a bamboo roof. Rammed earth, which has been used for centuries, is just what it sounds like, Kraus said. A wooden form is constructed for the walls, and then soil mixed with a little water is added and tamped down with wooden dowels or specialized tools with steel butts.

“Basically you ram layer by layer and you build up the wall,” Kraus said. “And then you strip the forms and you have this wall that in some cases can be made entirely out of earth.”

Kraus learned about compressed earth while working for the Pritzker-prize-winning architect firm Shigeru Ban, who is known for his unconventional designs. He taught a studio focusing on rammed earth after he came to KU and found that students were especially interested in the techniques. He doesn’t want to teach the same studio every year, he said, but students continually ask to learn about rammed earth. That approach fit well into the designs for the community center in Haiti.

A prototype of a rammed earth wall that students created.

The class chose bamboo for the roof because bamboo is lightweight, flexible, and resilient in high winds. Lighter material reduces the danger of heavy objects flying through the air during a hurricane or falling during an earthquake. Bamboo is also a renewable resource. It grows quickly and its roots spread, providing cover for erosion-prone areas where forests once stood. Half of Haiti’s forests have been destroyed since the early 1900s through logging, clearing of trees for coffee and sugarcane fields, hurricane damage, and demand for land as the country’s population has grown. President Rene Préval introduced bamboo into the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a means of land cover and industry.

“But it’s still something that most Haitians have no familiarity with and it hasn’t caught on as a construction material,” Kraus said. “So we want to push that potential of bamboo.”

The project that Kraus’s students have designed uses renewable materials and has the potential of providing jobs for the surrounding community during the construction process. They also want to demonstrate how the same process can be used to build resilient homes with low-cost materials.

“We wanted the local community to be involved so that they felt some kind of investment in the whole thing,” Kraus said. “But we also didn’t want to get them started and say, ‘We’re done. It’s all up to you now.’ We wanted to support them as they’re going through the majority of the project and help with questions that they have or additional design work that needs to be done.”

An expansive team and lots of questions

The students in Kraus’s class have worked in teams throughout the semester.  A management team oversaw the broad aspects of the project, working with a design team, a research team, a budget team and a video team, which is creating instructional videos to demonstrate the building techniques for Haitian workers.

The teams researched similar projects for details that might improve the center’s design or offer clues about how the materials they are using will stand up in Haiti’s climate. Each new aspect raised new challenges or led to questions the students had to research, Kraus said.

  • How does the rammed earth meet the foundation?
  • How do we size the foundation?
  • How much rebar do we put in?
  • How we design the bamboo to be flexible but also stiff?
  • How do we apply cross bracing between the bamboo trusses?
  • How do we anchor the rammed earth?
  • How we design the roof so that it doesn’t blow away?
  • How do we build a latrine that can be maintained over time?
  • What colors and materials will fit best into Haitian culture?

The students have checked in frequently with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, as well as contractors and engineers in Haiti. They have drawn on experts in Lawrence to help answer questions about designs, and costs and availability of materials. For instance, Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a professor of aerospace engineering, helped the students understand how to design a roof that will stand up to high winds. An engineer in Ireland who has extensive experience with bamboo construction has spoken with the students remotely.

“The students do all that work,” Kraus said. “I would say they are heavily supported by the faculty members, but they are expected to do the work.”

Sarah Wages, a fourth-year student from Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., said those demands could be overwhelming at times.

“You have to make sure what you’re doing is possible, to the extreme,” she said. “You have to bring it down to a level you know we can do. Especially in the design phase, we were pulling out these case studies of crazy roofs and crazy building forms and having to kind of tame ourselves back to understanding what is needed and what is actually possible. If we don’t know how to do it, how are we going to teach others how to do it?”

Students in ARCH 600 discuss building plans during their final meeting before the trip to Haiti.

Final plans for construction and travel

During the last week of fall classes, the project team gathered in room 206C in Marvin Hall and ran through the final details.

David Vertseeg points out some problems in the building plans.

The room was warm and stuffy. The overhead lights were turned off, and a gray light from a cloudy December afternoon filtered in through three north windows. Students, many in sweaters, sweatshirts and stocking caps, huddled around a conference table. One sat on a window ledge, another on the floor. Some had laptops open. Others had building plans spread out in front of them.

Students projected their plans onto a large monitor at the end of the room, and Kraus and David Vertseeg, a post-professional student who is working with Kraus in a special problems course, asked questions and offered suggestions.

Remove an extraneous line from one drawing. Reduce the amount of ground showing on another so the notations can be seen. Adjust the hatch size of the background fill so that it conforms to the plans. What are those black lines in that section of the pony wall? Where does that downspout go? Do the drawings indicate rebar in the walls? Make sure the plans have consistent numbering for the contractor.

Zilm, of the Institute of Health+Design, reported by speaker phone on results of a test of the Haitian soil. It has about 14 percent clay, on the low end of what is needed, but it should be enough to provide stability for the walls, he said.

Considerable time was spent going over travel details questions.

Can we take batteries? What is the weight limit on luggage? What tools do we need to take? Would the birthing center know the cheapest way to ship tools we can’t get in our bags?

Instisar Tyne listens to Kraus as Melissa Watson (foreground) takes notes.

Spreckelmeyer asks whether all the students have a contact card for the Study Abroad office. Kraus tells them that wifi in the area is spotty, so phone use will be limited. Don’t take selfies with people or treat them like objects of art, he says. Make sure to bring a water bottle. Take nonperishable protein. Get a good sun hat and powerful bug spray. Take a small amount of cash but not so much that you become a target for thieves.

By the end of class, the sun has nearly set and the room has grown dim. Questions gradually fade. The monitor on the wall glows. Kraus reminds students to keep checking Slack, a communications program the class uses for sharing information. The students gather their drawings, close their computers, hoist their backpacks and hold the door open for one another as they leave the room

Wages is the last to leave. I ask her what she has taken away from the class. She talks about the technical elements (repeatedly revising designs, testing the rammed earth techniques, deciding on the best way to create shutters) but also the cultural elements (adding red pigment and other colors to the walls to accommodate Haitian tastes, making sure the project will help people in the long term).

“You can’t just plop a building down and assume it’s going to do its job in the best way possible,” she said. “There are so many factors you have to think about to make a building really work, and integrate it into the community in the best way possible. I’m really excited to go and see the actual site, see where it is in relation to where the people are. There’s just so much you get to see when you actually integrate a building into a real place.”

Continuing the learning through the spring semester

Kraus, along with Spreckelmeyer, will lead another class in the spring related to the Haiti project. Students will continue to work with the partners in Haiti, troubleshooting problems and offering advice on components of the community center. They will also develop prototype housing designs based on the plans they created for the center. The emphasis will again be on rammed earth and bamboo. Some of the students from the fall class and the intersession will continue, but additional students asked to join after they heard about the project. Some of the students will eventually earn 13 hours of credit for the Haiti project: three from the fall architecture studio, one from the class on Haitian culture, six for the Haiti trip, and three in the spring class.

Schuyler Clogston and Sekou Hayes work during the final class session.

Architecture classes regularly have a hands-on component, with students designing and building structures or additions, or renovating existing buildings. And all architecture students, who go through a five-year program and earn a master’s degree, are required to study abroad at some point. This class is different, though, because it combines the elements of a design studio with a study abroad.

“This is the first opportunity that’s been created to design something and then go and build it overseas,” Wages said. “We have a lot of study abroad programs that are really great. We have tons of connections overseas, and we can do internships, but this is something I really want to get into – helping people, experiencing different cultures and bringing from here to there.”

I told Kraus that I was impressed with the format of the class. It provides an amazing number of learning experiences for students, helping them turn the conceptual into the tangible and then see their work put to use for a good cause.

“I agree,” he said. “That’s probably the single biggest reason why I wanted to come back to academia. I knew it was a powerful way to learn. I see this time and time again. When you get students together and encourage them to share knowledge, then what this student knew and taught to this student becomes reinforced and expanded upon. The student actually becomes a better future architect having taught other students what they know. And you’re right. That is a really powerful way to embed new knowledge.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The new Earth, Energy and Environment Center is still a work in progress.

Workers in hardhats still move through mostly empty hallways and rooms. Cardboard boxes are strewn about as tables, chairs, computer monitors and other equipment is unpacked, assembled and put into place. The sound of a hammer or drill echoes occasionally. The smell of new carpet, upholstery, paint or wood greets you around every corner.

Even amid the clutter and clamor, though, this new complex attached to Lindley Hall looks like the future.

Paleocon, an annual event for students in Geology 121: DNA to Dinosaurs, gave the complex an initiation of sorts on Tuesday. Students set up displays about extinct and endangered animals throughout a large room in the south building of the complex, kicking off what promises to be a long run of learning at the new center.

Faculty and graduate students began setting up labs and offices last week, but the center won’t be put through its paces until January, when classes in geology and other STEM fields take over the new classrooms.

I made a brief tour of the center after I visited Paleocon. Here are some of the highlights.

 


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Authentic assignments can be messy.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, the messiness helps students deepen their critical thinking, improve their decision-making, learn about themselves, and even take more control over their learning.

That messiness can be challenging for both students and faculty members, though. For students accustomed to a lecture-and-test format, it means grappling with ambiguity and working through failures. For instructors, it means ceding considerable control to students and devoting time to individual and group problem-solving.

stylized photo of students working together at tables and whiteboards
My approach to authentic assignments involves considerable group work.

Let me give you an example from a journalism class called Infomania, which focuses on research skills and critical thinking. To promote those skills, I challenge students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to solve a problem or answer a question using information and digital tools. They work in groups to identify elements of the problem, conduct research, and create a prototype of a solution.

The results have been impressive, but the process is messy. Students must identify problems and focus questions; identify sources; brainstorm solutions; distribute work among groups; set deadlines, and ultimately give shape to their ideas. I set aside one class period each week for group work, moving among the groups, challenging their thinking, pushing for context, and guiding them toward appropriate resources. I also bring in librarians, who provide important perspectives on finding information.

The approach I take in the class combines elements of team-based learning and problem-based learning, combined with a dose of entrepreneurial thinking. If you plan to try something similar, keep a few things in mind:

Embrace the messiness. It takes a while for students to come to grips with the idea of controlling their own learning. I provide material at the beginning of the semester on how to do that, but students take vastly different paths. Those who have mastered test-taking often struggle the most, but all students need reassurance and guidance. I give one piece of advice so much that it is almost a class mantra: “Try it.”

Provide choices. Choice motivates students. I rarely so no to ideas, but I spend a lot of time helping students hone their questions, think through what they really want to discover, and why they think that is significant.

Trust students. All too often, instructors set low expectations and assume that students need to be told what to do at every step. That teaches students to be passive consumers of information and of education. I’ve found that students respond well to challenges and high expectations. Consider that for years, students have told the National Survey of Student Engagement that they expected college to require more work than it really does. If we give students meaningful work, they will respond to the challenge.

Give students time. I devote a least one of two classes each week to group work. Many groups still meet outside class, especially later in the semester, but time in class is crucial. None only does it create a regular schedule for group meetings, but it provides a regular time for me to meet with the groups. As I rotate among the groups, I can answer questions, offer advice and head off potential problems. When I encounter questions that other groups need to know about, I can then provide a mini-lecture or simply provide answers that the entire class needs to know.

Don’t expect miracles. My approach to Infomania has led to such projects as a digital survival guide for freshmen, an e-book on KU traditions, an interactive guide for finding study spaces on and off campus, a prototype of an app for basketball camping, and a guide for matching volunteers and organizations. I’ve also had many shallow projects. Even with those, though, students learned to research and think through problems more effectively.

Nearly all students struggle with this process. That’s important because it forces them out of passivity and empowers them to take control over their own learning. Here’s how one student described the process in an end-of-semester self-evaluation:

“In other courses I have taken at various levels of schooling, it was essentially me pleasing the teacher and nodding my head. In this class, I was forced to take the lead and complete my work on my own.  This required focus and organization that had never been required before.  Although at the beginning of the class I despised it, I have come to realize that this is how the workplace will be. There is nobody providing you with the guides to succeed. You have to take it on yourself. This class has taught me that.”

Other students haven’t been as positive. Nearly all recognize the importance of authenticity, though.

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More on authentic learning: The latest issue of Teaching Matters includes many examples of how faculty members at KU have approached authentic learning.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

One poster offers to explain the chemistry of the world’s most popular drug.

Another teases about the fatty acids that make T-shirts feel soft.

Still another promises secrets about the oils used in making the perfect chicken nugget.

None of them offers its secrets outright, though. And that’s just how Drew Vartia, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the chemistry department, wants it.

A poster in Malott Hall refers people to information about the chemistry of soap.

The posters were created by the 60 students in Honors Chemistry I, which Vartia worked on with Professor Tim Jackson. The project, Vartia said, was inspired by Rajiv Jhangiani, who spoke at KU in the spring about open education and the use of “renewable assignments” or “nondisposable assignments.” Most work that students complete never go beyond the class. Assignments and tests are created by the instructor for the instructor and are quickly disposed of by instructor and students after the class is over.

Nondisposable assignments, on the other hand, allow students to take their learning into the world or apply it to real-world problems.

Vartia wanted chemistry students to use that approach to help fellow students learn more about the invisible chemical interactions in everyday life.

“Chemistry is something that people tend to shy away from,” Vartia said. “For whatever reason, a lot of people have had a negative experience with it and so they don’t actively see chemistry in their immediate environment.”

So Vartia and the students in Chemistry 190 took chemistry to the people.

To do that, students researched the chemistry of everyday things: caffeine, blood, fabric softener, pigments, cooking oil, limestone, and body odor.

“We asked them to create information about chemistry that would be digestible to somebody who had only a high school chemistry course,” Vartia said. “So in principle their product could teach the public something about chemistry. It was low enough level that somebody could read it and latch onto it, and a high enough level that the person reading it would then further their knowledge of chemistry.”

Once students had completed their explanatory material, they created posters intended to grab people’s attention and try to get them to seek out more information. To assist with that, each poster has a QR code, which allows people to scan with a cellphone and retrieve the information the students wrote.

The posters, created by 15 groups of four students each, then went up in 11 locations where students were likely to find them, including the Kansas Union, The Underground, the Spencer Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, dorms, and Watkins Health Center. Each poster was tied to some aspect of the location. For instance, one at the Roasterie in the Kansas Union focuses on caffeine, which it referred to as “the world’s most popular drug.” One at Watkins Health Center focuses on the chemistry of blood. One at the Spencer Museum of Art focuses on the chemistry of pigment, and one in the dorms sends people to information about fabric softeners, which release fatty acids that give clothes a soft feel.

Vartia was pleased with the students’ work, but he said they learned a few lessons for next time. The most important is that the posters need to be bigger. The current lot is 8½ by 11 inches, and they are easily overlooked. The other important takeaway is that they need to be displayed earlier in the semester so that students can gather data about viewership before class ends. The assignment was certainly successful, though, Vartia said.

“Traditional writing assignments are typically two-party transactions between the student-author of some research paper and the instructor,” he said. “They do some back and forth and then the utility of the assignment is over. In this case, students were excited that what they were doing mattered to a greater number of people and had the ability to influence people that they’ve never met.”

The posters will remain in place through at least part of the spring semester, Vartia said. If you see one, give it a scan.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

It was a simple idea.

Bring together a group of faculty members from around campus for guided discussions about diversity and inclusion. Guide them to think deliberately and openly about making their classroom practices and pedagogy more inclusive. Then help them create plans to take what they had learned back to their departments and help colleagues do the same.

That’s the approach behind Diversity Scholars, a program that CTE began last year with 11 participants. A second class of 10 began this fall. Funding for the program was provided by the Provost’s Office.

Participants say the sessions have helped them find new types of class materials, improved discussions about social identity, and helped them challenge students to think in new ways about the intersection of course content and race, gender and ethnicity. That hasn’t always been easy, they said, but it has been encouraging, enlightening and enjoyable.

Lua Yuille, associate professor of law, speaks at a Diversity Scholars session. Marta Caminero-Santangelo, right, oversees the program.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, a professor of English and a Faculty Fellow at CTE through last spring, leads Diversity Scholars. She said there had been pent-up demand for just these types of discussions, especially with tension over race, ethnicity, and gender roiling campuses across the nation.

“People just want the time to think about the issues and talk about them with colleagues and to be very deliberate and focused about those conversations,” she said. “I don’t know that there were any huge epiphanies. I think it was just helpful to sit around with a bunch of really enthusiastic, dedicated colleagues and talk about diversity and inclusion once a month.”

Caminero-Santangelo has been joined by Darren Canady, associate professor of English, and Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs and administration, in guiding the program.

The goal of the program, Caminero-Santangelo said, is to help participants redesign a course or create a new course that more deliberately infuses diversity, equity and inclusion into the content, climate and discussions. The sessions, about one a month, focus on three areas: class content, pedagogy and class climate. The areas overlap, but they also connect with and reinforce each other. Each session involves readings, facilitated conversations and group work – essentially modeling the techniques that help students learn most effectively.

Caminero-Santangelo described the discussions about class content as an evaluation of the materials that the instructors use in their courses: “Am I drawing from a diversity of scholars, a diversity of voices, a diversity of readings? If my class content is STEM and it’s not specifically related to issues of diversity, are the examples that I’m using in class really addressing the diversity of human experience?”

The pedagogy sessions help participants understand the approaches that help all students learn effectively but that have shown to be especially effective with underrepresented groups. Those techniques include such things as clarity and transparency in expectations and grading; group work; universal design for learning; scaffolding of assignments; low-stakes assessments; and out-of-class work that frees up time for in-class problem solving and discussion.

The class climate discussions flow from the other two elements, Caminero-Santangelo said.

“If your class content is not diverse, that’s already sending a message to certain students that they’re not included and they’re not registering in the production of knowledge,” she said. “And if your pedagogy is not inclusive then students might feel alienated or silenced.”

Climate also includes smaller things, she said: creating ground rules for discussion, learning your students’ names, and handling hot moments in the classroom effectively.

Caminero-Santangelo said that none of the facilitators considered themselves to be experts, especially because participants came from several disciplines.

Shannon Portillo works with a group during a Diversity Scholars meeting.

“We had maybe a little bit more familiarity with some of the topics, but we were certainly learning as we read and found resources and then incorporated those resources,” she said.

Participants have taken many approaches in rethinking their classes. For instance:

  • Ward Lyles, assistant professor of public affairs and administration, added readings on overcoming an us-vs.-them mentality and added two class periods on community building. He also created a syllabus evaluation checklist for faculty members.
  • Margaret Marco, professor of music, had her recital students choose performance pieces form outside the classical canon. She added a survey to the class, asking students how likely they were to play pieces by composers from underrepresented groups. She plans to follow up with the same survey at the end of class.
  • Tim Hossler, assistant professor of architecture and design, plans to integrate material about cultural appropriation into a required design history course. He hopes to help students think more deeply about how diversity and design culture come together.
  • Cécile Accilien, associate professor of African and African-American studies, added more material about masculinity in her course on gender in Africa. She has had class discussions about how religion and social identity affect social justice for those in the LGBTQ community, and her students will critique an African art exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in terms of masculinity.
  • Kristof Kuczera, professor of chemistry, created a pre-class quiz on diversity in chemistry, and added an exercise in which students research and write about chemists from underrepresented groups.

Participants will also share their experiences with colleagues and help them develop their own plans for being more deliberate about infusing diversity into their classes and curriculums. Caminero-Santangelo called this “a sort of spider web networking effect” that will expand the reach of the Diversity Scholars program.

For those who haven’t been able to participate in a program like Diversity Scholars, Caminero-Santangelo recommended small things that can help begin a process of enlightenment. There are many resources available to help instructors make their classes more welcoming for diverse populations, improve class conversations, and help students think more deliberately about inclusivity, she said. And it’s easy to find a colleague or two and have discussions.

“Take a baby step or two,” Caminero-Santangelo said. “Look at that syllabus tool. Read up on transgender identity and issues that the transgender community is facing on campus. You’re not going to be perfect at everything – ever. And you can’t necessarily change everything at once, but you could decide, ‘OK, in this one way I’m going to set some ground rules on the first day of class. I’m going to send a message that my classroom is an inclusive classroom and that I want to hear a variety of voices and I don’t want voices to be shut down.’ ”

In other words, simple actions can lead to big changes.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A provision in the tax bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday has the potential to upend graduate education.

The bill would force graduate students to pay taxes on tuition waivers they routinely receive as part of their appointments. That would raise the cost of graduate education substantially and could easily drive away potential students.

Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated that she would pay an additional $10,000 in taxes if the House bill became law. The cost would certainly be lower for students at a public university like KU, but a change in the tax law would add a few thousand dollars a year in expenses. Low pay and the costs of insurance, health care and housing already make graduate education a struggle for many students. Additional costs could certainly put graduate education out of reach for many others.

In a column in The New York Times, Rousseau wrote:

“It would make meeting living expenses nearly impossible, barring all but the wealthiest students from pursuing a Ph.D.”

The number of graduate students at public universities grew 17 percent between 2000 and 2010 but has remained relatively unchanged since then, according the National Center for Education Statistics. That could easily change, though, if the cost of degrees becomes too burdensome.

American students are already shying away from graduate degrees in STEM fields, largely because they can get good jobs with just a bachelor’s degree, The Times reports. International students have filled the void, but immigration restrictions and the political storm surrounding them have created unease among international graduate students and pushed many of them away.

The House tax plan could be yet another blow to graduate education. Let’s hope that more a thoughtful plan prevails as the Senate debates tax legislation.

Another challenge to education in Wisconsin

Wisconsin continued its throttling of higher education last week as the state’s regents voted to merge the state’s 13 two-year colleges with its seven universities, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. The change will take place in the summer.

Under the plan, the two-year colleges will become branches of the universities, although students will continue to pay lower tuition rates at the two-year institutions. The regents said the plan would save money and would eventually result in job cuts, though they provided no specifics. The regents president, Ray Cross, said the initiative was not “a fully developed plan with all the details worked out,” according to the State Journal.

The regents pushed the plan forward with little consultation of the colleges or universities involved. Seven former college leaders implored the regents to reconsider the plan, saying it was being shoved through so hastily that the ramifications had not been considered. They expressed concern about the financial model – or lack of one – and said the plan could threaten the future of the two-year colleges. Two experts interviewed by the State Journal said the move was a politically inspired plan to consolidate a top-down power structure.

The consolidation vote was the latest move in a political battle that has left the university system severely diminished. The Wisconsin governor and legislature have been at odds with the universities for years, weakening tenure, cutting funding, and even restricting protests on campus.

Education Dive, a publication that reports on higher education, said the actions in Wisconsin should be a warning to other states. “Letting lawmakers know that a lack of stability could have a potentially negative long-term impact on enrollment rates, making it harder for the system to thrive, is key,” Education Dive says.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that other university systems could be brought to their knees as easily as Wisconsin’s has.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.