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A day on sabbatical

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, rambly

Today is Labor Day. In most years, I would be on campus, teaching classes [1]. But I’m on sabbatical. The day is mine. I had wanted to do some administrative work, but most organizations are closed today, so it’s not possible to call people. So I decided to leave it as much of a do whatever catches my interest day.

We have Department Meetings on Mondays. I wasn’t planning on attending today’s meeting. However, the subject of the meeting was such that I felt I should attend; we were beginning department discussions of assessment. Those discussions are made more complex by philosophical differences [2], by the Dean’s office’s apparent decision to identify our long-standing end-of-course evaluations as not useful for assessment, even though they have long been identified as one of the more successful instruments for the cycle of reflection that is to be core to assessment [4], and by some confusion over what is expected for assessment. Since I’ll be subject to the Assessment Regime [5] when return, I thought it would be useful to hear what the Department was considering.

Two things struck me about the meeting. First of all, we are now a large department. For my first decade or so at Grinnell, CS meetings generally had three or four people [6]. Today, we had eleven people at the meeting. That size changes the character of the department. As our external reviewers suggested last year, it’s increasingly important for us to document things, rather than to rely on shared experience. Second, the gender balance was surprising for a CS department: We had six men and five women present [7]. Admittedly, only two of the women and three of the men are in tenure-line positions, and a fourth man is in a permanent position. Still, it’s nice to see more of a real balance [8].

Amazingly, we agreed upon an assessment task for this year. Let’s see what the Dean’s office says about that choice.

After the meeting, I ended up staying on Noyce 3rd longer than I should have. I answered email. I printed some new cards for Science 3813 [10]. I printed a sign for outside my old office, informing folks that I had moved. I talked to some students in the hallway. I heard one call another a traitor for considering dropping their CS major. One of my CSC 151 students from last spring told me how useful regular expressions had proven in their summer internship [11]. I partiuclarly enjoyed the chance to talk to students.

On the way home, I passed by the Husk [12]. I saw Justin Thomas outside, teaching a class or working with a small research group. I thought to myself, I miss the days when I had small enough classes that we could meet outside like that [15,16]. The big open area inside was filled with students. It’s good to see that the design is working well. I also appreciated seeing students outside on the grass or in hammocks, taking advantage of the sunny day.

The rest of the day? Somewhat normal. I wrote a bit. I read a bit. I grilled food [17]. I watched TV with my family. I took a nap [18]. I read and responded to email. All in all, it was a good day on sabbatical. Tomorrow, I’ll do the administrative stuff and try to read and write more. Plus, it’s the opening CS table.

Postscript: I wrote more than I expected to write about assessment. And what I wrote is likely more negative than my actual feelings about assessment. I do believe that assessment is useful; finding evidence that you are or are not achieving your goals either gives you confidence in your current approach or gives you incentive to make change. What I most object to are what appear to be a focus on quantitative measures and a belief that the most important goals of a course are those that can be tied to assessable outcomes.

Postscript: As long as we’re on the subject of assessment, I find it fascinating that a Regime that is unwilling to accept student self-reports of their knowledge is, nonetheless, happy to accept student self-reports of learning as a mechanism for assessing faculty members. After all, I learned a lot in this class, is considered one of the most important questions on our end-of-course evaluations.

Postscript: In thinking about assessment, I’m comforted by something the Dean said in her opening remarks:

Operating as a faculty member for 17 years in a non-self-evident field such as art history made me an advocate for knowledge that is not easily explained in either its iterative content nor its deliberative process, but is transformative in its connections and experiences.

[1] Yes, that’s correct. To the surprise of many students and their families, Grinnell has classes on Labor Day. We discussed the issue at a faculty meeting a few years ago and decided to continue having classes on Labor Day. Why? Many reasons were presented. To some, it’s philosophical/political: Labor Day co-opts May Day. To some, it’s practical: Losing one day of classes means that we can teach less. To some, it’s preventative: Since classes start on the Thursday before Labor Day, we assume some students would plan to arrive on campus in time for Tuesday classes after Labor Day. I suppose there’s also a bit of paranoia: What would students do with a three day weekend?

[2] For example, we believe that the most important things that we teach are often not easily or naturally measurable. The Assessment Regime [3] seems to call for measurable outcomes. We expect that different students will have different learning goals for each class; the Assessment Regime wants common outcomes. More broadly, the Assessment Regime appears to assume that if you don’t measure and document something, it didn’t happen. We teach small enough classes that we can watch the learning happen in each student.

[3] I use The Assessment Regime to speak to the vague conglomeration of attitudes and policies, both external and internal, that ask us to assess in particular ways. It is as much the imposition of a particular model of assessment by the HLC as it is the College’s reaction to that imposition.

[4] I suppose it’s not so much the Dean’s office as the Higher Learning Commission that’s at fault here. The Dean’s office used us as a positive example; our examiners did not consider us as such. I suppose that’s another philosophical difference: We believe in learning from open-ended conversation; they believe in targeted measurement.

[5] See earlier footnote.

[6] When we were a joint Math/CS department, we’d usually discuss the math side of things with the whole department, and then most people would leave for the discussion of the CS issues.

[7] I’m relatively confident that the folks at the meeting identify only as male or female.

[8] For clarity: The department has four tenure-line male faculty members [9], two tenure-line female faculty members, one permanent non-tenure-line male faculty member, one permanent female Peer Education Coordinator, two female term faculty members, and one male term faculty member.

[9] One better protects his leave and was therefore not at the meeting.

[10] We assign random pairs in Science 3813 by having student pick machine names out of a jar. Sometimes those cards disappear.

[11] I included regular expressions as an experiment in the new Digital Humanities version of CSC 151. From my perspective, the best part of doing regular expressions early was that everything else seemed easy in comparison, even recursion. That suggests to me that I need a new way to work with regular expressions; standard regexp syntax is complicated.

[12] HSSC, the (nine-fine-arts) Humanities and Social Studies Center [14].

[14] I’d prefer to call it Complex. But Communications likes the word Center.

[15] Maybe in Tutorial.

[16] That is not intended as a dig at departments with small classes. I consider the variety of class sizes an important characteristic of Grinnell and value the opportunity that small classes provide to students.

[17] I don’t grill every day. But I do make dinner many nights.

[18] That’s also not something I do every day. But I enjoy naps when I have a chance to take them.

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-02.