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Another dinner with Grinnell’s Board of Trustees (#1227)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, rambly, end-notable, teaching

Apologies to anyone referenced in this musing. I’ve done my best to keep it anonymous.

The other evening, I attended dinner with Grinnell’s Board of Trustees (BoT). I wasn’t singled out; this was the Board meeting to which faculty from the Science division were invited to attend. In the fall, Humanities or Social Studies will be asked. Next spring, the third of the divisional triumvirate will get their invitation. Then we’ll start the cycle all over again.

I’ve likely said this before, but I really like our current set of trustees. I find them thoughtful, engaged people who care deeply about the College and about making it better. I don’t know if it’s that I’ve mellowed with age [1], that we have better trustees than we had some time in the past, some other factors, or some combination thereof, but I much prefer meeting with these trustees to those I encountered during my early years at Grinnell. Among other things, these trustees seem more focused on supporting the faculty and seem to think more highly of Grinnell. I still recall the Good to Great faculty/trustee discussions when I said something like Grinnell is already a great institution, and many trustees didn’t appear to agree.

In any case, it’s nice to chat and dine with colleagues and trustees. And, as seems to happen from time to time, these musings [2] came up. For example, a colleague told me that they appreciated the recent musings on registration [3]. That’s right; my musings often come up if you search the Web for something related to Grinnell registration. And, as they suggested, I have the mindset to do too much analysis [4].

A trustee also brought up my musings. I always shudder a bit when I hear a trustee say, I read something interesting in your musings. I suppose I shouldn’t worry. After all, I have tenure. And I’ve chosen to make my thoughts public. Nonetheless, both the statement and the particular follow-up were somewhat intimidating.

Because of what you wrote, we’re having breakfast with the Admissions Staff tomorrow morning.

All I could think was, Oh swear-word, what did I write about admissions at Grinnell?

I needn’t have worried. In this case, they read something useful and appropriate. In some musing, I wrote something like, I’m glad the trustees meet with the faculty, but they should also meet with the staff. And, lo and behold, they are. It’s hard to believe that my random suggestions can have an impact.

Or perhaps they were just being nice. After all, trustee meetings with staff seem like something many people would suggest [5]. Still, I’ll go with I made a positive difference.

At tonight’s dinner, Dean Montgomery introduced a new part of the dinner: After the casual chat/drink time, we got to hear a short talk by Joe Mileti on the beauty of mathematics [6]. Each time I’ve heard Joe talk, I’ve enjoyed myself. And this time, he even put up a picture of my great-great-grand-advisor [7], Alonzo Church, a key figure in mathematical logic [8]. Joe also has a new book out from Cambridge University Press, Modern Mathematical Logic. With graduation coming up, it makes a great gift.

As always, the table conversation at dinner was fun. One of the trustees appeared to be on a quest to gather data. They asked us three questions:

  • Compared to ten years ago, do you assign more work, about the same, or less work?
  • Compared to ten years ago, how is your grading different?
  • Do you think Grinnell is more rigorous, about the same, or less rigorous than ten years ago?

They promised that our answers would be kept confidential. I’m happy to answer them in public. The following aren’t exactly what I said but cover similar ground. My more dedicated readers have likely seen some variant of these answers in prior musings.

Compared to ten years ago, do you assign more work, about the same amount of work, or less work?

I assign about the same amount of work, although some types of work differ. One thing that’s changed from ten years ago is that the College now has an official standard: a four-credit class is supposed to represent twelve hours of work. So if my class meets for four hours per week [12], I should assign eight hours of homework.

Of course, I have no idea what eight hours of homework means. In the professional world, the top programmers are ten or times more efficient than the average programmer [14]. In my classes, I can assign a problem that everyone gets right. The average student might take fifteen minutes. Some students can solve them in five minutes or less. Some students will take an hour. Which time do I use in estimating the total work?

And then there’s the question of the grade students are trying to achieve. I recall one of my kids telling me that they could spend three hours on an assignment and get a B or twelve hours and get an A. Which number should I use in estimating the total work?

As expected, the trustee rolled their eyes. And we all agreed that relying on the government’s Carnegie hour expectation was somewhat absurd.

Compared to ten years ago, how is your grading different?

These days, I tend to use something called Mastery Grading, at least in my introductory courses. The key idea is that I judge students by what they know and can do by the end of the semester, rather than by when they show that knowledge. So, for example, if an exam early in the semester covers five topics, and the student only shows mastery of two of them, they can still show mastery of those other topics on subsequent exams.

I consider mastery grading particularly appropriate for our introductory course. Students come in with different prior knowledge or experience with computing; mastery grading helps level the playing field.

I didn’t mention it that night, but I’ve always tried to include some mechanism for students to catch up. In CSC-151, it used to be an optional final. If you were happy with how you did on your exams, you didn’t have to take the final. However, if you weren’t satisfied with how you did on your exams, you took the final examination, which replaced the lowest exam grade (provided your lowest exam grade is lower than your final grade).

I also didn’t mention that my exams have changed significantly since twenty years ago, although perhaps not ten years ago. As a young faculty member, I was known for difficult take-home exams, exams that challenged students to think in new ways. Certain students loved them. Everyone else found them much too hard, even when I included my more than life clause [16].

Do you think Grinnell is more rigorous, about the same, or less rigorous than ten years ago?

I spend too much time reading the higher-ed press (e.g., Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed), so my first response was, Rigor is a problematic term. Unfortunately, my brain no longer functions at quite the level it used to, so I had difficulty explaining why people object to the use of the term rigor. Eventually, I settled on There’s the rigor of asking students to grapple with challenging questions, and there’s the rigor of asking students to meet particular deadlines. In my experience, we ask students to grapple with equally challenging questions and topics. However, many faculty are finding ways to do so without enforcing particular rules that are often called rigor.

I hope they understood what I was trying to convey. I hope I eventually find a better way to articulate those thoughts, or at least that I find someone else’s appropriate articulation of those ideas.

We discussed a variety of other things at dinner, too: Study abroad, computers in the dorms, the Nobel prize in genetics, the tightness of staffing across the sciences, student fragility, college rankings, why students want double majors, SLork, departing faculty, Iowa’s legislature, more.

The trustees I spoke with weren’t aware that the US provides an incentive for international students to major in STEM: While international students who major in non-STEM disciplines get only twelve months of optional practical training (OPT), those who major in STEM disciplines and take a job in their major field get another twenty-four months of OPT. Three years working in the US is often much better than one year. You can imagine many of the reasons. I worry that too few people know about the STEM OPT incentive or its impacts.

The trustees also told stories about their time at Grinnell. Many of the stories involved a faculty member’s harsh or seemingly inappropriate comment. But they relayed those comments with fondness.

As someone who tends toward snark, perhaps what I think of as caring snark, I found myself wondering what they thought about the use of such comments in the twenty-first century’s kindler, gentler classroom. We spoke a bit about the issue. I also chatted with students about the same subject at the next night’s CS picnic. I’m keeping answers and comments confidential.

That’s about all I recall from the night. It was nice. I look forward to the next dinner with trustees. And I encourage my colleagues across the College to attend when you are invited.

[1] Stop laughing.

[2] And rants.

[3] No, I did not suggest that they needed therapy.

[4] Another too much analysis musing is coming.

[5] It’s not all that complicated. You look at something done for/with/to faculty and then ask if it is appropriate to do something similar for/with/to faculty. Faculty participate in Friday discussions about education. Why not have staff do so, too? Faculty are involved in governance; how can we better involve staff? Trustees meet with faculty. Why not have them meet with staff, too?

[6] Or perhaps of mathematical logic.

[7] Advisor: O’Donnell. Grand-advisor: Constable. Great-grand-advisor: Kleene. Great-great-grand-advisor: Church.

[8] I don’t think I’ve told the story of my genealogy recently, so I’m adding it as an endnote. Here goes …

One time, while procrastinating from writing my thesis, I decided to look up my academic genealogy. It was relatively easy to do, even back in the early 1990s. My advisor was Michael J. O’Donnell [9]. Mike’s advisor was Robert Constable. Constable’s advisor was Stephen Kleene, logician and inventor of the Kleene star for regular expressions [10]. Kleene’s advisor was Alonzo Church. Church’s advisor was Oswald Veblen, who got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1903. I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago ninety years later.

In any case, once I found this genealogy, I reported it to Mike. We both thought it was cool that the degree chain had cycled back to the UofC [11].

One day, we saw Saunders Mac Lane in the hallway. Saunders was one of the great Mathematicians at Chicago. I see from his Wikipedia entry that he founded the field of Category Theory. I knew him primarily from Birkhoff and Mac Lane, A Survey of Modern Algebra. In any case, Mike relayed the genealogy to Mac Lane. I think it went something like this:

Mike: Sam is my Ph.D. student. He was doing his academic genealogy and discovered that Oswald Veblen, who got his Ph.D. here in 1903, is our academic ancestor.

Mac Lane: Veblen, now there was a mathematician.

Mike: And Veblen’s student was Alonzo Church, inventor of the lambda calculus.

Mac Lane: Church. ’eh. But Veblen, now there was a mathematician.

It was a painful comment. After all, the lambda calculus is the foundation of functional programming, my research area. And the Church-Turing hypothesis is one of the critical theorems of both mathematical logic and computer science.

A few years later, I realized there’s also a lot to admire Veblen for. I’ll muse about those things, too. Someday.

[9] Should I write, My advisor is or My advisor was? Since it seems reasonable to use was for other folks, I’m also using was for Mike.

[10] I have to tie my ancestry to something related to computer science, right?

[11] It will always be UofC to me, not the UChicago that one of my readers helped foist upon the world.

[12] Many Grinnell classes meet for about three hours per week. Because I teach workshop-style classes, mine almost always meet for three blocks of 80 minutes, which makes four hours.

[14] I teach computer science, not (just) computer programming. But computer programming help ground computing concepts. And, for better or worse, many of our students go off to become programmers [15].

[15] Or software engineers (SWEs).

[16] The policy, which is no longer appropriate under our new system: If you spend more than six hours on an exam and write There’s more to life than computer science on your exam, I guarantee that you’ll receive at least a 70/100 on the exam.

Version 1.0 of 2023-05-06.