Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Working syllabi for spring 2010

Preliminary syllabi are now posted at the usual place, although there’s a good chance the assignments may change—requirements that seemed appropriate for a 30-student senior-level class no longer appear quite so reasonable with 45 students and counting.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Links that are in no way editorial comments on my employer

These items are presented for your edification without further comment.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Your spring 2010 textbook lists

I don’t have syllabi yet—the plan is to make a few changes to the spring 2009 syllabi but nothing radical—but here’s the list:

For PSCI 2306, Texas government (aka American State Government): Government and Politics in the Lone Star State, 6th ed. We had to pick the same book for all our sections due to Early College High School… and then they put all the kids from ECHS in the same section, defeating the purpose of picking a common book. I was using CQ’s Lone Star Politics before, which I liked and tried to sell my colleagues on using, but the lack of a test bank was the deal-breaker.

For PSCI 3320, Congress and the Presidency: The American Congress, 6th ed.; The American Congress Reader; and The Politics of the Presidency. I’ve been using the CQ Congress books for years but felt like trying something different for Congress, hence the switch to Smith, Roberts, and Vander Wielen’s books. New edition of Pika and Maltese, but otherwise no change on the presidency end, where I only spend a few weeks anyway—really I teach the class more focused on “Congress and Interbranch Relations.”

For PSCI 4320, Political System of the U.S. (which I basically treat as a political behavior class, since we don’t have anything on the books at the undergrad level that covers that stuff): Polling and the Public, 7th ed.; Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice; Citizen Politics, 5th ed., and Party Politics in America, 13th ed. I’ve decided to try to cut back on the voting behavior and interest groups material I was including before and focus more on parties and public opinion. This class was the least successful one last time around, in part because I was too ambitious in what I planned to cover. I’m also going to replace the research paper requirement with a couple of shorter papers, which hopefully will work better.

And that’s it; thankfully I’ll be doing my 3-class semester in the spring so I might actually be a bit saner and more prolific here and elsewhere (e.g. OTB) then.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Google search of the day

A literal transcription: “is dr, christopher n. lawrence a good proffesor.”

More surprisingly, Google doesn’t seem to have an answer to that question. So much for its omniscience.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Teaching is a repeated game

John Sides and Inside Higher Ed today discuss a rather, er, innovative approach to grading classroom assessment (gotta go with the Newspeak term)—essentially, rewarding effort, consistent participation, and de minimis competence, and having students be the judge of said de minimis competence.

I have a couple of reactions: first, while this might work with a student body as generally overachieving as Duke’s, I shudder to think what would happen if I handed over control of my gradebook to the median student in my current general education summer classes, who can be best characterized as mildly disinterested in the material at hand. (I can’t say I blame them on this score, either. I hardly was thrilled by gen ed in my undergrad days, even if some of the classes turned out more interesting than I had expected.)

The second problem is located by a professor commenting at IHE who tried something very similar and found it did not survive repeated contact with the student body at my graduate alma mater:

I tried this for several years in the mid-nineties. I found it worked wonderfully—the first time I tried it. The students worked much harder than they ever would have for a grade, and enjoyed the learning experience more, and told me later it was the best class they took in college. But the next semester it worked worse, and it kept working worse and worse for the three or so years I used the system. I kept tweaking it, trying to find a way to restore its original success; but no luck.

I finally realized what was going on: word was out that my class was an “easy A,” and it was attracting all the laziest students. I invariably had one or two motivated students who were there for the novel learning experience, and then a whole slew of slackers who wanted to coast. ...

My project was an overidealistic one, I finally realized (and, gritting my teeth, went back to more traditional grading): I wanted to RELEASE my students’ “natural” love of learning from the bonds in which they had been encased by fourteen or fifteen years of grade-slavery. I love to learn; hence, a love of learning is “natural”; hence, grade-based opportunism is artificial; a conditioned jail; hence, my students need to be liberated from their jails. I realized at some point that my project was actually one of reconditioning my students to be more like me—and that, while it did work in some cases, not only was a semester not a long enough reconditioning period, but the project itself was suspect.

There are some more positive reactions, including one quoted by the author of the IHE piece that… well, you be the judge:

I’ve done something like this with my big undergrad class, ‘Intersections: Race, Gender & Sexuality in US History,’ for years now. They do all the work, at a ‘good faith’ level of quality (earning a check from their TA), show up on time to all classes and participate in discussion sections—they get an A. Grades scale down from there. The greatest thing about it is that many students without previous educational privilege love it and often do extremely well when not being judged in the usual way—reading a book a week, writing response papers every week, and ultimately participating at grad student level. Entitled students who try to skate by on a good prose style do not like it at all.

Once one starts using terms like “students with[] previous educational privilege” to refer to students who complete the required readings, who have bothered to learn the rudiments of writing clear, coherent prose, and who exceed the bare minimum standards one’s TA is enforcing, one may have lost the plot entirely.

Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that the true motivation here lies less in “liberating” students from the yoke of grades (or at least bad grades) than it does in liberating faculty from their own responsibilities to sit in judgment of their students’ work, with all of the potential hard feelings that said responsibility entails. I suppose this is the natural consequence of faculty already abdicating their responsibilities to conduct classes small enough to interact with students—enter the “discussion section,” and your cadre of TAs brought in with little prospect of future employment beyond the fast food industry to keep the students happy while you blog your New Age theories of pedagogy do research. Once you’ve collectively decided you no longer give a damn about teaching, I suppose it’s a very short walk to ceasing to give a shit about assessing student learning either.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Projecting unto others

Timothy Burke revises and extends the argument over PowerPoint in the classroom today (a theme also of previous interest at Signifying Nothing). Echoing Frequent Commenter Scott’s observations in the comments yesterday, Burke writes:

Many of the criticisms directed at information technology in the classroom get hung up on a misattribution issue. Eric Rauchway makes this point very effectively: the problem with bad PowerPoint presentations is often not the software, but the presenter.

The professors who get up and drone their way through slides would get up and drone their way through written notes if you took away the technology. There’s some truth to the point raised by Kid Bitzer in the comments to the Rauchway thread, that PowerPoint exacerbates or aggravates some of the underlying issues that a mediocre or poor lecturer carries into the classroom. Still, dealing with the technology is just a case of treating a symptom, not the disease.

My concerns with this line of argument are twofold: first, while “bad lecturers will be bad lecturers” may be true in relative terms, I think a bad lecturer using PowerPoint will be a worse lecturer—in the sense of perhaps inadvertently getting the students to stumble across the point of the material—than a bad lecturer sans PowerPoint, for the simple reason that PowerPoint’s default passive presentation mode reinforces bad lecture habits. I don’t think I’m a “bad” lecturer*, and I know I am less effective with passive projection than I am without; I almost don’t dare imagine how it would affect some of the more horrific lecturers I’ve had the dubious pleasure of sitting in the room with.

Second, and I think this may partially be explained by differences in student populations served, I think passive presentation tech—and perhaps any presentation technology—reinforces bad student habits by promoting verbatim transcription of slides at the expense of active listening and taking notes of points emphasized by the instructor. I suspect the student population that Burke serves at Swarthmore is far more adept at information consumption than the one I face here and thus able to learn something from a lecture accompanied by a pre-organized screen full of words. I’d imagine the student without that background benefits more taking notes of a slide-free lecture since they have to process the lecture in real-time to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than what I suspect goes on in PowerPoint world: assuming the “wheat” is what’s on the slide and the “chaff” is what the instructor is saying.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Being passed by the Joneses on their way back down

Lee Sigelman, after a typical lament against PowerPoint, takes note of a new data point in the endless debate:

Case in point: At least at one school (SMU), the dean is trying to talk faculty members out of using PowerPoint and to banish computers from the classroom.

Alas, at the other end of the state the “student-centered learning” fad and the promotion of the overly-teched-up classroom, to better pack the students in and delude them—or at least the accreditors—into thinking they’re getting something vaguely akin to a liberal arts education in a 170-student lecture, continues apace.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A political institutions reading list, revised and resubmitted

Here’s the current iteration of the book list. I’m also thinking of having the students write a book review each of an additional book not on this list.

  • Shepsle and Boncheck, Analyzing Politics.
  • Buchanan and Tullock, The Calculus of Consent.
  • Farrell, Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction.
  • Cox and McCubbins, Setting the Agenda Legislative Leviathan (replacing Krehbiel, one of whose books will probably become a book review).
  • Aldrich, Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America.
  • Baum, The Puzzle of Judicial Behavior, per comments from commenter “prison rodeo” who correctly lamented the lack of anything on the judiciary.
  • Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make, because I need something on the presidency and this one looks promising.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Toward an American political institutions reading list

Here’s what I’ve got for my fall graduate seminar thus far:

  • Shepsle and Boncheck, Analyzing Politics.
  • Buchanan and Tullock, The Calculus of Consent.
  • Farrell, Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction.
  • Krehbiel, Information and Legislative Organization.
  • Aldrich, Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America.

Obviously that doesn’t include articles yet, but I don’t need to figure those out until August or so. Obviously I'm trying to bring in a lot of rational choice here, since our undergraduates really don't get any of that as far as I know; I figure I can get away without Arrow and Downs since Shelpsle and Boncheck cover that territory, but I want something on election systems and I’ve used Farrell before and am happy with his treatment. So, any suggestions?

Monday, 2 February 2009

Get your learn on

My APSA Teaching & Learning Conference paper co-written with my colleagues Lynne and Marcus is now done; I’m looking forward to my quick trip to Baltimore to present it and catch up with the methods-teaching crowd this weekend.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


Syllabi for Texas Government and Congress and the Presidency are now done. Yay?

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Bust a move

I enjoyed last night’s episode of Mythbusters for a variety of reasons. For starters, I now have Smart Board Envy™, projectiles and explosions are always fun, and seeing Adam, Jamie, and Kari drunk was a hoot.

The social scientist in me, though, really enjoyed the “beer goggles” experiment. In fact, the show, edited down to just include that section, would make a great primer on “how social scientific experiments work” for my undergraduate methods course when I teach it again, presumably next fall. On the other hand, I was less thrilled with the “sobering up” experiment, but the comedy factor of drunken Adam trying to run on a treadmill without a handrail, with all-too-predictable results, made up for the scientific shortcomings therein.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Policy can be fun

My review copy of Munger’s policy book finally arrived today; good thing I’d already decided to adopt it sight-unseen for the fall—I’d already used a book from the same series before, Stewart’s Analyzing Congress, and liked but hadn’t had an opportunity to really use Morton’s Analyzing Elections, so I figured the series editor knew what he or she was doing.

I’m still not convinced I’m the best person to be teaching this course—my back-of-the-envelope math suggests that there are sufficient PA folks in the department to have avoided assigning the graduate public policy course to the rookie non-PA person on the bench—but I think I can approach it from a reasonably political-science heavy direction. We’ll see if that survives contact with the students, but I think it will be fun.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Translating from Student Evaluationese to English, part 1

“The professor is disorganized” → “the professor doesn’t use PowerPoint™ and give us the notes in Blackboard™ so we can sleep through class.”

Friday, 25 January 2008

Math works

I had fun today in class with the following formula: 0.98/√N.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Virtual office hours

On the plane back to New Orleans yesterday, I saw this article in USA Today about professors using tools like AIM and Skype to provide “virtual office hours” for students.

I’ve toyed with doing that myself, but I worry about the perils of becoming too available—I already tend to respond to student emails at strange hours of the day, and I wouldn’t really want to advertise my weird working hours for student chat sessions. I suppose the compromise would be to set up separate Skype and AIM accounts that I just use for office hours and which I only use on my office computer, much as I’ve set up a separate GMail account with a more “professional” address and a separate professional website; now’s the time to do it while I’m still finishing up syllabi.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Where do they teach this stuff?

Profgrrrrl demonstrates how to use a spreadsheet program to calculate grades. This seems like the sort of skill that ought to be taught somewhere in the curriculum, but I don’t recall ever being told to use a spreadsheet in school except to calculate basic descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations) for physics labs in college in some DOS version of Quattro Pro.

Of course, I’m the sort of person who grades things with denominators like 15, 45, and 60 and who created 11 nested IF formulas in Calc to assign letter grades in my classes this semester, so I’m clearly weird.

Update: Dr. Pion also responds to the initial post that started it all.

Extra credit

Professor Karlson and Dean Anonymous both inveigh against ad hoc extra credit. I make a general policy of only giving extra credit on an “open to all takers” basis, and typically I build into my grading structures things that eliminate the need for extra credit, such as dropping low quiz grades and weighing exams so higher-scoring exams count more in the final average.

Now I just need to figure out the secret to taking attendance without having to deal with the stupid paperwork associated with absences for the spring.

Monday, 17 December 2007

I wanna be bad

Dan Drezner invites professors to submit the worst sentence they’ve seen from a student-written term paper. All of my candidates are in the office this evening, so I’ll have to defer my participation to tomorrow, but I’m sure I have some possibilities lurking around the office.

In fairness, however, most of the essays (and even many of the hastily-written final exams) I read this semester were quite good; I was actually pleasantly surprised, given the horror stories I’d heard from a colleague earlier in the semester.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Marketing 618

For your amusement, here’s a link to my flyer for my public opinion and voting behavior class in the spring. Enrollment is currently at 14/25; hopefully I can get it to the max going into the semester, so it stabilizes around 20–22 once the drop period passes. Southern politics in the spring is already maxxed out at 35; the 8 am American politics class is lagging well behind, but I’m not sure if freshmen have registered yet (early MWF classes in general don’t have great enrollments, it seems).

Thursday, 1 November 2007

In with the new, out with the old

Well, it turns out I’m not teaching Congress after all in the spring; instead, for a variety of reasons too boring to go much into (mostly having to do with distribution requirements within the political science major), the king of the schedule and I decided that I should teach POLA 618, Public Opinion and Voting Behavior, instead.

A book list will be forthcoming. Hopefully I can intercept things before the bookstore orders a bazillion copies of Unorthodox Lawmaking et al.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Liar, liar

I ended up doing more of a book overhaul than I planned for the spring. The least change: American Government got all four books I mentioned in the previous post.

I ended up with a net add to Congress, bringing the grand total up to seven books. I will probably emphasize Analyzing Congress as the primary readings for the subjects it covers and demote the overlap in Congress and Its Members to supplemental readings, but I couldn’t get rid of the interbranch and policy stuff from the latter. Other than edition updates, I added a new CQ book, All Roads Lead to Congress, as a complement to Sinclair’s Unorthodox Lawmaking. Never before have my professional interests and hobbies intersected so well.

Southern politics ended up with a net loss in the requirements column and a hold on the total book list length. Jettisoned are Woodard’s The New Southern Politics—I could justify it in a course on contemporary southern politics, but my class isn’t quite that, instead being more of a “REP + parties in the south” syllabus—and Bullock and Rozell, the latter just simply because the group presentations make their readings redundant. Added to the required readings is Black and Black’s Rise of Southern Republicans, because I realized this semester that my readings really didn’t cover anything between 1985 and 2000, especially with Woodard ditched. Bass and de Vries’ Transformation of Southern Politics makes the “recommended” list, joining Key, since I decided to add some reserve readings from it.

Next stop: syllabus tweaks.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Credential inflation

Laura at 11D interacts with her baby-sitter and discovers a certain lack of rigor in courses at a local community college, leading to the following inquiries:

More students are in college than ever before. But how many of them are getting degrees that mean something? Why aren’t they ticked off that they are spending thousands on empty degrees? Why are the colleges not enforcing some rigor?

I’m sure Prof. Karlson would attribute many of these problems to the “access-accommodation-remediation-retention” model being followed at the lower and middle tiers of contemporary academe, but I’m not sure the fault isn’t in ourselves and the incentive to overindulge our students. My observation, which I posted at 11D, follows:

I think to many kids, college education these days is all about getting the credential, even at good schools (several different departments I interviewed with last year had the same observation, including at some very good schools). The fact that they don’t have to work very hard, or the expectations are low, is a feature, not a bug. Coupled with the over-reliance on student evaluations in decisions on faculty retention, tenure, and promotion, the incentive structure for faculty to teach rigorous courses just isn’t there.

I’m sure there’s more to the story than the demand side of the equation—certainly there exist departments and colleges where there is no institutional commitment to maintaining a high quality of instruction, and the AARR model isn’t blameless either—but students who don’t demand good classes probably won’t get them.

Monday, 15 October 2007


I just found out that my presentation proposal for the 2008 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference in San Jose next February was accepted. Now I just need to figure out how to get away from school for the weekend.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

PolMeth Postmortem

Michelle Dion has posted her thoughts on the recently-concluded political methodology conference at Penn State. I’ll echo her kudos to the organizers among the Penn State faculty and grad students, most notably Burt Monroe (who took time out to check in with the participants over the course of the meeting) and Suzie DeBoef. I also got some useful feedback and interest regarding the poster, which will be strong motivation to finish up the paper and get it out to the Working Papers archive and off to Political Analysis.

Like Michelle, I do wonder sometimes about the ability of the “core group” to reach out to the practitioners who don’t attend PolMeth and whose dues support the viability of the section and its journal. Notably, there has been some discussion of the section getting more actively involved in the Teaching Research Methods track at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, although I wonder if there is an awareness of what that track has done in the past on the part of the appointed committee (I’m pretty sure none of its members have been within 100 miles of a past TLC, and only one represents a non-research-oriented department), which may make for some interesting toe-trampling over the next few months.

My departure from State College was rather more eventful than one might have hoped; Northwest cancelled my 6:00 a.m. flight to Detroit and rebooked me on Delta via Atlanta, an airport which I’m pretty sure is foreseen somewhere in Dante’s works. As a special bonus I also got to enjoy the thrill and excitement of being SSSS'd by TSA. The good news is that at least I made it back in one piece.

Anyway, back to packing; Dad arrives tomorrow and I’d like it to look like I’ve made at least a modicum of progress here.