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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Reflections on the German word "Schuld"

While listening to Paul Krugman's (Nobel laureate in economics) presentation on the Commonwealth Club podcast I was struck by his comment about cultural differences in attitude toward debt, especially what he noticed about Germans: The German word for debt and guilt is one and the same, Schuld.

That linguistic observation transported me back to my childhood in Germany. Now, all my observations are from a sample size of one, and I also have to state that I was raised by parents who survived the German depression years of the 1930s, the second World War (my father was for several years in a Russian prison camp), escaped from Eastern Germany to West Germany with just a suitcase in 1952, and started all over from nothing twice.

So, here is what is what I grew up believing: 

  • Only weak or lazy people have debt
  • Debt is something to be ashamed of
  • If I am indebted, then that person/organization has control over me (The German saying goes like this: "Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing."
  • Planning and saving is more important than spending - the opposite of conspicuous consumption
  • People with money in the bank are honorable people

There are more examples, but I will stop here. 

What did this mean for me personally? Well, I have never ever bought anything in Germany that I didn't pay for with cash. That included the brand-new car I bought at age 18. (I had been working every vacation since age 14.) When credit cards came to Germany, I only used them for convenience, not for credit. And I saved almost 20% of my income every month by setting up an automatic transfer into a savings account, so that I didn't even 'see' the money in my checking account. 

Then I moved to California. Two things struck me right away: that buying cars with borrowed money was the rule rather than the exception; that the government encourages its citizens to take out huge loans to buy houses by making the interest tax deductible. Most countries in the world don't have that government support of home ownership, something I point out in almost every class I teach.

I still buy cars with cash, I just can't help it. I save and then I have a budget to work with to purchase a car. I also keep my cars a long time - my previous car (bought used) I kept for 15 years (I do know a very good mechanic. : )

Then I bought a house. The first time in my life that I was in debt. Really, I lost sleep over that, but by then I had studied business and I understood that it was a rational business decision. I kept remembering the time when my parents bought their house in Germany in 1970, and had to take out a loan to do that. They put almost all their energy into paying back that debt as soon as possible and were debt-free after six years!

So, even though I no longer lose sleep over my mortgage, I have a prepayment plan set up. This also makes good business sense. 

Bottom line: I am grateful to have learned money sense from my parents. And I am grateful that I am now influenced by American money culture. The two together seem to bring a healthy balance to my life. I do splurge sometimes, but still use credit cards only for convenience. 

Credit card companies hate me. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reuse, reduce - reduce!

Can faculty use less paper to free up resources for other areas?

This term, I am serving on a team that is tasked with validating program review documents for all administrative units on our campus. Yes, it's a lot of reading and meetings, etc., thank you very much. But it's also an opportunity to stumble upon information that comes as a big surprise. For me, one of those was data that DVC still makes 1.5 Million (!) copies per month (!) in the Central Services area alone. That means, those are numbers that do not include the individual copy machines all across campus.

Central Services mostly serves faculty. So, just to play with the number some, let's assume all 1.5 Million copies are destined for students' use. Since we have about 20,000 students, that is 75 copies for each and every students each and every month. There is something really wrong with that.

Yes, at the beginning of the semester we provide syllabi, and that's still important, I believe, to provide in hard copy since that's the contract between students and teacher. Assuming that the average syllabus is 10 pages, and that the average student takes 3 classes (both are high numbers), that total is 30 pages at the time of highest student use of copied paper.

Where do the copies go? I really have no idea. During the last couple of years, as we were struggling to come out from under the accreditation commisssion's long shadow (and we did!), lots of time and effort and resources have been spent on creating a productivity model for DVC's instructional units. Funding will be tied to productivity numbers; new hiring will be tied to productivity numbers; growth will be tied... you get the idea.

Can we tie our use of copied paper to productivity? Can we encourage faculty to ask and answer the question of productivity (to themselves) before we make copies? I certainly will from now on.

Also, I am starting an experiment. I will post more of my handouts to WebCT, and ask the students to review them before the next class. Instead of asking them to print it - at a community college, we will encounter students who find the cost of printing their own copies a considerable challenge to their budget - I ask them to write down questions they have about it. No hard copies required. At least for project assignments and other homework, this has worked in my four f2f classes without a glitch.

This will only work as long as we can keep computer labs and libraries open, of course. But maybe we can use some of the saved money from the copies to fund those services.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are exams about testing or can they be about learning?

Using individual as well as group exams in two classes this semester has taught me that exams can be about more than just regurgitating facts.

Research has shown that the use of group exams in college classes has three positive outcomes: group work promotes deeper understanding of the material; groups outperform individuals; and group tests are less stressful.

I could spend a lot of time on the first positive outcome, 'promotes deeper understanding,' and how its my belief that deeper understanding and the integration of learning into the brain is really what teaching and learning is all about for me. But I'll spare you.

Rather, I want to share the additional positive outcomes I have seen in the two classes where I have introduced individual plus group exams. First, students show up and stay in the class. If you think that's not important, just look at statistics regarding retention, and talk to college instructors on attendance rates. It's a really, really big deal!

The second additional positive outcome is that students are much more engaged and open with each other in those classes. Even more than in classes where we do a lot of group/team activities - there seems to be something about sharing the anxiety and the pressure and the success of an exam that deepens the bonding.

Just one example: before the final exam in one of the classes, one student brought 'good luck' necklaces for the team members. They all wore them proudly during and after the exam, and even stayed on after everybody else had left. They talked about how they didn't want the class to end. When have you heard that the last time from a student?

I will try to implement individual and group exams more, and will continue to watch for the impact it has on student success and learning. But, equally important to me, I will watch for retention and engagement in those classes.

Millennials live and learn differently. It is our job as college instructors to provide an environment where they can learn and be successful.

Change, the only constant!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Whistling Vivaldi - should community college teachers care about stereotype threat?

Is stereotype threat just one more thing to worry about, or is it just one more thing to not worry about in the community college classroom?

Claude Steele defines stereotype threat as the pressure one experiences in a challenging academic setting as a member of a group - woman, black, Asian, old, etc. - because one's performance could confirm a bad view of that group and of oneself, as a member of that group. (p. 59)


For example, a woman in an advanced college math class knows that she could be seen as limited because, stereotypically, men are perceived as being better at math than women. So, her performance in that math class puts that extra pressure on her: she is not only performing to achieve her own goals, but also to proof or disproof something about the whole of women studying math.

Makes sense? Can you relate?
But let's see where that takes us.

Steele set up experiments where the subjects were reminded of their group membership before a difficult task; for the woman in the advanced math class, it could be something as trivial as seeing a picture of a woman holding a child. Steele showed over and over, across many group membership possibilities, that subjects showed depressed performance under those circumstances.

Now for the good news.

If the woman was given the same math test, but the test was presented as gender neutral - for example, by reading a statement that this test previously showed equal success by men and women alike, or maybe even that women showed to be especially successful on this test - the subject demonstrated a statistically significant increase in performance on the math test.

How can I apply this in my community college classroom?

Depending on the specific group membership I am concerned about, I could make a statement that, in previous semesters, students did equally well on this test.

What will it take for me to do this? To be more aware of stereotypes and how they might show up in my classes. By paying attention and giving consideration to stereotype threat, I might be able to get one step closer to leveling the academic success 'playing field.'

Friday, August 27, 2010

Building community in the online classroom - I have to go first

This summer I took several classes that involved social media in one way or another. The last one focused on social media for online teaching. Now, at the conclusion of that class, I can say that I had three major ‘aha’ moments that changed my understanding of the online class community.

First, that it takes time to build community: the forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning phases are vital; they cannot be hurried of skipped if one’s goal indeed is to build an online community. Yes, this takes time. It’s an investment of resources that currently are not captured in any SLO, yet they can make or break the learning success in a class.

The second main point for me is the fact that participation is key. I read in “Stages of Group Development” that collaboration is, essentially, interaction. This means that I have to make a change in how I facilitate my online classes. I have been very tolerant of lurkers - the lurker, the person who is around but not visible through contributions – and I now realize that the lurker is not part of the community. Hence, I will privately encourage lurkers to participate, and set minimum requirements for all.

Third, that I, as instructor, should model the process, and actively engage in the collaboration. Until now, I had considered the instructor’s presence as a distraction (at best) or as a pace setter, not to be overtaken. I now realize that my participation in the activities and on discussion boards will increase the feeling of “all of us are in this together,” and that my mantra, we are all learning together, can become a reality.
I already recorded a welcome message using VoiceThread for my late-start online class. I am not using a new toy just to use the new toy, I am starting with the end in mind: Building community, increasing social presence, and engaging as a whole person.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I am in the transportation business?

Thoughts after the 2010 Convocation at Diablo Valley College.

During one of the speeches at yesterday's convocation, somebody, I think it was President Judy Walters, stated, "We are in the transportation business." That stuck with me.

I get it - it's a metaphor for education. Taking people from where they are now to where they want to be.

But the way my brain works, it latches on to this metaphor, and creates a whole movie around it. The transportation business as a metaphor for community college education, for me, means public transportation. Let's make it a bus.

We have established routes and schedules, fees and types of buses. We desperately are trying to create a system that serves the most people most of the time. But there are some people that just can't make it in this cookie-cutter system.

Let's see. There are those passengers who take really long to get on the bus; those who get on but then want to get off right away; those who get on the wrong bus; those who don't have the money to pay; those who wait on the wrong side of the street; those who don't correctly identify a bus station as such, and wonder why the buses pass them over and over again...

Then there are those passengers who get on the wrong bus, but don't know it. Those who get on a bus because their parents make them, because their friends get on that bus, because they have nothing better to do...

And then there are changing patterns and needs. One bus line used to be crowded all the time - and now it's running almost empty. Or at certain times, the bus is really, really full, and at other times it's a ghost bus. And on the other side, passengers have to walk a long, long distance to get to the nearest bus station, even though more and more people are having to make that long walk.

Ok, I'll stop milking this metaphor totally dry - the bottom line: If we community college educators are indeed in the transportation business, then, "Because we've always done it this way" just isn't good enough. We need to be in touch with passengers' needs, and change routes, create new schedules, offer a variety of buses, and place bus stops where the people need them.

"Trans" - a prefix indicating "change." For us as educators, too.

Monday, August 9, 2010

From Zappo's to the Community College Classroom

I just finished reading Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappo's. Why I read that? Well, it was mentioned in a UC Berkeley marketing class I took this summer, but also because I teach entrepreneurship, and I am always looking for good stories students can relate to.

Here's what I got out of reading the book: Yes, as expected, I am inspired and impressed by Hsieh's entrepreneurial spirit, instinct, commitment, and success. I am also intrigued by the emphasis he places on nurturing the Zappo culture, and the many interesting and entertaining stories. Very appealing, and I will definitely talk about it in class.

But what really got me was at the very end of the book. Hsieh talks about happiness. Yep, touchy-feely happiness. He actually studied happiness, and the different frameworks for happiness. And here's the one that really, really got to me.

  1. Perceived control
  2. Perceived progress
  3. Connectedness
  4. Vision/Meaning
This framework states that if we have those four things in our lives, we feel happy. So, I thought of the classroom culture I endeavor to create. Why? Because there is a direct connection between the emotional engagement of a student in a class, and academic success. Now, what if I call that emotional engagement "happiness"? Let's see...

  1. Control: In as many areas as possible, the students get to have a vote/voice on what happens in the classroom. Who are your group members; what will be the consequence when a cell phone goes off during class; when will the homework be due; how many questions on the exam; students create exam questions...
  2. Progress: Rather than designing assessments for the class to be limited to one midterm and one final, assessments happen at least weekly, and in several formats. Also, all grades are available 24/7 through the CMS.
  3. Connectedness: We spend time to get to know each other, and mix up groups for team projects. We use the CMS to stay in touch outside the class meeting time, and put on at least one pot luck. We laugh, talk, teach, and learn together.
  4. Meaning: What happens in the classroom has a larger meaning for each and every student's life. That will not be the same for every student, rather, it means that we talk about the many facets how our classroom learning applies to 'real' life. Also, it means that students bring in their experiences, current situations, and dreams to make those connections.

I am so glad I read this book. How perfect is the timing, too: As I am starting the new semester, I am reminded that community college teaching is about so much more than checking that students are retaining facts. It's about meaning-making, about the emotional connection with the subject and the class and then college. The process is the destination.

Did I mention that I am so glad I read this book?