Monday, January 02, 2012


Progress and Cycles

As a writer, I’m a little jealous of the folks who write business books.  Most of them only need one idea to generate hundreds of pages.  I have to generate five ideas a week just to blog!

That said, every so often one of those business books actually has something useful to say.  Over the break I read The Progress Principle, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, and I have to admit that it unintentionally shed some useful light on academia.

The one idea of this book is that the feeling of “progress,” even when small, is a powerful motivator.  People who achieve little victories are far more likely to stay engaged with what they’re doing and put forth solid effort than people who don’t get those victories.  The major advice of the book was to structure work (and management) to recognize the value of small victories, and to encourage a sense of forward motion whenever possible.

And then I thought about semesters.

It’s hard to get a sense of progress as a teacher when you have to start all over again every few months.  Just when the students are starting to get the hang of it, they leave, and you have to face a fresh crop that puts you right back where you started.

That may be one of the major differences in faculty work between a community college and a research university.  Research projects can take years, and they typically have little victories along the way.  To the extent that your focus is on research, that sense of progress may not be terribly endangered by the semester schedule.  But if your job is focused on teaching, then your entire work world resets every few months.  Over the course of years, the sense of eternal recurrence can easily swamp any feelings of progress.  Add to that a hostile external climate – by which I mean chronic and worsening funding issues – and I could see where a certain snarky helplessness could quickly become a sort of cultural default mode.

I grew up in a town with a minor league baseball team, which I followed faithfully for years.  Following a minor league team is a very different enterprise than following a big league team.  In the bigs, you hope that your team stomps everybody else and that the players on your team improve.  In the minors, though, there’s a natural limit to that.  When a player gets too good, he gets called up.  Minor league playoffs are often terribly distorted by late-season callups; a team that played brilliantly in the early part of the year may be a materially different team by the end, since its best players got called up in the meantime.  In the minors, you couldn’t get too attached to any one star, since the better the star, the briefer the stay.  It was a more complex, and frustrating, style of fandom.

Teaching on the semester cycle can be a little like that.  Just when the students really start to shine, they move on, and you start all over again.  Everybody knows that going in, of course, but it still makes it harder to draw satisfaction over time.

The way I handled it as a fan was to separate the team from the players.  (As Jerry Seinfeld later put it, I rooted for the shirts.)  I’m hopeful that some faculty are able to do that.  Experiments in curriculum and instruction can take years to play out.  In some ways, that’s a bug, but it may also be a feature.  Getting some sort of temporal orientation beyond the semesterly reset may help replace some of the frustration or sense of futility with a sense of legible progress.

The book didn’t focus on academia, and I don’t know if the authors would accept my reading or not.  But it seems like a deliberate focus at the cc level on pedagogical and curricular experiments over time could pay off not only in the straightforward ways intended, but also in a greater sense of felt progress and continuity over time.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those with heavier teaching loads: how do you handle the lack of a sense of progress that attends the semesterly reset?

I have seen (and continue to see) several markers of progress in my more than two decades at a big community college. Off the top of my head, here are some good ones:

(1) students succeed and move on to new classes (sometimes with you, sometimes not, but you get to cheer them on)
(2) new people join the dept and bring fresh energy to the faculty
(3) new courses are created or old courses are revised as we continue to try to raise student success and meet changing demands
(4) at my school, the management routinely recognizes special faculty accomplishments at annual staff meetings and recognizes seniority with service awards at five-year increments
(5) in a large dept, you can climb out of a rut by requesting a completely different schedule from the one you've gotten used to

Of course, it's depressing when your state budget is stingy and politicians denounce you for having decent retirement programs (although not have as good as theirs!), but the bottom line for me is that it feels like a worthwhile job (most of the time).
When the impression of actual modify becomes obvious, a simple modify of impression becomes intolerable.

Employee job Satisfaction questionnaire
I work in resaerch, and though the timeline is a couple of years rather than a semester, the fact that projects end regardless of how successful they are, and new projects have to be found, can still make the whole enterprise seem pretty meaningless at times.

I've thought about the issue before in terms of video games, especially the role playing games centered around leveling up. The game is fun as long as ypur character level keeps increasing steadily. I think what you need are ways to give people more small promotions. A little more responsibility, a little more freedom to design the content of their courses and teach the material they love.
I teach fully online now. My various school terms run from 5-6 weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks, and 16 week semesters. I disagree that students begin to shine toward the end of a semester (I'm assuming 16 weeks). In my experience, students in both 12 and 16 week terms get off to a great, enthusiastic start and then start losing it when there are 3-4 weeks to go.

Shorter terms provide ongoing engagement and students rarely lose interest before the class is over.

As for rewards and seeing progress and starting over? I love seeing the end of terms and knowing my students have learned during their time with me. I have emails saved for the past decade from students who write after moving on to other classes to thank me for preparing them so well.

That's the reward and that's why I teach instead of doing research. The rewards from teaching are immediate throughout the class. Each week, I see progress as students produce better work based on feedback on their work the week before. Every week there is visible progress.

That has been my experience with online teaching, both undergrad and grad, in all the various term lengths.
My first thought was that developing and maintaining a sense of progress is a central tenet of my teaching style, addressing a completely different question than Dean Dad asked.

My second thought was to put all of that, as well as my answer to his question, into my blog this morning.

Regarding the semester-to-semester pattern, my thoughts are pretty much what Zeno wrote, but I also heartily endorse what Dean Dad mentions at the end of his article. Studying your results in the context of your goals for the course keeps me engaged and leads to item (3) in Zeno's list.

I also take up quarters -vs- semesters (what Virtual Prof mentions) and the importance of a sense of progress in developmental classes.
I thought first of teaching, too. Students are easier to get and keep motivated if they feel they are making progress as they move through my course. But that's a different issue.

I just told my husband yesterday that I'm excited about my first day back from Christmas because I'm teaching the same class to the same set of kids for the first time because my current courses are a year long. Also a different issue.

There does seem to be another point to make, though, which is that the teacher can feel she is making progress even starting over each semester if her teaching is continually improving--if the course is being tweaked and refined, if her methods are becoming better targeted, if her thinking about the class is sharpening.

Getting a fresh crop of students every semester doesn't necessarily undercut the instructor's sense of progress, although I'm sure it can do that. But that doesn't have to be the case, especially not if the teacher is oriented to teaching as a continual learner.
To carry the video game analogy forward, if you can't beat the boss you keep starting over, changing little actions here and there until you get it right. And that's a big motivator in itself--getting it wrong, figuring out a strategy for improving, and eventually getting it right. Because students are always different, always changing, there is space for constant adjustment. And I'd say so long as one never decides s/he has "arrived" as a teacher, this can be a lasting part of the instructor's experience.
The semester reboot actually works for me. I love the chance to start over and avoid past "mistakes". It's like New Years happens twice a year: "THIS time I'm going to exercise more, eat healthier and incorporate more outside reading assignments." Of course, I've only been teaching part-time for about four years, and I experience measurable forward progress in my other professional pursuits. I can see how full-time faculty might develop a sense of progress interrupted.
Semesters work well for me, especially in 2011--oops, 2012.

Imagine someone on "vacation" sitting on the beach but talking on her cell phone and tapping away on her laptop to folks back at the office. That's pretty common today.

Another part of the vacation picture is that in most jobs when you're getting ready to take time off, you have to spend lots of extra time making sure that things that must get done will get done while you're not there.

Then, when you're back at work, you'll find a huge stack of stuff on your desk that didn't get done because you were gone.

For a cc teacher like me, when the semester is over, it's over. There's nothing more for me to do. The break between the Fall and Spring semester is a real break, and summertime is even better.

It took me years to realize this, but it's one of the real joys of teaching.
Facebook has helped, for me. I get these glimpses into the lives of former students and see that they are successful and happy -- and sometimes even, they will refer to stuff we talked about long ago in class.
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