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The Weekly Blab 7.2

The Weekly Blab

Volume 7, Issue 2—August 22, 2012


Summertime Part 2…

Continuing from last week’s summer summary:  The summer RACAA/RACSA meeting (that’s Regents Advisory Committee on Academic Affairs/Student Affairs) meeting was July 8-10 at Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee.  If you’ve never been there, it’s a grand hotel sort of place, with very nice rooms and meeting facilities, an infinity pool, and a beautiful lakefront.  The meeting began with a dinner that introduced Chancellor Huckabee to the group, who spoke briefly.  This was followed by a concert by a local group called “The Bushmen”, whose repertoire seemed strangely familiar—it was almost exactly the same music as played by “Friday at Five”, the faculty band that plays at SPSU’s open houses and picnics.  Wife Jill was laughing as I was guessing (and with excellent accuracy) what the next song would be.  The next day began with the new Senior Vice Chancellor, Houston Davis, talking about “From Listening to Implementing Complete College Georgia”.  He was interested in hearing comments from the various VPAA’s, and comments there were: the need for better data, the importance of having more than Academic Affairs involved in the effort to increase graduation rates, the need to review some USG (and campus) policies that impede graduation, the issue of people thinking this is just another passing fad, the need for accountability in meeting goals, the need for data on high school student readiness for college success, the need for more funding (for faculty and student support), the high stress level this puts on faculty (especially after several years with no raises), and many others.  Davis stressed the importance of reaching out to adult learners, and spoke in favor of developing open educational resources.   He also mentioned that the new degree proposal process would be streamlined a bit.  There was some discussion about learning support programs (which doesn’t affect us—we don’t have any), and about trying to forecast future program directions at the universities.

The transition to Desire 2 Learn was also discussed (see last issue of the BLAB for some info about what’s happening at SPSU), and the USG will be seeing what additional modules are wanted by the campuses to be added later, such as portfolio management and linkage of prior courses taken.  It was noted that the Department of Education will be implementing D2L in the high schools over the next five years, so our incoming students should become increasingly familiar with it.

Tuesday brought a space utilization report, which will be affecting every campus.  It was noted that we have a lot of space, but state support is declining and maintenance costs are rising.  The Chancellor has stated that “Our challenge is not building more capacity—it’s using the space more efficiently.”   Currently, there are $400 million in construction projects in various stages of process within the USG, and another $655 million in projects that have not yet begun.  Assuming a budget of $100M per year, it is easy to see that there aren’t going to be any new projects (projects not on the list) for quite some time. 

In order to measure efficiency of space use, the USG is adopting a model that has goals of each classroom being occupied for 40 hours/week (that’s 40 60-minute hours, which is the same as 48 50-minute hours per week) with high usage of the room’s capacity (number of chairs).  There was a pilot study of six USG universities (SPSU was one) that determined that current overall occupancy was between 22% and 62% (ours was in the middle of the group).  While no one is expecting 100% of our classrooms to meet this level, it is certainly being expected that well over 50% should.  Meeting this metric will require universities to schedule classes much more efficiently before any new funds will be allocated for construction. 

The meeting ended with the “induction” of the new Chair for RACAA—me.  So, I’ll be more involved in various Board of Regents initiatives related to academic affairs in the coming year.  Speaking of Board stuff, I’m also on the Shared Services Committee, which as you might expect is examining the services that are currently shared across the USG (such as everyone’s favorite—ADP—the software that tracks hours worked and handles payroll, among other stuff).  We’re also looking at possibilities for new shared services, and trying to solve some problematic issues such as how to determine benefit eligibility for part-time faculty who teach at more than one university (it’s currently a nightmare to deal with this).  Meetings for the Shared Services group are sometimes in Atlanta but more often in Sandersville (though you can phone in instead of going there), and there seems to be one meeting or another every two weeks.

The first of a gazillion new student orientations started on July 10, and I give the academic expectations speech at pretty much all of them.  It’s a lot of fun to speak to each group of students.  Some groups are more into it than others, but they all have a good time and are clearly glad and proud to be coming to SPSU.  Doing the orientations takes up a lot of time for everyone involved—Student and Enrollment Services staff, ATTIC staff, Career and Counseling staff, me, department chairs, etc.—but it’s very much worth it.  Our enrollment is now above 6,100 for the first time in our history.  When I first got here in 2005, the enrollment started with a “3” instead of today’s “6”.  Woo Hoo!


International Students on Campus

Something that you may not know is that SPSU is one of the most diverse and international universities in the U.S.  We have a large number of international students, representing more than 70 countries.  Our faculty is diverse and international as well, with more than 35 countries represented.  Among our international students, the largest number from a single country come from China.  The most unusual place one of our students came from was Niue, an island ex-dependency of New Zealand, total population 1,800.

Back in the day, I remember my first Sabbatical, during which I taught in England.  I still remember the culture shock I experienced the first several weeks I was there—and this was in a country where I spoke the language!  It was a nightmare to try to open a bank account, to rent an apartment, and to get the phone transferred to my name.  Going into the grocery store, I didn’t recognize anything—all the brands were unfamiliar (I still remember seeing the plastic tub of margarine labeled “not for human consumption” and wondering what it WAS for), and in many cases the food item was called something different (American “roast” = British “joint”; napkin = serviette (in England, a napkin is a diaper); Sprite = sparkling lemonade; hamburger = mince; spaghetti sauce = sauce Bolognese; you get the idea).  Then there was the day I found out that electricity cost three times as much before 5PM as after.  Still, I got used to my new surroundings, and after 3 weeks or so settled down and had a fine time.

Now imagine the culture shock for a student coming from China to the U.S.  Everything is different, and not just a little.  Most are the first in their families to do anything like this, and it takes a huge amount of bravery to do it.  Our Chinese students have all tested well in English, but it’s one thing to learn it in China and it’s another thing entirely to be immersed in it in the U.S., along with the cultural change.  Despite this, the overwhelming majority (more than 90%) of our Chinese students are successful, passing their classes, earning honors, getting degrees (I wish our overall graduation rate was as good as for our Chinese students), and often going on to graduate school at top universities.  The same can be said for our students from many other countries.

So, this is a gentle note to remind us all that while we fully expect each student to achieve the same level of mastery in their courses as any other student, there will be a transition period of a few weeks for many of our international students as they learn to hear and speak “Southern”, adjust to American study habits, and get used to eating grits and drinking sweet tea.  If you are able to help them through this process by spending a little extra time in explanations, giving a little extra guidance on assignments, letting them record your lectures, or whatever, you’ll be doing a good thing for a very capable student and will be amazed at the outcome.


Success Rates on Gateway Courses

One of the strategies on SPSU’s Complete College Georgia submission related to success rates on gateway courses, that is—increasing the percentage of students who earn grades of A, B, or C on their first time through the course.  Some faculty have expressed concerns about our setting a numerical goal for this standard and what it might mean for them.  After all, isn’t earning a passing grade the student’s responsibility?

First, I want to assure everyone that the success rates aren’t going to become the sine qua non of faculty assessment.  Both success rates and SIRs are measures (imperfect ones at that) to try to see what is going on in the classroom, and to try to make appropriate adjustments.  No single instrument is an appropriate way to measure teaching effectiveness—good assessment requires multiple measures of different kinds.  Some sections of a course will be better than others, and a single (or a few) low result(s) on success rates are of no more concern than a single (or a few) low result(s) on your SIRs.  They’re just an indicator that something needs an adjustment.  Success rates can be too high, also.  We don’t want to lower standards at SPSU—students need to earn the grades they get, and to be prepared for the next classes they are taking.  So, what’s called for is paying attention to what is going on in your classroom.

Second, the needed adjustment may not even be in the same course.  If the success rates in Basket Weaving II are lower than desirable, the fix may lie in Basket Weaving I (perhaps it isn’t preparing students well enough for the next course) or in another course entirely (Straw Selection I, because you can’t make a good basket without being able to get good straw).  The students may need more support (help sessions, tutoring, supplemented instruction, whatever), or better advising (because they took Basket Weaving I six semesters ago and have forgotten everything by now, or because they don’t understand the importance of getting a good start in the course). 

If the adjustment IS in the same course, it can be because the course might have too much packed into it.  Maybe some earlier or more frequent assessment is in order, to help get and keep the students on track.  Maybe the exam questions are too vague, or are inappropriately difficult for the level of the course.  Maybe one of your colleagues in your department (or at another university) is getting better results because of something new he or she has tried.  Talk to them, and have them look at what you’re doing.  There are lots of faculty trying lots of different teaching methods in my own field of chemistry, some of which have worked and some of which haven’t.  Even though I’ve taught chemistry for a gazillion years, I’m always looking for new ideas in the Journal of Chemical Education, on the chemistry blogs, in new textbooks, or at conferences.

None of this takes anything away from the fact that it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to earn a decent grade.  You can’t do the learning for them.  What you can do is everything in your power to help them be motivated, stick it out, keep trying, focus on what’s important, understand, and ultimately learn.

If you pay attention to what’s going on, try new things, advocate for and seek out new resources to help, and show that you care about your students’ success, there won’t be any problems.  


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s questions all had something to do with the number “3”, and the quiz drew a veritable avalanche of responses, so I guess 3’s the charm.  The winner is Jonathan Lartigue, our new software engineering prof, with a fabulous five correct.  He wins a duplicate jazz CD from the bottomless Szafran archive.  Here are the answers:

  1. One used straw, one used sticks, and one used bricks.  Three little pigs
  2. Nursery rhyme starting with “Rub-a-dub Dub”.  Three men in a tub
  3. Do it and you’re out.  Three strikes
  4. Drunk.  Three sheets to the wind
  5. According to the great geologist Louis Agassiz: First, people say it conflicts with the Bible; second, they say it was discovered before; and third, they say that they always believed it.  Three stages of scientific truth


This Week’s Trivia Challenge

Our challenge this week focuses on the old TV show, “The Addams Family”.  As always, first with the most right takes the prize, and no looking up the answers!

  1. The butler’s name.
  2. The two children’s names on the TV show.
  3. What Gomez does when Morticia calls him “Bubeleh”.
  4. Name of the Addams Family’s two pet piranha, also an opera by Wagner.
  5. The connection between the Addams Family and Lassie.