Thursday, November 21, 2013

Teaching Millennials: Some Notes from the Classroom, Part II

 (Nicolas, Paz, and Maria planning their attack)

The previous post contained some general operating principles that I have become aware of while teaching economics and international affairs courses to undergraduate students, one or two nights per week, at a private liberal arts college.   Today's post picks up where the last one left off.  The final in the series will be posted next week. 

 Be Entertaining (Continued)

The show business aspect of college teaching frequently seems to favor extroverted personality types, but I believe that the (mild) introvert who learns production and presentation skills often is the most effective because he or she doesn't try to just show up and wing it.  Extroverts often allow other extroverts to dominate class discussions, when it may be the soft-spoken, shy person in the corner who has a particularly pithy comment or observation to make.  Creating a classroom environment in which "air time" is distributed fairly evenly is a challenge, and in course evaluations I have been critiqued for having not done enough to stop the occasional hyper-extroverted student from completely dominating a discussion.

Extroverts may also be overconfident in their social skills and fail to see how they are making others uncomfortable.  Arrogance and intolerance imply a lack of social calibration and self-esteem issues, but those projecting these characteristics frequently feel that the audience is responding positively to them.  In his meditation on the problems of overconfidence, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik observes that:

"In short, Social competence = reading others + presenting well + influencing others... in line, leading scholars in social competence research have recently proposed that the essence of self-presentation is a form of interpersonal self-control, or the capacity to demonstrate high levels of self-control in public social contexts.

"Almost a century after the formulation of Carnegie's social competence rules, psychologists are still in agreement with him.  Indeed, recent studies show that social competence is best understood as a combination of social responsiveness, social maturity, and social control.  Social responsiveness is about expressing Warmth and interest in others...  Social maturity involves controlling negative emotions and appreciating others, as well as tolerating people who are different from us.  Finally, social control refers to the motivation to improve one's skills to influence others..."

Gender Bias Realities

The typical liberal arts classroom today will contain approximately 60% female students.  In my current class of 25 students, the ratio is almost 70:30.  Professors may need to adapt their teaching styles and even cultural references to this reality---when talking to predominantly male audiences, guys routinely find it easy to rely on metaphors and examples from warfare, football, action movies, and the like.

The common wisdom is that these references may not be as easily processed by female audiences, but I personally have not found this to be the case.  If you are a male professor, female students expect and may even demand a certain level of locker room esprit de corps, and could be disappointed if it is not present.  They know that you are a guy---you can't hide it, and pandering to try to appear to be "just one of the girls" may lead to reactions of contempt from both female and male students alike. 

They also know that I am a lot older than they are, so trying to portray myself as "young and wild and free" like they are may generate the same negative reactions.  Take Adderall, for example:  this study/party/lifestyle drug was not part of my undergraduate experience, yet the majority of my students seem to have first-hand knowledge of its effects.  I have no experience with many lifestyle apps, social media platforms, online dating, and related technologies, and even if I did I would not be familiar with them on the level that my students tend to be.  The dating/mating world has also changed significantly over the past two decades.

Professors should not try too hard to fit in or to be hip; in my view, you are better off being cool in your own, differentiated, somewhat iconoclastic/exotic type of way than you are by trying to identify directly with your students' lifestyles.  If they like you and trust you, they will tell you what their larger, life-type concerns are.  They will teach you about things like Adderall, music apps, and the return of the speakeasy.

Be very careful about giving advice, especially if it runs contrary to what they have previously heard from their parents.  Many situations are very complex and you can't give a strong recommendation without knowing much about the peculiar circumstances involved. 

I realize that this is controversial, but I think that the noble attempt to go completely "gender-neutral" can end up creating an awkward, sterile learning environment that just bleeds all of the fun and chemistry out of the room.  It would, ironically, be more important to work for gender neutrality if the classroom was only, say, 10% women.  When women take up the majority of seats, the male professor is actually liberated (once again, my opinion) to be more "guylike" in terms of both content and classroom atmosphere.

It can go too far, of course, and students have different comfort levels.  I probably walk a tightrope in a way that could be seen as cowboy/reckless if I didn't A) take such great pains to show that I am almost completely nonjudgmental, and B) show that I really care about the performance outcomes that students have with course material outside of the classroom.  One of my many weaknesses is that I tend to use "adult language" in class.  It's a bit juvenile and some words are not particularly professional, but it seems to be more of a natural representation of how people talk when they are speaking to each other as friends, and so I think it lowers the barrier between myself and my student audience, and leads to a greater sense of rapport between us.  By speaking relatively freely, I am in a sense showing that I trust them and view us as colleagues. I think it is similarly important to have students call you by your first name, but this is another controversial one and its acceptance will vary from professor to professor. 

Everything I have said here is based on the personal experiences of one (male) professor.  I have *heard* that some female professors actually find a female-dominated classroom to be more difficult to manage than would be a more gender-equal or even male-dominated one.  It would be very interesting to see this studied clinically.  

 Tells, Halos, and the first Six Seconds

In a series of now-famous studies, students were asked to evaluate their professors over different time intervals.  Matthew Hertenstein: 

"How quickly do students begin to form their impressions of instructors?  Consider one study in which students in fourteen different courses taught by five different instructors completed teaching evaluations.  One group filled out the evaluations at the end of the first class of the semester, and another group did so at the end of the first week.  At the end of the semester, all of the students filled out the same evaluations.

"Students' ratings at the beginning of the term---both at the end of the first day and at the end of the first week---accurately predicted their ratings of the instructor at the end of the term.  They accurately predicted how much interest the instructor showed, how well they communicated the importance of the subject and their expectations for the class, the degree to which they provided good feedback, how available they were to students, the degree to which they graded based on expectations, how much they encouraged students, and how challenging students would find the course.  In other words, students form their first impressions of an instructor as early as the first day and hold these perceptions as much as four months later."

Evaluations at the end of the first day and end of the first week being so highly correlated with end-of-term evaluations may not be particularly surprising.  But here is where the story gets more interesting...

"Ambady and Rosenthal then showed (videos of instructors lecturing) to people who had never taken courses with the instructor(s).  These subjects rated the teachers on a number of specific non-verbal behaviors such as confidence, likability, and enthusiasm.  But rather than show the subjects the videotapes in their entirety---that is, asking them to view one hour per instructor---these researchers were more ambitious:  they showed only thirty seconds of video for each instructor (ten seconds each from the beginning, middle, and end of class).  Moreover, they showed the strangers the brief clips without sound.  

"With only thirty seconds of video, the strangers could differentiate the high- from the low-quality instructors.  Instructors whom students rated as performing well and having high-quality sections struck strangers, based on their nonverbal cues, as warmer and more active, enthusiastic, optimistic, supportive, confident, likable, dominant, and competent (Seb:  note the fascinating mix of 'hard' and 'soft' attributes being clustered).  ...Importantly, the correlations between nonverbal behavior and instructor ratings were exceedingly high, speaking to the highly predictive nature of tells for subsequent quality ratings by students."

 (I think that it is safe to say that this man would have very good course reviews.  Please note that the Harris tweed jacket and waistcoat can be incorporated into HFG style matrix with great success)

Ambady and Rosenthall then went a step further:  after using three ten-second videos clips of instructors to see if brief, silent exposure to nonverbal styles could predict how students evaluated their professors, they cut things even further and provided viewers with three two-second clips:

"In a study they dubbed 'Thinning the Slices', Ambady and Rosenthal cut the three ten-second clips down to three two-second clips (six seconds total).  Astonishingly---at least to me---strangers' ratings of the graduate instructors' nonverbal behavior during these six seconds predicted their end-of-semester scores..."

An important detail here is that students who formed these evaluative summaries were generally unable to describe what they were using as their key input information. They were strongly reliant on nonverbal communication in quickly forming opinions which later became rationalized and verbalized as assessments of a range of professor qualities.

Hertenstein:  "...the studies tell us something about how our minds work and the importance of remaining humble.  If you ask students, they will never tell you that hand gestures, voice inflection, and the like largely drive their opinions of teachers.  But the studies described suggest exactly that.  We think that we know what makes a good teacher---expertise in the field, clear goals, fair grading, quality course materials, organization, and accessibility---but we really don't, at least not when we're asked about it in evaluations.  The evidence suggests that how a teacher conducts herself is at least as important, if not more so, than course content when it comes to the experience of learning."

("...poor Fernando was asked to stay after class yet again")

The issue of System 1 vs. System 2 processing and the inability of many subjects to accurately describe how they actually make real-time decisions in the field is one of the reasons why self-reported survey results---at least those that rely on subjects having "conscious accessibility" of their decision inputs---have long been held in suspicion by marketing firms (hence the old term "buyers are liars").  The field of neuromarketing brings with it technologies and skills that can shed light on some of these shadowy effects, and the "rational consumer model (RCM)" is being replaced by an "intuitive consumer model (ICM)."

Hertenstein:  "Despite the power of the expressivity halo (Seb:  the 'expressivity halo' reflects the tendency to assume that people with good nonverbal communication styles are good in other areas) in driving how we perceive others, most people do not recognize its effects.  When I ask my students over dinner which classes are their favorites, none of them ever tell me that they appreciate a particular faculty member's emotional expressivity.  Rather they comment on the course content, the professor's expertise, and how fairly the instructor grades work.  ...The problem is that effects of the expressivity halo are powerful and yet unrecognized." 

Be Interdisciplinary

 (Paola, Peter, Lonnie, Carolina, and Alejandro are ecstatically pleased to have such a dynamic, awesome, good-looking professor)

For someone involved in the social sciences, the days of being able to safely remain in a single-discipline silo may be coming to a close.  The most interesting and pressing social phenomena frequently involve complex adaptive systems which do not lend themselves to closed-form solutions, but which instead must be studied with tools taken from a variety of different disciplines.

I've had the pleasure of meeting some academics of truly staggering erudition and worldly experience, and they all tend to have access to a variety of analytical techniques and frameworks (what Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger would term "mental models" on tap).   Over the course of a career, you are going to have a few research areas that have exceptional appeal to you.  Your sense of underlying reality will change as you begin to view large parts the world through the metaphorical eyes of these intellectual disciplines (it is, of course, potentially dangerous to filter information like this, but it is probably inevitable).

I personally rely on a few "Universal Acids" that were described in a previous post:

1.  Evolutionary Psychology
2.  the Austrian School of Economics
3.  the Public Choice approach to political science
4.  Classics of Military Strategy (readings from Jomini and Sir Julian Corbett have proven particularly useful for some classes)
5.  the Worldly Philosophers

My experience has been that a deep-dive into any one of these subjects tends to gradually lead to acceptance of, if not direct interest in, the others.  Moreover, I believe that individually and together, these shed much light on human behavior patterns in many, many activity spheres.

On the other hand, the tone that is created when these subjects are employed is definitely one that some will find to be rather bleak, perhaps even ruthless.  Students who embrace the message will become skeptical about authority and central planning or social engineering schemes, and cautious about how people tend to behave when they acquire power.   My classes are not utopian; I do not attempt to describe "a better world" or to agitate for social change.  I explicitly assume students will face competitive environments in which desired resources are scarce, and that they need to be equipped accordingly to make the best decisions *for themselves*, not for me.  The object then becomes to start building intellectual weapons systems, and to be prepared to profit from crisis and chaos. 

(Michel de Montaigne)

None of my Acids are perfect; they all have blindspots and areas in which arguments and claims have been less developed than they have in others.  There are unexplained phenomena and uncharted territories which require much more research.  But I find them compelling and feel comfortable that students should at least be familiar with them as they construct their own mental models (the creation of a personalized war chest of well-informed mental models and related techniques is, to me, the main purpose of a liberal arts education in the first place).  

It would be a very sad state of affairs indeed if every professor adopted my quasi-survivalist view of the world, and, perhaps thankfully, few do.  But we all have our little roles to play, and mine apparently is to play Walsingham or Dee to the students' young Elizabeth.

Organizational Models

Organization becomes a particularly pressing factor when attempting to teach a cross-disciplinary course.  There can be a tendency to jump between academic research areas with reckless abandon in the pursuit of attractive intellectual prey, and the professor should realize that this can create confusion in the audience.  I know that I have a very real tendency to do this and it can result in frustrations if it is allowed to run unchecked.

When it comes to this stuff, I was trained by people who more or less followed the Roman model of pedagogy, which reportedly contained five canons:

1.  Invention (selection of resources and appeals)
2.  Arrangement (organization and familiarity with what cognitive scientists of today would call "processing fluency"---the preferred patter-recognition formats for the human brain)
3.  Style (descriptive vocabulary, metaphors, etc.)
4.  Memory (the elimination of reliance on notes)
5.  Delivery (the actual physical presentation)

Together, these were meant to achieve the goal of a "good person speaking well."  Petrus Ramus is credited/discredited with the separation of these canons into the halls of Philosophy (which received Invention and Arrangement---i.e., the truth-seeking pieces) and those of Rhetoric (which received Style, Memory, and Delivery---the arts associated with presenting what has been previously discovered).  Invention and Arrangement came under serious skeptical attack from Descartes and the results of all of this have literally taken centuries to work out.

In my view, the contemporary professor should re-integrate the five canons and avail himself or herself of both ancient and cutting-edge techniques for effective communication. 


When discussing a major social trend or politico-economic phenomena in class, you often need to find a good entry point into the topic.  Some situations are very well-known---the 2008 financial market crash would be a good example.  Others, such as demographic time bombs in Asia, may not have received much exposure.

Rhetoric, particularly the study of principled argumentation, provides a useful instrument:  stasis.  Stasis represents the procedures used to arrive at the stasis point---the equilibrium point---of an issue or controversy.  It is a way of (hopefully quickly) dealing with those aspects of the issue which are considered accepted facts by all concerned parties or disputants; which aspects are still being disputed; which require true conjecture; and which rely on the use of an external, subjective moral frame of reference to interpret.

The stasis point is where the argument or controversy currently rests; your discussion, at least if your intention is to persuade, is to push the stasis point in one direction or another.  Frequently you will not be able to "solve" a huge socioeconomic, political, or cultural controversy---the idea that one person can fix the world's most complicated, trade-off-rich problems with the glib 5-step plan he came up with one night between his third glass of Laphroaig and the commercial breaks between Arrow viewings is a conceit for the sloppy Op-Ed pages, not for the college classroom. 

The most fertile material for class discussions will typically be the disputed facts and the aspects of conjecture and scenario building.  The core facts of the case can be discussed during the introduction.  The subjective moral interpretations are for each student to decide for him- or herself; these are adults and should be treated as such.

As part of the discovery process, it is important to avoid the common straw man fallacy---do not cherry-pick examples that bolster your own case, but present the strongest argument that the opposition brings forward.  Avoid ad hominem and never make it personal, particularly if you are dealing with a fellow professor or research academic (even one who you do not know in person).

This is not only an ethical, collegial way to proceed, but it ends up making your persuasion far more effective:  influence researchers, including Robert Cialdini, report "moments of power" during a persuasion scenario in which the agent has the opportunity to display knowledge of the full range of features and theories surrounding a given issue, to praise those that may differ from his own and celebrate their strengths, and to show the weaknesses in his own positions.  The effect is to make the agent appear both more competent and more trustworthy.

Most intelligent people are going to realize that if experts disagree on a subject, it is probably because key facts are unclear in some way.  By giving a strong version of an opposing argument rather than providing a simplistic, biased account, the professor appears more reasonable.  If you present a strawman and students see through it, the next assumption is that your whole position is probably wrong because you failed to even understand the other claims or arguments.  If you present a more nuanced and balanced view, the assumption is that your own position must be that much stronger. 

  (Mirella, Rose, CrossFit Jamie, and Nathalia discuss post-class wine bar options)

Next Installment:  Templates for Lesson Plans, Monroe's Motivated Sequence, HFG on Campus and Essential Accessories, and More

No comments:

Post a Comment