I am completely aware that I'm writing this post through incredibly biased and naive lens with a hefty dose of cultural superiority. I'd like to get rid of that. Help?

"How many of you are completely responsible for course content this fall?" One hand. "A whole class or recitation? Lab?" More hands. "Partially responsible? Grading? Office hours?" The scattering of hands had died down, and the professor looked at me, puzzled. "Not teaching this fall?"
"Nope." Not officially on the Purdue course catalog, anyway.
"You're just here?"
Grin, shrug.

I spent the early part of my day in TA training, run by Purdue's Center for Instructional Excellence (CIE). I gaped at the size of the lecture hall when I arrived; my college would have fit 8 times into the room, which was packed to capacity with a fraction of the school's graduate students. Purdue is over 100 times the size of Olin; the entirety of Olin's student and alumni body combined would fit more than twice into Purdue's entering freshman class for a single campus.

It's a different world. After three summers of teaching workshops for professors getting into open source, I was in a workshop for new academics starting their journey to become a professor, so now it's my turn for culture shock.

There was lecture. There was a lot of lecture. There were a lot of slides and a lot of bullet-pointed handouts; the speakers were fast-paced, well-prepared, and obviously practiced at Engaging Their Audience, which I write here with Capital Letter of Formality because they explained to us exactly how they were getting and keeping our attention. Voice! Eye contact! Make sure the font on your slides is readable! All good stuff, all accurate and solid; it was an Educational Experience, but I spent the morning trying to put my finger on the things that made me feel a little out-of-place.

It wasn't really the sheer number of people. It wasn't the discussion about FERPA, the privacy laws that govern what instructors can and can't do with a students' information.[0] I expected these things. More hints came when we discussed disruptive classroom behavior, and there was a good deal of grumbling about students using cell phones and laptops and Facebook and Twitter in class. I chimed in and noted that one could, under some circumstances, flip the situation and encourage use of an official backchannel to give students an outlet for their participation and attention. The recitation section looked at me like I'd grown a second head.

Come to think of it, when we talked about why certain behaviors were disruptive, the answer always sounded like "because it makes students stop paying attention to me."

I'm not saying this is wrong -- certainly, not paying attention to class can be disruptive! -- but it, and the discussions that followed for the next few hours, seemed to rest on a number of assumptions.

  • Students must be scaffolded through their learning experiences, never left unguarded lest they fall.
  • Or cheat.
  • Everyone should be exposed to an identical experience as much as possible (customized to fit their learning style, of course, but in the end the same Stuff goes Into Their Head).
  • We should evaluate everyone as identically and objectively as possible.

Again, I'm not saying these assumptions are wrong, just... that they feel a little odd to me, though I can't quite put my finger on why or how. I really should suspend these hypotheses until I gather more data so I can draw conclusions about academic culture based on data rather than stereotypes.

One piece of data I do have is the time breakdown of our training, which might indicate one take on what's Important for University-Level Instructors To Know.

In minutes:

  1. 15: welcome and overview
  2. 10: motivation
  3. 30: presentation techniques (mostly "how do I work with slides?")
  4. 60: legal considerations (disability accomodation, FERPA, harrassment)
  5. 60: academic politics (handling disruptive students, communicating with supervisors)
  6. 30: Curriculum development
  7. 60: exams and grading rubrics
  8. 30: cheating

By percentage breakdown:

  1. 20.3% Legal considerations
  2. 20.3% Academic politics
  3. 20.3% Exams and grading rubrics
  4. 10.2% Making slide decks
  5. 10.2% Cheating
  6. 10.2% Curriculum development
  7. 05.1% Welcome to the university!
  8. 03.4% Student motivation

Legalities, politics, cheating, and creating identical grading rubrics and powerpoint presentations are 8 times more important than figuring out what's vital and how to teach it well?

Student motivation gets less time than welcoming everyone to the room?

It's... going to take a while for me to understand this world.

[0] It's mostly "can't or the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT may RESTRICT FUNDING to the ENTIRE UNIVERSITY!" which I hear as an Obligatory Dire Warning of the same sort as "WEAR your SEATBELTS or you could DIE in a CAR CRASH!" Yes, it's a serious thing. No, it shouldn't scare me. And I'm going to find a lawyer or other FERPA expert here at some point and grill them on how they think about those boundaries so that I can learn the same awareness; I think a lot of FERPA fear comes from the vague sense of doom that comes from ambiguous or lacking knowledge.