The Winter quarter started yesterday, and my schedule is going to be even fuller than I thought.
I only have two classes this quarter, both 2-unit courses. One course is the freshman design seminar, the other is the senior thesis writing course, so I’m getting students at both the beginning and the end of their undergraduate experience. Two 2-unit courses sounds like a pretty light load, but the courses are more work for me than most 2-unit courses.
For the freshman design seminar, I’m having to create content as I go—we have some lab access this year that we didn’t have last year, and I want to get the students building stuff as soon as I can. But that means my having to build the stuff, to make sure it is feasible, and to figure out how to digest it down to the point where students can have success in the design and construction. I’ll probably be spending more time on the course than any of the students—they’re supposed to have 3.5 hours a week in class or lab and 2.5 hours a week on their homework—I’m expecting to spend more than that prepping for class, and even more on grading.
At the end of last quarter, I filled out a form on the library web site asking for an information session for the course, and I filled it out again yesterday. Usually the librarians are pretty good about responding to the requests, and I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from them, so I sent e-mail to a couple of the librarians I’d worked with in the past—it seems that the forms on their web page weren’t entering the data into the request system (reason still not known), and they’d never gotten my requests to schedule the information session. They forwarded my request on to other librarians (a different team handles lower-division information sessions, which worries me a bit, because I don’t want the sort of pablum they usually give freshmen—the ones I’m used to working with know that I want solid training on search techniques), but I’ve not heard back from that team yet. It’s a good thing that I haven’t figured out my schedule for the quarter yet, as I’ve no idea when they’ll be available.
I’m also still waiting to hear back from the engineering lab staff about what training the students need to be able to use the tools in the fab lab, and how I can get access. I probably need to go and talk with them in person—I’ve gotten no responses to my e-mail requests.
Today I asked the bioengineering undergrads (by e-mail) for volunteers to lead lab tours of the labs they work in, and to explain to the freshmen how they managed to join the lab. My explanation of how to join labs never seems as convincing to the freshmen as hearing directly from juniors and seniors that are in labs. The lab tours are always rather cool, because there is a lot of interesting research going on by bioengineering undergrads here. So far, I’ve had one faculty member tell me he’s assigned some students to do the tour of his lab, but they haven’t contacted me to schedule it yet. Tomorrow, I may ask the seniors doing thesis research if any of them have time to help out.
The senior writing class meets for 3.5 hours this week, but for the rest of the quarter we’ll be meeting only 1.75 hours a week (Wednesdays 5–6:45) as a group, mainly to go over common problems and for them to practice presentations with an audience. I was expecting about 12 students in the class, but I have 19, six of whom had not taken the prerequisite tech-writing course. This pisses me off a bit, since I don’t have time in a 2-unit course to teach everything that should be covered in the 5-unit writing course. But the fault is not entirely theirs—the tech-writing class has been full with students not able to get in every quarter for the past few years.
I had to do some last-minute restructuring of the thesis-writing class because of the size. The last time I’d taught the class (2 years ago), I read each student’s draft thesis 5 times, providing four rounds of detailed feedback before the final draft was evaluated. I won’t be able to do that this year. Instead, I’ve broken the class into three groups, who turn in their papers out of phase (6 this week, 7 next week, 6 the week after, then repeat). This plan results in only 3 rounds of feedback before the final version, not 4, but still has me reading a thesis (50-to-100 pages) every day.
I will be meeting with each thesis writer individually for 20 minutes a week, for them to practice their elevator talk, to discuss their research with me, and to discuss their writing. In some cases in the past, I could not understand their projects from their writing, and it took several rounds of discussion before I realized what they were trying to do, so that I could help them word it comprehensibly. (In at least one case, the student had misunderstood the statistics so badly that what they were claiming as exciting results were all indistinguishable from chance.) Nineteen students at 20 minutes each is another 6.3 contact hours.
Another difference from the last time I taught the course is that most of the students are in the second quarter of the three-quarter thesis project, rather than in the last quarter. This was a deliberate rescheduling on my part, because I was appalled at how many students had been working for over 20 weeks and written absolutely nothing. In some cases they hadn’t even properly done their background research, and found that they’d wasted most of the 20 weeks on rather useless stuff that didn’t address their real research questions. (I did send some politely worded e-mail messages to the faculty who had been “supervising” them, though I wanted to scream at them for their incompetence as advisers.) Since then, I’ve also gotten much more careful when signing the independent study forms as the undergraduate director and program chair (the forms call for both signatures, but for the bioengineering program, both signatures are mine) to make sure that the students are writing something every quarter.
In any case, the student will not have finished theses at the end of the writing course, but almost-finished ones, with just a few results to fill in next quarter and a little discussion.
So for the two small classes this quarter, I have 11.6 contact hours, 12 hours of grading, and probably 4–5 hours of prep work each week. I also have 2 hours a week scheduled for office hours, 1.5 for meetings with the department manager, and 2 hours for the department research seminar. So I’m up to 17 hours a week of scheduled meetings and 12 hours of grading—and that doesn’t count the 2–3 hours a week I’ll need to spend with grad students and 1–2 with the nanopore research group, nor the extra advising load that will happen this quarter as all the sophomores try to declare their majors.. So figure at least 22 hours scheduled and 12 hours grading, before we get to my administrative duties.
Today was spent almost entirely on administrative duties—both the department and the bioengineering program are having to do self studies this year for WASC accreditation next year, and I’m stuck writing the whole self study for the bioengineering program and the undergrad portion for the department. I had written a draft of the bioengineering self study over the two-week break while campus was closed, but I only found the form with the prompts for the self study today. None of what I wrote was wasted, but they wanted a whole lot more bureaucratic bullshit about “Program Learning Outcomes”, a top-down management approach that ensures that every faculty member will run screaming when asked to do anything about the curriculum. (Actually, our faculty are much more subtle than that—they just nod their heads and disappear.)
I was particularly annoyed by the loaded question in one prompt:
Overall, how has program assessment (including all steps: defining the program learning outcomes, developing the curriculum matrix or rubrics, interpreting the findings) been used to guide improvement of the program? Provide at least one example since the last review of an improvement made to some aspect of the program’s curriculum or course effectiveness.
My current draft answer (which I’m afraid will have to be toned down a bit) is
This prompt assumes that the Program Learning Outcome process has some beneficial effect on improving the program, for which there is no empirical evidence in the bioengineering program. The improvements in the program have come despite the time wasted on the PLO process, not because of it. The extensive curricular changes described in Section 2 considered data from senior exit interviews, careful thought about what concentrations were uniquely offerable at UCSC, what made pedagogic sense, and what courses and resources were available. The overly bureaucratic PLO process, particular the curriculum matrix and “rubrics”, took time away from thinking about and discussing the curriculum and pedagogy, diverting it to satisfying arbitrary bureaucratic requirements.
As you might gather, I’m pretty pissed about the PLO process, which calls for an annual report on assessment of one of the Program Learning Outcomes. I had to make up the outcomes myself last year (none of the faculty were interested), and I’ll have to do all the “assessment” and writing of the report this year for two programs (none of the other faculty are interested). If the process served to trigger discussion about curriculum or pedagogy among the faculty, it might be worthwhile, but it has had the opposite effect, making faculty even less willing than usual to engage in discussions of the curriculum. So I’m stuck writing bullshit reports for administrators who’ll probably never read them, when I’d much rather be teaching, advising students, or fixing problems in the curriculum with other faculty. (Or even, gasp, doing some research!)
Note: there have been some substantial improvements to the curriculum since the last review—I spent countless hours last year meeting with other faculty (one-on-one or in small groups) to completely overhaul the bioengineering curriculum. I’m pretty pleased with the result (and students who’ve compared the old and the new curriculum wish that I’d overhauled it a couple years earlier, so that they could have done the new curriculum). But it really was the case that the “Program Learning Outcomes” was a distraction and a sideshow that cut into the time I had to think about and fix the curriculum.
Anyway, after meeting with the BME chair and department manager this morning, to set the agenda for this Friday’s monthly BME faculty meeting, I spent most of the rest of the day trying to wrestle the draft of the bioengineering self-study into shape so that I could share it with the bioengineering faculty, while answering the loaded questions of the administrators. (I’d shared the first draft and gotten feedback from only two faculty out of the thirty—both of them instructors, not tenure-track faculty—two of the best teachers in the School of Engineering.) I’m unlikely to get much out of the rest of the faculty—I have no carrot or stick to encourage compliance (the program chair of the bioengineering program comes with 0 resources, not even a course buyout for hundreds of hours of work on the curriculum and the self-study).
I had been planning to spend the afternoon doing a first draft of the undergraduate self-study for the bioinformatics program, but the amount of extra work needed on the bioengineering one took up my whole afternoon. I spent a lot of it asking staff for the data that the administrators wanted—much of the data they asked for was not available and will take the staff several days to try to compile. Some of the prompts were particularly irksome:
Provide a brief description of the learning outcomes assessment process, including a multiyear assessment plan, references to assessment instruments provided in Appendix III (e.g., a capstone rubric), and a summary of the annual assessment findings regarding each of the program learning outcomes (as many as have been
assessed to date). Comment on what the indirect evidence from the undergraduate major (UCUES) survey, such as students’ self-reported competency levels and satisfaction with educational experience, indicates in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of the program. How do measures of direct evidence of student learning agree with indirect measures?
What is the UCUES survey data I’m supposed to analyze? Well, after trawling through my e-mail I found a promise that I’d get the data in December. I never did, so I asked. Oh, they might have that by next week, maybe. So much for trying to get the self-study written before the thesis-a-day grading starts tomorrow! The “assessment instruments in Appendix III?” There aren’t any—I only wrote the bloody outcomes last year under duress, and there haven’t been any “assessment instruments” (by which they probably mean bullshit surveys and meaningless statistical analysis of portfolios using made-up “rubrics”). So, summary of annual assessment findings: “there haven’t been any and they wouldn’t mean squat even if there were some”.
I do have several years’ worth of portfolios from graduating seniors as well as notes from exit interviews (both portfolios and exit interviews are requirements for graduation), and I’ve actually read a lot of the student theses in depth. That’s useful to do, and a lot of the ideas for the curriculum overhaul came from discussing the curriculum with graduating seniors at the exit interviews, but turning the portfolios and interviews into an “assessment instrument” using their 50-page guide to the process?—pure, unadulterated educrap.