What I’m Reading: Creative Approaches to the Syllabus – ProfHacker

Some creative examples here. Just thinking a bit about next term…

Creative Approaches to the Syllabus – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Scheduling with Students: youcanbook.me

I have used a number of different websites over the years to streamline appointment scheduling with students. Unfortunately, whenever I find something that seems to work (Tungle.me or “Google Appointments”) they end up going out of business.

So, my current implementation involves yet another niche website that I hope will last a bit longer. It also involves a set of instructions which, though lengthy, provide for a very effective synchronization with my Google Calendar.

Here is the service: http://youcanbook.me/

Here are the instructions: http://commons.trincoll.edu/jackdougherty/2012/12/16/youcanbookme/

And here is my current implementation (this is active so don’t set-up an appointment with me unless you need to!): http://michaelbnelson.youcanbook.me/

Thanks to the African Student Association!

I just wanted to send out a quick THANKS! to the African Student Association. Saturday evening they held their annual cultural event. This year it was titled “Ariya: The Beats of Africa”. At the end of the event I was extremely surprised to discover they had an award for me! Both Professor Alice Hadler and myself were honored for our support to the African Student Association. As a professor, this is one of the greatest things that can happen: to have your students honor you in this way. So Thanks!

Why college works

College at Risk – The Chronicle Review – by Andrew Delbanco (may be behind a firewall)

Delbanco takes issue with the instrumental view of education that we see in policy statements, such as the idea that education is about producing “a work force that’s productive and competitive” (former President Bush).

But in several important respects, the American college is a unique institution. In most of the world, students who continue their education beyond secondary school are expected to choose their field of specialization before they arrive at university. In America there has been an impulse to slow things down, to extend the time for second chances and defer the day when determinative choices must be made. When, in 1851, Herman Melville wrote in his great American novel Moby-Dick that “a whaleship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he used the word “college” as a metaphor for the place where, as we would say today, he “found himself.”

He mentions that the trend towards inclusion in American higher education has also been a unique contribution, including the “California plan”, which unfortunately is under attack.

He also argues that it might be hard to preserve the liberal arts experience that is so special:

One of the difficulties in making the case for liberal education against the rising tide of skepticism is that it is almost impossible to persuade doubters who have not experienced it for themselves. The Puritan founders of our oldest colleges would have called it “such a mystery as none can read but they that know it.”

There is a lot more to his defense of the American liberal arts tradition and I recommend it. As he notes, we are under a lot of pressures to change, but there is much that deserves preservation.

Evolutionary Games Infographic Project: First “examples” matrices | Christopher X J. Jensen

Great graphics of games:

Evolutionary Games Infographic Project: First “examples” matrices | Christopher X J. Jensen.

For instance, the “Stag Hunt”:

The Stag Hunt

@ Wes: 98 Students Present Data Analysis, Statistical Research

Our Quantitative Analysis Center has been a win-win for faculty and students. The core course is interdisciplinary and the results of that course are great:

98 Students Present Data Analysis, Statistical Research.

The past fall’s teaching

I’m not yet done grading but her are some of the highlights from this past fall’s teaching and advising:

  1. Just finished teaching two courses, Africa in World Politics and Introduction to International Relations.
    • My students in my IR course wrote some fantastic research and policy papers. One of the stronger policy papers examined US food aid policy options vis-a-vis North Korea. Reviewing many of the obstacles and some of the bad experiences of the past, she suggests that the best idea out there might be to provide information and technology that is targeted for improving food production. These are resources that are not
    • I am still reading through my Africa in World Politics research papers, so I’ll just mention some of the interesting questions they are asking:
      • How has the international Islamic community influenced the development of Islamic law in northern Nigeria?
      • How have African diplomats and ambassadors been treated by Western nations, and how is that treatment related to the broader relationships and political dynamics between African and Western states?
      • How did colonialism differentially impact political cultures in Libya and Egypt?
      • How did the DRC’s colonial legacy contribute or lead to developmental problems in the DRC in the last two decades?
  2. I have been advising several independent student research projects. Two of them are long-term honors theses and are not yet finished. A third was a semester-long independent project that arguably should have been a full senior thesis.
    • Thesis One’s Question: “Why despite the prevalence of microfinance in Uganda, do moneylenders continue to exist?” This student is basing much of her research on original fieldwork she did in Uganda with IPA.
    • Thesis Two: “How does the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) impact effective leadership in Umlazi high schools?”. Once again, this student is basing her research on original fieldwork she carried out in South Africa, this time on her own.
    • An here is an excerpt from the introduction of the 86-page semester-long project (which also relied on in-depth interviews with key informants that the student carried out last summer and spring): “ This paper will identify the process by which software intended to promote security becomes a tool of repression. It will answer the question: what are the primary factors that promote government adoption of political content filtering at a national level? In order to answer this question, I will focus on three cases from a single region, the Middle East and North Africa, that have a history of restrictive press laws, but have chosen to apply different degrees of political filtering. Iran exhibits substantial filtering, Jordan filters selectively, and Egypt has no evidence of filtering. In comparison, these cases demonstrate that changes in filtering are motivated by two main factors: Internet proliferation and/or online communication threatening to political authority. However, filtering can only occur if a government has access to filtering software and this software can be integrated into the network. Democratic institutions, international agreements, and circumvention efforts, moderate the costs and benefits of filtering, while other tools, such as Internet surveillance and cyber attacks provide less costly alternatives.”
  3. Finally, my research assistant, Ivan Stoitzev, has been making we look lazy with his progress on our study of the determinants of participation in international organizations. He has been busy coding participation in terms of attendance and in terms of mentions in meeting minutes. He has also done a great job with some preliminary analysis of the data.

So, after yet another semester at Wesleyan, I must say I am still very impressed with these students!

Cheating and Course Design

It is that time of summer when many of us begin thinking about our return to classes. We work on our syllabi as we design new courses and redesign old ones. A number of articles at the Chronicle for Higher Education have me thinking about one of the most challenging aspects of teaching: student cheating.

  • Here is their recent article on how an Economics professor tracked cheating in his course. This article raised several concerns that I also have:
    • First, he had a major concern with the perception of students that a significant portion of their colleagues cheat (they estimated between 30 and 45%). His comment: “such an overestimation of the real amount of cheating can become an incredibly damaging social norm”. I agree! I’d be curious to see whether Wesleyan students think a similar portion of their colleagues cheat.
    • Second, what is cheating? A look at Duke’s honors code (where the Economist teaches) suggests to me that there may be some areas that Wesleyan’s honor code does not quite addressed. The article mentioned specifically that “‘Obtaining documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed”. In this case, that document was an exam from a prior year that the entire class may not have access to. Now, this prohibition may be implied by Wesleyan’s honor code, but is “improper assistance” a clear enough phrase? I hope so.
    • Third, what is the purpose of honors codes in this process? At Wesleyan, we have students reaffirm their pledge to the honors code with a comment and signature on exams and papers. I find this very interesting as I never had to do this in all of my years at UCSD as an undergrad and UC Berkeley as a graduate student. I just always “knew” that cheating was something I shouldn’t do and that I could get in trouble for doing. Such a pledge seems superfluous, though I understand that the psychology of requiring the pledge may help discourage cheating in some individuals.
  • An article that appeared earlier this summer,“NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash”, discussed a professor who found that pursuing cheaters with Turnitin only led to a very dissatisfying teaching experience. In particular, he found that students do plagiarize; that pursuing this required he spend more time with those students rather than the students that don’t cheat; that it poisoned the atmosphere of the classroom; and that it may have hurt his salary. Now I have used Turnitin before and I had a much less severe experience. There were a couple students who were, it seems unintentionally, writing with insufficient acknowledgment of their sources. But I was very concerned that the use of turnitin violated the trust I share with students, that it led students to believe that I suspected they are cheaters.
  • Finally, last Fall a story appeared about a writer who confessed to writing students’ papers. This so-called “shadow scholar” made me doubt my current strategy for preventing cheating on research projects. On such large projects I have students turn in a range of smaller assignments (outlines, bibliographies, rough drafts, etc.) primarily to help them with the writing process. But a small part of me also hopes that it discourages the purchase of papers online. However, from this article, I come to realize that students are able to purchase the services of writers who will also complete all of these small projects on the way to completion of the final project. I’m not sure there is a way to address this.

So, once again, here I am at the beginning of a new term trying to consider whether and how I might deal with the prospects of plagiarism and cheating. The key questions (no answers yet) include:

  • Do I even try?
    • Of course, one should pay attention to the obvious cases. I’ll never forget the freshman (not at Wesleyan) whose paper began with the statement “After three years of research, we have concluded…” It only took a second to google a couple sentences and find the real research article that was the original source. But what about the less obvious cases?
  • Should I use a system like Turnitin?
  • Is it possible to use Turnitin without harming the atmosphere of the classroom and the student-teacher relationship?
    • Perhaps I should just have students use the service to check their own work before turning it in? Does that even make sense?
  • Do Wesleyan students think that cheating is a problem here?
  • What about the use of “performance enhancing drugs”? Wesleyan’s Code of Non-Academic Conduct was mentioned in Inside Higher Ed for including a ban on such drugs. But can we even monitor that?

News: Skimming the Surface – Inside Higher Ed

This is such a common problem in student writing!  When I ask students how they go about writing a research paper I find that a common practice is to begin by creating an outline and paste lots of material–found online–into the outline.  It’s no wonder that the result is a lack of original ideas (as suggested in the article cited below).

But I have one additional concern:  this practice probably encourages students to simply search out material that fits their predetermined conclusions rather than challenging such presuppositions.

I think I might share the article with my students next term.

The researchers analyzed the students’ 1,832 research citations and assigned each of them to one of four categories:

Exact copying — a verbatim cut-and-paste, either with or without quotation marks.

“Patchwriting” — the copying of the original language with minimal alteration and with synonyms substituting for several original words (patchwriting is often a failed attempt to paraphrase, they said).

Paraphrasing — a restatement of a source’s argument with mostly fresh language, and with some of the original language intact; it reflects comprehension of a small portion, perhaps a sentence, of the source material.

Summary — the desired form of citation because it demonstrates true understanding of a large portion, if not the entirety, of the original text; summarizing was identified by the researchers when student writers restated in their own terms the source material and compressed by at least 50 percent the main points of at least three consecutive sentences.

Only 9 percent of the citations were categorized as summary. “That’s the stunning part, I think: 91 percent are citations to material that isn’t composing,” said Jamieson. “They don’t digest the ideas in the material cited and put it in their own words.”

via News: Skimming the Surface – Inside Higher Ed.

The Winchester Award

The nice young gentlemen at Psi Upsilon gave me their Teacher-Scholar award this year and have posted my remarks on their website:


The following remarks were delivered by the 2011 Caleb T. Winchester Award Winner, Professor Michael B. Nelson of Wesleyan’s

Government Department…

I want to begin by saying how truly honored I am to receive this award. Receiving an honor such as this from our students is especially meaningful and I think it is a great service that you do to the University by honoring us, encouraging us.

I was asked if I might make some remarks on the theme of critical thinking and leadership.  One of the first things that came to my mind was a quote that was on the wall of my 6th grade classroom, Mr. Farrar’s Classroom. It said: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” That quote has stuck with me ever since. However, I couldn’t remember who it was attributed to for a long time. But at some point in graduate school, when Google was finally around, I looked it up and found the source: Plutarch. In particular, the quote is from Plutarch’s Moralia.

This is a lesson on “How to listen to lectures.” He describes a range of students that one might encounter: the over-enthusiastic student who is a nuisance, the contemptuous student, the unappreciative, the over-confident, and—finally—the “lazy”.  Plutarch must have had a lot of very bothersome students—not at all like I’ve had here at Wesleyan!  Let me read to you what he had to say:

“But after those lazy persons whom we have mentioned, let us urge them that, when their intelligence has comprehended the main points, they put the rest together by their own efforts, and use their memory as a guide in thinking for themselves, and, taking the discourse of another as a germ and seed, develop and expand it. For the mind does not require filling like a bottle,”

At this point in reading the passage I realized that my quote on the wall was really a general paraphrase of a much longer passage. The “mind is not a vessel to be filled”, so…

“…the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling…”Or, a fire to be lit!

“… to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.”

This more than anything else animates my scholarship and teaching.

As a scholar, my goal is not merely to collect and organize the information in my fields — though those are often useful tasks. But instead to find ways to search out the conventional wisdom on a subject and test it, and if there is no clarified wisdom yet on a subject to create it.

As a teacher, my goal is not to fill my students’ heads with knowledge, but to get them to apply it an analyze it. That is why in every class I teach, even my international law course which may sometimes feel to my students as an information-shoveling exercise, I include a research project.

The skills of my discipline—how to find information, how to analyze information, how to communicate your analysis—these are skills that one can use throughout their lives. I often tell my colleagues that while the substance of what we teach—African politics and international relations in my case — are undoubtedly important, very few of our students will go into fields where that information is critical and in today’s world much of that information is readily discoverable. But they will need the skills that we can impart. For these are skills that don’t just apply to writing a research paper, but to a whole range of post-college activities from writing grant proposals and legal briefs to developing business plans and conducting policy reviews to voting and participating in public institutions..

There is a link to leadership here as well. Plutarch’s essay is embedded in his volume Moralia. These are his moral teachings and he is addressing them to a young individual who will likely become a leader in Roman society. Moral action may indeed be linked to our ability to think critically. The Milgram experiments are a famous series of experiments conducted in the 1960s.  Subjects were placed in a room and told to answer a series of questions. If they got the questions wrong an individual in a separate room was to receive an electric shock (but not really).  The question here was whether subjects would continue behaviors that they believed harmed another individual just because they were told to do so.

The people telling them to continue with answering the questions looked and seemed authoritative, given the laboratory setting. And, indeed, most of the subjects allowed for the shock treatments to go on for some time. But some did not. Some questioned the experiment and ended their participation. Indeed, had all the participants thought critically, they may have realized that theydid have a choice. They did not have to just follow orders.

To be a strong leader requires that one be able to make good independent judgments. Good judgment, in turn, rests on the ability to think critically. I am told that many of you are likely to become leaders in our world. So I truly hope all of you apply the skills we impart, to take the information that we have been feeding you in the classroom and let it burn.