Being a Good Steward

In my backyard, there stands a gigantic sugar maple tree. Our family has lived in our house for almost 25 years, and the tree predates our arrival. When we moved in, an elderly neighbor stopped by to introduce herself. She wanted us to know that she grew up on the street ninety years ago and that our tree stood in our yard even back then. She stressed to my wife and I that buying our house and the accompanying yard meant that we were now the stewards for this tree. She explained that if we were good stewards that tree would continue to stand in the yard for next homeowners and probably the ones after that. The tree was now our responsibility, she said. And we had to accept our stewardship role with great care.

I’ve been thinking about stewardship a lot this past week. My podcasting partner, Scott McDonald, suggested we dedicate an episode on our teaching values. After spending some time thinking about the different values that inform and guide my teaching, I couldn’t get the concept of “stewardship” out of my head. A quick Google search landed me on the following definition of “stewardship”

stewardship (n) – the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care

It’s clear that teachers are entrusted with a responsibility to care for their students, but that’s not the only way I’m thinking about teachers’ stewardship roles. Beyond our “responsibility management” of our students, we’re also charged with bigger stewardship responsibilities, too. Many of us work for institutions that, like the tree in our yard, have been around for generations. While we work for the institution, we’re also caretakers for it. We’re responsible for maintaining its reputation, for supporting its mission, and help it thrive. As a teacher educator, I’m also a steward of the larger teaching profession. As I’m shepherding new teachers into the field, I’m also working to cultivate the best environment for them to be successful.

As I’m working through this stewardship connection, I feel the need to articulate that my conceptualization of stewardship doesn’t mean that I work to maintain the status quo. Sometimes, being a good steward means being an agent of change. When my wife and I moved into our house, we decided to do some landscaping so that our tree had more room to grow. We’ve also had an arborist come out to cut down some branches so that the tree could be healthier. That’s where the “careful and responsible management” part of stewardship comes in. Good stewardship doesn’t mean that we work to keep things static. Instead, we’re charged with making decisions and initiating change so the thing that’s entrusted in our care can continue to exist and grow.

And maybe that’s the hardest part of our roles as stewards. We don’t always know which decisions are going to be supportive. Right now, my university is considering a major change in its general education curriculum and I’m on the task force that is developing the new curricular proposals. I wrote about this several months ago. As we review the final curricular proposals, it’s not certain whether a proposal will lead to “careful and responsible management” or not. We can only trust that our motivations are sound and come from a place of care.

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Feeling the Churn

It’s movie awards season. For me and my family, this usually means heading to the theaters to catch a nominated film or renting ones that we may have missed in the theaters. After Argentina,1985 won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Non-English Language, I began searching to see if I could find it someplace in one of the streaming services to which we subscribe. I found the film on Amazon Prime Video and gathered my wife and daughter last Sunday night watch to the film.

I don’t use Amazon Prime Video often. We’ll rent a movie occasionally through the service, but I spend a lot more time using one of our other streaming services. Despite this limited use, I navigated the Prime Video menu and selected the film. For some reason, Amazon (inaccurately) predicted that we’d prefer to watch the dubbed version of the movie rather than read subtitles. So, I stopped the movie, fumbled through the captioning menu, and tried to restart the movie with English subtitles rather than the default dubbing. I was somewhat successful. While the movie was now playing in Spanish with English subtitles, the positioning and size of the captioning made it difficult to read. So, I navigated back to the captioning menu but accidentally restarted the movie again. At this point, I started getting frustrated. We had watched the first few minutes of the movie several times at this point. So, when my daughter asked if I needed a hand, I angrily tossed the remote to her. And I sat there silent and angry.

At the time, my daughter wondered why I had gotten so angry. She was graciously offering to help me in a time of need. She streams a lot of movies and almost always uses the captions when she watches. She has much more experience knowing that to access Prime Video’s captioning you have to click a certain button and use the directional remote to navigate to the menu. She also can expertly navigate to the captioning menus in Hulu, HboMax, AppleTV+, and Netflix. She’s a captioning wizard. She is well positioned to offer captioning assistance to anyone in need. So, why had I gotten so angry?

It has taken me a while to realize that my negative emotions really had nothing to do with her abilities or my own. They’re rooted in something else. This morning, I was listening to the ReThinking with Adam Grant podcast and Adam was interviewing Claude Steele. While he has held numerous academic positions at Columbia and Stanford, Steele is best known for his work on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is defined as a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one’s group applies” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). According to stereotype threat, members of a marginalized group acknowledge that a negative stereotype exists in reference to their group, and they demonstrate apprehension about confirming the negative stereotype by engaging in particular activities. Steele describes this apprehension as “churn.” When someone feels like they’re in a situation where they could possibly be seen or treated in terms of the group, they can feel a mental and physical stress. They’re in a state of churn.

I know it might be tough to read that I’m somehow chalking up my anger to stereotype threat but let me explain. As I’m getting older, I’m becoming acutely aware that others may see me differently. My beard is whiter. My hair is greyer. I’m no longer identifying with the cool, hip, young academics. More often than not, I’m one of the older and more experienced faculty members in meetings. While I blog and podcast and write about technology, I feel I’m increasingly being lumped into the “old guy” category. With that comes my perceptions that others may see me as not being technologically able. That’s a huge identify shift for me. I’ve been the “tech kid” forever. Back in middle school, I was programming on a TRS-80. In high school, I helped to set up the movie projectors in classrooms. I built a microprocessor in college and learned to program in three different languages. Over the last five years, I’ve run technology workshops at my university, at local school districts, and at national conferences.

And now, I can’t use a stupid remote????

Thankfully, the ReThinking episode offered some guidance and some comfort. In their discussion, Adam Grant summarizes the challenges of stereotype threat and offers some ways to navigate the churn.

“The mistake a lot of us make in stereotype threat situations is we think, ‘Okay, if this performance goes poorly, it’s creating a permanent and pervasive signal about my lack of ability. You know that that’s bad. I’m never gonna be good, and I’m never gonna be good at anything.’ And if people learn to make more specific and local attributions and say, ‘Okay, this performance or this test is not diagnostic of my ability. It’s not diagnostic of my ability today. And it’s also not diagnostic of my ability tomorrow. It’s just a, a snapshot of my performance in one particular moment, which happened to be a very stressful, high-anxiety experience,’ it’s a little bit easier then to not dis-identify with the domain, but not overreact to the performance in that moment as representative of the domain.”

So, maybe I can’t always figure out how to turn on the captions. It’s okay.  Thankfully, I have a smart, capable daughter who can help me in a time of need. And that’s nothing to get angry about.

References:

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.

ChatGPT: A Primer

A new semester starts on our campus this week. In preparation for the new semester, my dean, Dr. Lara Willox, reached out and asked if I’d be willing to write a short blurb about ChatGPT that she could include in her semester kick-off newsletter. Since I’ve been writing and reading and talking about ChatGPT a lot over the last six weeks, I was happy to help. She was gracious enough to let me share that blurb with all of you. Enjoy!

Last November, OpenAI released an artificial intelligence chat bot called ChatGPT into the world. While chat bots have existed for years, ChatGPT disrupted the technology and educational worlds. The tool can quickly and effectively generate text-based responses to all sorts of questions. While previous chat bots were subscription-based or only accessible to research communities, ChatGPT was offered for free to the general public upon its release. Within a few days, millions of people around the world were actively using the tool. Since its artificial intelligence based, ChatGPT will continue to learn and improve with more use.

ChatGPT offers some clear challenges for our work as educators. There are already stories nationally about students submitting ChatGPT-generated work as their own. While traditional plagiarism tools like Turnitin won’t flag ChatGPT-generated text, with a little sleuthing, educators may be able to detect whether a student has submitted work that ChatGPT has created. ChatGPT’s writing should be the first clue. Its writing is pretty formulaic; the tool uses similar transition phrases and doesn’t regularly vary its sentence structure. Also, while it is built on a huge database of information, ChatGPT doesn’t always make accurate connections between concepts and will sometimes just make up information or sources.

If an educator comes across a discussion board post or a paper that doesn’t sound like it was written by a student, there are a few tools that can help.
https://openai-openai-detector.hf.space/
https://etedward-gptzero-main-zqgfwb.streamlit.app/

Although neither tool will definitively say whether some text was written by ChatGPT, both will provide metrics that can be used to inform a plagiarism conversation with a student.

While ChatGPT may present some problems in our classrooms, the tool can also offer some opportunities. We can have students analyze the text that ChatGPT generates and have them critique the connections the tool makes. We can also use ChatGPT to field test our essay questions and discussion board prompts to see the types of responses we may get from our students. Those are just a few ideas. We’re really at the beginning stages of ChatGPT’s impact on the educational community. With time, creative educators will find additional ways that ChatGPT can support the work they do. For some additional teaching ideas, check out this New York Times article: Don’t Ban ChatGPT in Schools. Teach With It.

For some other ChatGPT related content, check out:

My blog posts on ChatGPT:
https://the8blog.wordpress.com/2022/12/13/being-an-effective-teacher-by-chatgpt/
https://the8blog.wordpress.com/2022/12/20/teaching-in-a-chatgpt-world/

My podcast episode on ChatGPT:
https://scienceinbetween.fireside.fm/119

Top Posts from 2022 – Part 2

Sometime in December 2022, this blog had its 150,000th reader. I don’t know the exact day it happened or who that 150,000th reader was, but I’m humbled by the fact that so many people have come to this blog for my musings and ramblings over the years. If you’re a regular reader (or a subscriber), I appreciate that you take a few minutes out of your busy work week to read through these posts. As I shared when I first started this blog in 2009, this is a labor of love. I don’t do this to self-promote my work or to feed my own ego. I’m working through things, just like most of you. After more than fifty years of life, thirty years of teaching, twenty five years of marriage and more than twenty years of parenthood, I’m still trying to figure things out. And this space helps me do that. Thanks for being here.

Without any further fanfare, here are the top five posts from 2022.

1. Something Controversial: From April 2022, this post draws on Paul Hanstedt’s book, Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World (2018) and discusses different ways to structure course content.

2. Reading More Closely: I’ve always struggled with getting students to complete course assignments. In this post from February 2022, I discuss different strategies I use to help my students more closely read the texts I assign.

3. Revisiting “A Politicized Space”: A few years ago, I wrote about trying to appear politically neutral to my students. In this post from January 2022, I revisit that earlier post but discuss research that Jose Antonio Bowen shared in his book, Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection (2021).

4. The Last Class: Endings have always been difficult for me. In this post from November 2022, I discuss how challenging it is to teach the last class of the semester.

5. Revisiting Start with Thanks: Drawing on the book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (Kegan & Lehay, 2001), this post offers a revised look at how we communicate our gratitude to our colleagues.

Top Posts from 2022 – Part 1

Here we are, another new year together. As we step into 2023, I’m constantly reminded how much I value this space. I know that it’s mostly a one-way conversation where I reflect on something in the open. But I know you’re out there, regularly reading this stuff. I look at the statistics and the people who have signed up to receive these musings in their in-box and I’m honored by that. This has been (another) tough year and if this blog has brought you joy or helped you to reflect on stuff, that’s awesome. Because that’s what it does for me, too. Thanks.

So, without much more fanfare, over the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing the top visited posts from 2022. This week features posts six through ten. I’ll share the top five next week.

6. Promoting Personalization: From March 2022, this post draws on Jose Antonio Bowen’s recent book Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection. In the book, Bowen discusses ways to foster relationships by making the learning environment more personal so we can better connect with our students.

7. Not in Trouble: As the title suggests, I wasn’t reprimanded or anything. But I did have some explaining to do. In this post from September 2022, I lament that I didn’t get a chance to have a conversation with the student who emailed my university administration about the unfairness of one of my assignments.

8. Being an Effective Teacher by ChatGPT: The fact that this post made the top 10 but was only written in December shows how quickly ChatGPT has entered into the public discourse. In this post, artificial intelligence takes a crack at describing effective teaching.

9. Making Sense of Morale: From February 2022, this post discusses the four factors that contribute to faculty motivation and outlines how they may offer some opportunities for addressing the low faculty morale that is prevalent on many college campuses.

10. Having a Word with Wordle: While Wordle was introduced to the world in November 2021, this post was written a few months later (in January 2022) and discusses how the game can inform the work we do as educators.