Tamarind, Teaching and Undergraduate Research




For the first time today, I tasted tamarind. I felt like I had discovered something so surprisingly delicious and interesting that I wondered why I had gone this long without knowing about it. This fruit’s benefits are wide-ranging and well known apparently—they just hadn’t been to me. I wasn’t introduced to it through family or friends, but I found information about it as I was searching for ways to reduce fluoride accumulations in the body—I was trying to solve a problem and it was one of the possible solutions to the problem.

New teaching strategies—or new-to-you teaching strategies—can be similar to discovering the tamarind fruit. Billions of people over the past 4000 years have been familiar with it, but it wasn’t within my realm of experience due to the limits of my family and social groups. With a problem to solve and Google, set off to find this fruit.

Now the leap to teaching and research…

Research I carried out on the integration of active learning into undergraduate classes, found that faculty integrated new strategies in response to problems they were trying to solve. They “found” a new strategy at a conference, workshop, or through journal articles and then used it to see if this new strategy or approach solved the problem. If it made a difference, the method was embedded in the course and if it didn’t make a difference it was dropped. Instructors used informal cycles of action research and reflective practice to renovate their teaching practices.

So here’s the thing…whether we recognize it or not we are doing “research” all the time in response to the problems we want to solve or to satisfy our curiosity. Research is learning, and learning is changing how we interact with the world. (You may have recognized this as a subtle plug for undergraduate research if you are a member of the pilot group 😉

The teaching problem: You might want to have students more engaged in their own learning because you know they learn better if they are engaged. You heard about cooperative learning being one of the most engaging teaching strategies. You find out how to implement cooperative learning and you give it a try. If you see students more engaged, you will use it again. If not, well, it was worth a try. Think tamarind fruit and be curious. And remember that just because a teaching strategy might be new to you, there are others who are very familiar with it because they have grown up in a culture where it is common practice. They can help you integrate a new strategy into your class. A good number of people who know about a variety of effective teaching strategies happen to be in the Gwenna Moss Centre. Give us a call if you are interested in more information about a wide variety of teaching approaches—including cooperative learning and undergraduate research

PhD Reform: A Speedier and Dissertation-Free Degree?




Not long ago, I began the arduous process of applying to PhD programs. I didn’t make it far. What stopped me was not a lack of desire to push learning further, to what most graduate students see as the logical end of journey that began with their first university class. I was stopped by the nagging sense a PhD would simply take more time and resource than I had available.

Because I disliked falling prey to so utilitarian an impulse, I began looking into the PhD itself, to better understand why such a worthy intellectual endeavor appeared unsustainable and to find out if other students felt the same way.  My search led me to numerous blogs and reports about the PhD in today’s world, some of which can be found in my blog post about alt-ac careers. (alternative academic careers).

Wondering what to do with a PhD is, however, not the same as wondering why one would do a PhD at all. The latter question is better answered by examining the process rather than the outcome of earning the degree. The Academica Group’s Top Ten list featured a short round-up of current positions taken on the future of PhD programs, some of which were presented at a round table discussion during the 2014 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Two of the projects featured were McGill University’s White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities and the Modern Language Association’s Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Both of these documents recommend extensive changes to the PhD, as well as investigating career outcomes.

Both documents recommend shortening the time to completion and increasing engagement with the world outside academia. To speed up the process and increase engagement, both explored the possibility of replacing the PhD dissertation with, for instance, “a coherent ensemble of scholarly projects,” recommended by the White Paper.

Simply speeding up the time to completion would certainly reduce the opportunity cost of a PhD program, but is this a realistic goal, even if the traditional dissertation is abandoned? Alicia Peaker, development editor at GradHacker responded in this interview, “what Graduate students need is not more or less time – it’s more support.” The debate continues and is worth following, particularly if you are a student currently looking at PhD programs.