December 5, 2014
Letter from vice provost of undergraduate studies: Celebrating 105 Umberger Hall
I wish to thank 105 Umberger Hall for an outstanding educational experience this fall. Given the power of its design and instructional technology, I was able to consistently engage the 437 undergraduates enrolled in Introduction to Sociology, SOCIO 211, Section A. It's not over 'til it's over, but the result to date is the most enjoyable — and most meaningful — course I have taught in my 25-year university teaching career.
I am told that in the past you were not as conducive to learning. Dimly lit, cavernous, minimally ADA-accessible, you were not the point of pride for the campus like you are now. Kudos to you, UM105!
But let's celebrate the students, too. They were overwhelmingly attentive, responsive and committed. They never once balked, for example, when asked to engage in weekly field research assignments led by graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, or when asked to report on these in front of class. They read sociology's most challenging textbook, two additional monographs, and impressed author Elijah Anderson, who visited from Yale University, with their level of interest and comprehension. And by the way, kudos to Kathy Carlsen of W.W. Norton Inc., the independent, employee-owned publisher, who helped secure Anderson's visit, because in addition to a vested interest, she just loves K-State.
Come to think of it, thanks are due to many who helped me prepare for, and subsequently teach, the course. For example, Mike Wesch, also a UM105 user and admirer, shared his technique of using daily writing assignments as a means also of recording attendance, and I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the above-mentioned team of undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants without the help and support of the entire sociology, anthropology and social work faculty. Thanks, too, to Staley School of Leadership Studies faculty, from whom I learned the value of automatically graded online weekly quizzes as a means of regularly recognizing steady student effort outside of class meeting times, and to Information Technology Services staff, including Scott Finkeldei, for helping us to use Canvas to maximal good effect.
At a recent conference on undergraduate education at U.S. research universities, I learned that my counterpart at the University of Texas, Austin regularly teaches a 500-student introduction to chemistry class. For David Laude, the instructor's attitude is probably more important than use of particular pedagogical techniques. The key, he thinks, is to begin with an understanding that every single student can and should be successful. Laude's own rough ride through freshman chemistry, which caused him to consider dropping out of college altogether, sensitized him to what works and doesn't work even for students who are struggling. Nowadays, we have a voluminous body of literature on effective teaching, thanks, that is, to the scholarship of teaching and learning. Everyone can and should succeed in seminars, which are vital, as well as in large enrollment courses, which while sometimes still maligned and misunderstood are equally vital. It's like you, 105 Umberger Hall; once decrepit, now spectacular.
So, thanks to the students, the TAs, the embedded CAT Communities and Supplemental Instruction; thanks to the advisors, RAs, and tutors; thanks to everyone — and, thinking of you 105 Umberger Hall, everything — who and which facilitated my involvement in this course. While it may take a village to teach a course with such a large enrollment — especially in my unusual circumstance in that I only had three hours or so per week to dedicate to the effort — my hope is that every large enrollment course at K-State could be as rewarding and enjoyable. It is in such courses where we can introduce big ideas and grand challenges on a big and grand scale. Such courses are part of the truly distinctive student experience at top-shelf U.S. research universities. They and K-State 2025 fit hand-in-glove.