Category Archives: Trade Tips & Tricks

Human Teaching in Hard Times: An Interview with Dr. Alan Sears by Dr. Tonya Davidson

In this guest post, Tonya Davidson (Carleton University), sociology professor and co-editor (with Ondine Park) of the forthcoming book Seasonal Sociology, talks with Alan Sears (Ryerson University) about teaching in higher education during these dark times. From the cost of tuition to the challenge of making liberal arts relevant, and the search for a pedagogy that forges not just practical but human relationships, this wide-ranging discussion tackles the contradictions of teaching and learning in a neoliberal age.


In October 2018, Dr. Alan Sears visited Carleton University to be featured in the Department of Sociology-Anthropology’s Colloquium Series. He gave an excellent talk titled, “Resistance in Right Populist Times.”

Alan is an accomplished scholar of sexualities, left politics, social movements, and education. His writing includes Retooling the Mind Factory: Education in a Lean StateThe Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood) and (with James Cairns) The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century, as well as the now-classic A Good Book in Theory. While celebrated for his scholarship, Alan is also a very dedicated and thoughtful teacher. When I was his colleague at Ryerson University for four years, he was one of my key teaching mentors so I jumped at the chance to ask Alan to also be our guest for the first “Teaching Talk” of the semester in the Sociology-Anthropology Department. Predicting that his thoughts on teaching could easily find a wider audience than the group of colleagues gathered in our departmental lounge, I transcribed that interview and present it for you here.

TD: You proposed the title for this talk, “Human Teaching in Hard Times.” Can you tell us what hard times you’re referring to?

AS: I guess the hard times I am thinking of probably have geo-political origins. The long impact of neoliberalism and cutbacks and austerity have had a huge effect on what it is like to be teaching at a post-secondary level. One of the aspects of this is the stress that students are under because of tuition fees, because of the employment they are doing to get by, because of what housing is like now, and because of their deep anxieties about the future. The questions that are always in their minds are: what are they going to do with their degrees and what’s next in their lives?

And then the character of instruction is increasingly supposed to be efficient in content delivery with a real emphasis on information transfer. I think that the shift in the idea of what learning and teaching is supposed to be is increasingly to think of students as materials we are mass producing and the final consumer of what we are producing is the employer. So that has an impact on us in terms of metrics, which in post-secondary education means measurable outcomes in terms of what students could do before and after. Look, I think we can learn a lot by focusing on the learning that is accomplished rather than the teaching that we do, but I also think there is a whole human growth element in education that is flattened by a lot of outcomes discussions.

The scale, at least at Ryerson where I teach, is that most classes are 70 students or more. I teach our capstone course and it’s 100 plus students. The nature of that makes human relations very difficult. I think the most transformative part of any educational relationship, which are always mutual relationships if they work properly, is a human relationship.

TD: Students have always had anxiety to a degree. Have you noticed a change in your thirty years of teaching?

AS: Absolutely.

TD: How do you deal with that within your own institutional constraints? How do you deal with student anxiety?

AS: I find it a real challenge. I saw a chart recently that someone had developed showing the history of tuition fee increases in Ontario and the pay rates for summer employment. I was an undergraduate student at Carleton University in 1973 which happened to be the year that tuition in Ontario was at its lowest in real dollars. That corresponded with, because of government funding, relative ease at getting summer jobs that paid quite well, so I could earn enough money in the summer to pretty much cover my year, including tuition. Now tuition fees are higher and there are fewer summer jobs with decent pay. Students are working more hours for less pay, building up higher debts, and they are worried about their future given the difficulty of obtaining secure employment.

I think that is a formula for generating anxiety, and it’s really noticeable in all kinds of ways. We’ve never been particularly good at raising a discussion about what comes after a degree, but I notice it particularly now in a very sharp anxiety about what the relationship is between an undergraduate education in sociology and what follows.

It’s not like Harvard or Oxford are getting the question, “why aren’t you teaching more forestry?”

I think that the model we have is an elite model that presumes that when people graduate, their class-based networks that are gendered and racialized and have a lot to do with migration status, will surf them between graduation and wherever they’re going next. So if they’re interested in a job in so and so, their mother will call their uncle who works in that area. And that works for some. In the film The Graduate, the summer after graduation was spent by the pool with parents’ friends advising you to get into plastics or whatever was hot at the time. Very few students have the luxury of a summer by the pool or parents’ friends who can give them advice about various sectors, or who can afford a free internship, or who have a way of knowing about occupations that are different from what they’ve been exposed to so far in their lives.

So I think the anxiety is real, and I think it’s incredibly sharp, and it sometimes plays itself out as hostility towards us. I’ve noticed a certain tension around grades, a kind of a more hostile bargaining because that seems to be something that you can deal with more directly. And textbooks, that’s another pain point: “why is this book so expensive?” Sadly, for a lot of other things, like tuition fees or class sizes, there’s little active opposition because there is a feeling that you can’t do anything about it. I think the anxiety plays out in many ways.

TD: Professors have different attitudes about whether there is a place in a sociology program for teaching school-to-work transition skills, or other career-focused projects. How do you approach that, especially in your capstone course?

AS: This is one of the contradictions I continually negotiate. Because I am a committed political critic of the system, I understand when people talk about concern that the neoliberalization of the post-secondary system means, for working class people, a much more occupational focus, and there’s no doubt this happens. And yet if you look at what’s happening in Britain and the US for example, there is a desire to preserve liberal arts education, but only for the elite. It’s not like Harvard or Oxford are getting the question, “why aren’t you teaching more forestry?” That message is something that is very specifically aimed at institutions with a working-class clientele. And I think the concern is that a liberal arts education creates inflated expectations for everyone without differentiating between students with varying life trajectories. Policy-makers are interested in changing that system, particularly in Canada where the university system tends to be more social democratic, to create a more hierarchical system where liberal arts play a smaller role. This is especially the case in institutions that have historically included a higher proportion of working class and first-generation students, like Ryerson or Windsor where I have taught. There’s a part of me that thinks, well let’s resist that push and let’s fight and honour a liberal arts education. I really do believe that that’s necessary and I think the greatest bulk of a student’s education in sociology or anthropology or whatever they are taking should absolutely be in a proud liberal arts tradition that’s challenging students to think critically and so on.

I also think there’s a serious equity issue around being honest about the fact that the transition to work is difficult and we have really failed on our end. We feel like we’ve done our job by pushing them off a cliff at graduation and waving goodbye and giving them a certificate. I think we owe them more. I don’t think career integration needs to consume a lot of the curriculum. I think little bits of it, strategically inserted, can go a long way. We shouldn’t distort the curriculum.

We’re doing a pilot course this year called “career integration” for fourth-year students where they’ll get to do a job shadow experience in a workplace that’s of interest. We’re also building in self-advocacy around worker rights and the like, but also stuff like resume preparation, sample interviews, and how to claim a sociology education in a job interview so you don’t just say “well it’s because I hated English.” At the very least, it gives students a way of describing what they got out of their degree, or, in some cases, just creating space for them to figure out if they got anything out of it. I believe seriously that there’s a class, racial, equity, and migration justice built into this experiment. If we want to simply claim that we do liberal arts in a pure way, we are ignoring the socio-economic relations that surround the institution and the histories that inform our ideas about what a liberal arts education is.

TD: Have you noticed in shifting hard times, different types of student engagement with questions of free speech, bias, and felt that through hostility?

AS: I think I’m fairly fortunate that Ryerson is a downtown Toronto campus with a very high first-generation student body; roughly 60% of the students in our program identify as racialized. The nature of who the student body is means that a lot of the pro-equity ideas are taken for granted, and few students will stand up and challenge fundamental notions of social justice. And I think there’s some self-selection there too because our program is quite equity-focused. I think the students who are most likely going to be upset about that transfer out of our program. I personally haven’t faced it that much.

One of the things that’s happened is that we’ve made our “Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Society” course required, and it is taught with a very Indigenous-centric perspective that presumes settler colonialism, presumes Indigenous sovereignty, and presumes that universities are colonial institutions. I would guess that course will be one of the litmus tests in our department. I would guess that will be one of the places where even people who know that they’re not supposed to say something racist might express discomfort. That’s the way that settler colonialism operates, it creates a kind of entitlement that may lead to a different order of challenges from students. Certainly, I know people who teach in the US, and other places in Ontario who talk about how much their students have been emboldened to challenge even the most basic equity stuff in classes, but so far, I feel like I’m in a little bit of a bubble around that.

TD: Those two initiatives at Ryerson – the “Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Society” course as a mandatory course and the “Career Integration” course both sound like great responses, or pedagogical forms of resistance to these hard times. One of the things that has always struck me about you, Alan, is how you are simultaneously very critical of post-secondary education, and broader political and social structures, but somehow seem stubbornly optimistic. So my final question is: what do you find hopeful about teaching sociology in “hard times”?

AS: I think that most students are very perceptive and critical about the injustice in the world today. They do not have illusions that this is the “best of all worlds” or a meritocracy. They know someone is making a killing off of the precariousness and suffering so many face.

The challenge is that they might think that this is the “best of all possible worlds” – and that they do not see a better world as possible, particularly through their own actions. So there is a real base among our students for a new radicalization, if they can begin to realize the power they have to change the world. But that radicalization will not happen through the classroom, which even at its best is a site of alienated labour. For me, human teaching is about trying to reduce the damage done in post-secondary education while working outside the institution to build the movements and counter-power that can challenge these injustices.


For more on millennials, education, and social movements we suggest: The Democratic Imagination and The Myth of the Age of Entitlement.

 

Strategic, Agile, People-Powered Change – The New Growth Imperative

By Ellen R. Auster and Lisa Hillenbrand

Now more than ever, businesses require Stragility: Strategic, Agile, People-Powered Change. And yet silos, hierarchies, and politics get in the way. Careers stagnate, growth stalls, and organizations fall short on delivering their mission. We know people need to be both empowered and agile but we don’t know how to skill up our organization to deliver it. From our book Stragility, here are three actions you can take and recent examples of firms that have put them into practice.

Sense and Shift Instead of Lock and Load

So often in today’s business world, we lock and load on the first feasible solution and sell it up the hierarchy. American Express’ Chief Marketing Officer, Elizabeth Rutledge, is embracing a new model. Her team recognized the need to re-skill the organization and created an agility training and a certification program. They have developed agile methodologies and work processes and they are creating shared ownership enabling people to make decisions on the spot, without the need to send them up the hierarchy.

Marketers are collaborating like never before and finding “human connection moments” with each other and customers. The changes are enabling AMEX’s 55,000 employees to deliver their new promise of “Don’t live life without it” and meet growth objectives. (Source: Keynote talk by Elizabeth Rutledge, Association of National Advertisers, October 26, 2018)

Inspire and Engage Instead of Tell and Sell

Telling and selling ideas is tempting but without strong purpose and compelling stories and programs, real change will never happen. Disney continues to create passionate “cast members” who delight their customers year after year by encouraging them to exemplify the Disney magic. Take for example a recent story of a deaf child who was able to sign with Mickey and Minnie Mouse cast members that was shared widely inspiring both cast members and customers.

And their #Dream Big Princess campaign is inspiring girls everywhere to be brave and intelligent and to lead, instead of waiting for their prince to come.

Change Fitness Instead of Change Fatigue

Faced with a barrage of change, it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed. CIGNA decided to do something about it. They are tackling the three biggest causes of illness (and lost productivity): opioid addiction, loneliness, and stress. And they have begun each program with their employees. Already 96% of employees have gotten an annual health assessment. Here’s CIGNA’s opiod announcement from May.

Lisa Bacus, their Chief Marketing Officer, explains the program at the ANA meeting in Orlando, October 25, 2018.

For more ideas on how your organization can be more agile and more effective, pick up a copy of Stragility at Amazon.com or contact the authors at stragilitychangemanagement.com to request a customized workshop or consultation.

BIOS

Lisa Hillenbrand is the founder of Lisa Hillenbrand & Associates. She previously served as Global Marketing Director at Procter & Gamble. She specializes in marketing, strategy and organization change interventions that return brands to growth. She led the team that “re-engineered” Procter & Gamble’s company-wide brand building approach. Hillenbrand has delivered keynotes for the AMA, Marketing Science Institute, and Thomas Edison Foundation, and has consulted with and led top rated workshops for Google, Facebook, Estée Lauder, ConAgra, and many others.

Ellen R. Auster is Professor of Strategic Management and Executive Director of York Change Leadership at the Schulich School of Business at York University. She has more than 25 years of experience as an academic and consultant specializing in shared leadership, stakeholder inclusive, value creating approaches to change that cultivate the capabilities needed for continuous reinvention and ongoing success. She has published widely in journals including The Academy of Management Review, Management Science, Sloan Management Review, The Journal of Business Ethics, Organization Studies, Human Resource Management, Research Policy, and written four books.

Metadata – How to choose Keywords

In this series of blog posts we will be talking about how to make your article more discoverable by giving it rich, descriptive metadata. If you missed it, read our first post about what metadata is and how search engines use it, our post on how to write a great title, and our last post on how to write a great abstract.

The final piece of metadata we are going to discuss is keywords. Similarly to titles, it is important that keywords are not vague and that they instead use direct, descriptive terms that accurately reflect the article you have written.

Keywords do not have to be the words that appear the most times in your article, but should instead offer a reader at a glance an idea of the subject area and field of study. Keywords do not need to be only one word, which is an important point to remember. They can be two-to-four word phrases that make sense in the context of describing your article.

As is the case with other pieces of metadata, keywords are crawled and used to index your article by search engines. Having keywords that are strong indicators of the content of your article will boost your article in ranking and search results.

Some tips for writing keywords:

  • Don’t feel restricted to pick one-word keywords. They can be two-to-four word phrases.
  • Avoid broad keywords, or anything too general (e.g., “education”; “medicine”; “history”).
  • Avoid words that are too narrow or specific that are unlikely to be used by readers in searches.
  • Keywords are not restricted to the keyword section – they can (and should) be repeated in the title and abstract.

A good way to start thinking about what the keywords should be for your article is to ask yourself what you would type into a search bar to find the article you have written.

Metadata – Why bother writing an abstract?

In this series of blog posts we will be talking about how to make your article more discoverable by giving it rich, descriptive metadata. If you missed it, read our first post about what metadata is and how search engines use it and our post on how to write a great title.

Abstracts – are they really important? Do you really need to write one? How much of a difference can having an abstract really make? The answer is pretty clear – any article that is going to appear online 100%, absolutely, must have a well written abstract to accompany it.

The reason for this is simple. As explained in our first post on how search engines work, the abstract for your article is going to be searched, the keywords it contains indexed, and this information will contribute to how your article is ranked by search engines. If you write a detailed, descriptive abstract, your article will be ranked higher than an identical article with no abstract. It is that simple. If you want people to find your article, an abstract is crucial.

Getting people to find it is just the first step. You also want your article to be read and cited. A well written abstract is the best tool to achieve this. By telling readers exactly what your article contains, they can quickly and easily determine if the content in your article is pertinent to their research.

So now that you’re convinced, what does a great abstract look like? Not all abstracts will look the same – they vary from discipline to discipline. An abstract in a scientific journal will look different than one in a literary journal. Regardless of your field of study, your abstract should consider the following information:

  1. What – what is the article about? What type of research is being discussed? What makes this article different than others on the same topic?
  2. How – if you are a life scientist or social scientist your abstract should describe how you conducted your research. If you are a humanities scholar, your abstract should tell your readers what theoretical approaches, if any, you are using.
  3. Where – Was there a particular geographic location, or region associated with the research?
  4. When – Was there a particular time period examined?
  5. Why – what makes this research new/interesting/important?
  6. So What – what were the conclusions, findings or implications?

Here are Antonia’s Dos and Don’ts for writing an abstract

DO

  • Write one
  • Use key words / terms / phrases
  • Define all acronyms, even common ones
  • Work within the set word
  • Obtain feedback from other subject specialists.

DON’T

  • Don’t just use the first paragraph of the article, or a collection of sentences
  • Don’t use too much technical or specialized jargon
  • Don’t include any information that is not also in the full article
  • Don’t include references – you want people to read your article, not go off and find one referenced in your abstract.

 

Takeaways:

  • Every article that will be published online absolutely needs an abstract.
  • A good abstract will increase the ranking and discoverability for search engines, and help readers decide which articles to read.
  • Abstracts should contain keywords and terms.

Next – key words!