It Was The Best of Pies, It Was The Worst of Pies

A few days ago, I wrote about my SLSP seminar and promised to write more. Since I had the seminar again today, I thought today would be a good time to voice my discontent with the seminar and with Undergraduate Education as a whole.

For those who don't know, I worked with Patrick last year to set up a program at Davis to do what Berkeley's Decal Program does: give undergraduate students the ability to teach unit-bearing courses to other undergraduates under the tutelage of a professor. It's a program that enhances the quality of undergraduates' education (both for the student instructors and the students) and is very popular, not just at Berkeley, but at other universities (i.e. UCLA).

Last February, Patrick and I met with the Provost to discuss establishing this program. The Provost, having taught a course himself as an undergraduate at Harvard, was delighted and promised us that the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, Carolyn de la Pena, would create the program for us.

Come September, Dr. de la Pena had nothing to show. She said it was because the Provost had denied her request for an additional staff person to design and run the program, which I found difficult to believe given the Provost's enthusiasm. I met with the Chancellor and asked why nothing seemed to be moving; she promised to look into it, and lo and behold, I was invited by Dr. de la Pena to a meeting shortly afterwards. I wrote a letter today to Karl Engelbach, the Chancellor's Chief of Staff, that explains the rest of the story:

"Karl, I'm sorry to hear that you were sick last week. Rather than rescheduling with Lori and adding another item to your impacted calendar, I thought you might appreciate if I email you my concerns instead.

I'm very disappointed by how Student-Led Seminars is being handled by Undergraduate Education and I'm concerned that Dr. de la Pena's mismanagement will endanger the future of the popular and promising program. Between February and September, Undergraduate Education made no discernible progress on setting the program up. Only after I raised the issue to the Chancellor did something happen. Dr. de la Pena invited me to a meeting at the end of November where she announced to her staff that they had been instructed to create this program in time for students to teach by spring quarter. Naturally, her staff was hesitant to move so quickly and all she would say in response to their questions was "We have been instructed by the Chancellor to get this done." When her staff tried asking me questions, seeing as I had already taught a student led course and had extensively researched student led education across the US, she cut them off, saying "Rylan is here to see that we're working on the program. He's not part of the planning process." In subsequent meetings, her staff treated me poorly, repeatedly asking "Why are we doing this?" and "Why are we rushing?"

While this was happening, I was attempting to set up another course to teach. Patrick and I taught a seminar to students in the honors program last spring, and since the seminar was so well received, I wanted to offer it again. The University Honors Program, which had previously been very friendly, refused to discuss the seminar with me and continuously referred me to Dr. de la Pena. I still don't know why. By now, it was December and UE announced that the pilot courses would be limited to one department, Computer Science. With time running short, I understand why. But it didn't help. By the time UE was done working with the Computer Science Department, students were given two weeks to (1) develop their courses and (2) persuade a professor to sponsor their class, a nearly impossible task. Out of the sixteen plus students who were interested, two courses were approved. The course instructors were informed that a weekly, three hour planning seminar would be mandatory. UE made no effort to schedule this seminar between the five participants (two administrators and three instructors). As a result, UE scheduled the training sessions during one of my classes and during my TA's once-per-week office hours.

Missing class and office hours is a high price to a student who wants to do well academically. I'd be willing to prioritize the seminar if it was worthwhile, but I find it to be a waste of time. We spent 45 minutes today working to create a rubric for apple pies, after which, we were presented with a "professionally created" apple pie rubric in case we were curious (none of us were). (If you're more curious than we were, the rubric is publicly available here.) Because of our pie-grading exercise, we didn't have time at the end to work on the documents that will be presented to the Computer Science Undergraduate Affairs Committee, the body that ultimately approves our courses. We also didn't have time to practice teaching, which is the main thing that the seminar is supposed to be doing.

It is also clear to me that the seminar instructors were poorly chosen by Dr. de la Pena. Kara Moloney (the main instructor) does not want to be there. Kara is busy working on assessment of instructional quality across the campus, and she frequently complains about the quality of professors, which I agree with. What I do not agree with is that she is holding the student instructors to requirements that not even professors have to meet when teaching four-unit courses. She is also busy working on setting up another program (the Student Assessment Research Team) and I do not think she is prioritizing Student Led Seminars. I don't blame her for feeling stressed to perform so quickly with so much on her place, but passive aggressive comments and threats of my program not having a future is not encouraging. I asked another instructor to see if I was misreading Kara, but she agreed wholly.

I'm not sure what you can do, or if you can even do anything. But I have no doubt that Dr. de la Pena is providing minimal support to the program, and I don't want such a promising program to die because of one person's irresponsibility. Thanks for listening."

Let me take a minute to explain why I think Student Led Courses are so important. (I say Student Led Courses, not Student Led Seminars, because the ultimate goal is to have courses, not 1 unit Pass/No Pass seminars.) The reasons I publicly list are that students are passionate, educated, and capable of teaching other students. But the real reason is that UCD engineering professors are terrible at teaching. If CS professors refuse to teach languages or frameworks that are in demand, then I'll take as few of their classes as possible and learn from others who are just as knowledgeable (if not more so) and better at teaching. When I discussed this with Sean Davis, he likened UCD's Academic Senate to a giant sieve that selects for the best possible researchers at the cost of decent (or heaven forbid, excellent) teachers. I have a number of reasons for believing this, independent of Sean's perspective, which I'll state and substantiate later.