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I just submitted final grades for the last time. This means that today marks my last day teaching online. :( For the past 3+ years, I’ve been an online adjunct faculty member at a university here i…

Source: Why today is my last day teaching online…

This above article represents the voice of those who have “tried and are still negative” about online education. Admittedly, they are rare. And unsurprisingly I am biased towards it.

Nevertheless, one significant point in the article is to highlight that “learning experiences” are more important than getting the right answers etc.

This above is such an important point that it applies to all on-campus learning, not just online learning. I doubt many of us teachers focus on the learning experiences of our students… instead, many of us focus on getting the message/ideas across, or even ensuring that the students perform to the best (or better) of their capacity.

In contrast, the focus on learning experience is not just student centred, but enables the focus to shift from what is being taught to how it is being learned/apprehended. The struggle and eventual success of finding a book in the library, is a learning experience. The disagreement with fellow student, and then suddenly seeing his/her perspective, is a learning experience. Changing my mind by adopting a new idea, is a learning experience. Even getting questions, real questions, answered is a learning experience.

That is, and should(?) be, the focus of education. Too often however we ignore and/or bypass and fail to evaluate of these learning experiences, and rather we stick to the traditional approach of “testing” (assignments included).

Can there be an improved focus on the learning experience by the students, in classroom teaching? Can there be an improved focus on the learning experience in online education?

Good questions, no answer just yet.

Research Methodology

My Research Methodology class.

I’m struggling at the moment to build / rebuild my curriculum for Research Methodology. I have been teaching Research Methodology for the past three years to MTh/MPhil level students (and sometimes DMin and PhD) at SAIACS, the theological institution where I work. The course, like in many other institutions, is mandatory and all students have to take it at the beginning of their programme.

I was initially happy for the opportunity to work with this subject, mainly because it gave me to the opportunity to impact students who had just joined the college… give them a good start, so to speak. I was also given a lot of freedom to devise the course as I wished. During my course planning, I was also exposed to expectational teacher-training material, particularly action and objective based learning, where the goal for the students was more the focus than the goal for the teacher.

I planned a really good course, I made it exciting and practical (I thought), and it turned out to be one of the best courses I had ever taught. However, a few weeks later, after my course, about 6 of my students were caught plagiarising, and they confessed to their teachers that they still did not understand the rules (I had taught them the rules). Then, a few months later, when I began to work with a few students from my class (within my specialisation), for building their thesis research proposals, I found that none of them remembered my rules/methods of research. All those exciting classes were as if they did not even exist. I had to start from scratch, helping students understand many basic elements of research and even had to go through the rules of plagiarism and formatting again. At that point I really felt like a failure. I couldn’t believe that after so much hard work, there was so little positive to show for it. I couldn’t help but think that something was wrong… in my teaching methodology, in the students, but also perhaps in the course itself.

After much reflection, and as I redesign the Research Methodology course yet again (I will be teaching it in June), I have at least identified a few problems.

A few of my struggles with the Research Methodology course are as follows:

i) The pace is too fast. In my own experience, I learned research by doing research through my long academic journey as a student. My Research Methodolgy course was not where I learned Research Methods, but over a period of several courses and years of trial and error. Research Methodology thus comes too soon, and attempts too much, in a short period of time. Many ideas of research are actually (in the developing world setting) fundamentally new for students (let alone some weakness in English), and I envisage that it could take more than a few courses/months to correct primary academic/thinking flaws.

ii) Spiritual vs academic. Research methodology is also a terrible “first” course for students entering seminary/theological colleges, because many of us come to such places with a “spiritual” goal, but the first course is as “non” spiritual as it gets. It’s hard to bring in theology consistently while teaching formatting rules, style guides, categorisations, argument construction etc.

iii) The institutional expectations tend to be unrealistic. Students, after doing this one-month course, are held accountable for understanding not just the Institutional rules (like footnote styles / formatting etc), but also, critical thinking skills, general research methodology skills, and sometimes most importantly, the ability to break a life-long habit of plagiarism. In my experience, most students, me too, learned most of these skills over time… but having a month, at the beginning of the academic year, with the students mostly just getting adjusted to the institution, its expectations and its ethos, there is just not enough time to achieve all this.

iv) The students are just not able to learn theory before practice. While I have tried making my class “practical” with lot of discussion, practical assignments… etc… there is no way I can prepare a student for what she/he will actually face in their first assignment and beyond. Learning the skills in abstract, separated from the real-life scenarios that the student will face (not just assignments, but departmental teacher-expectations), is actually no learning at all. Students are able to grasp the concepts in the month I teach, but they find themselves having to learn entirely new methodologies, ways of writing, researching, when the teachers gave courses. Ultimately, students adopt a practical methodology, a way of writing papers that is often completely different (even opposite) to the “theory” of research that I have been teaching. And naturally so. How much better would it be to work WITH students whlie they do their courses… while they do their assignments. In fact, focus on different aspects of research methodology for different courses/assignments. (perhaps within this is the natural problem of higher education where we teaching theories/theologies outside the real-life context of the world/church… as a result, here too students are faced with a dichotomy between theory and practice).

v) Large classes. Again, I think I did a good job putting people in smaller groups, getting discussions and activities within a smaller unit of the large classes. Yet, it was still evident that different students were learning at different paces, and especially the weaker students were getting left behind. (The stronger students, ironically, did not even need the research methodology course because they intuitively seemed to get everything).

vi) It’s not as much fun as actual research. As much as I try to make the students “do” research in the class, I find that the focus of learning skills is less exciting than actually going out and asking/answering questions. In a sense, what else is research methods but the learning to ask the right questions and finding the right way to answer those questions. And yet, the course focuses on meta issues, and addresses the needs/lacks that the institution finds in the students, rather than emerging as a need that the students themselves have, and thus want to find ways to solve/find help in.

So that’s just a brief list. In my more negative days, this list is longer. And I must admit that I have considered quiting teaching this subject. But I do feel that while some problems cannot be changed (like the course timing), perhaps the last point (vi), where I make this subject really something that students feel they need help in… to help students identify their own problems so that they seek out the solutions… could actually bring more lasting impact/change/help in them.

 

A Theological AnswerIt was an exciting day, when I received free copies of my printed dissertation: What is religion? It looked so much better than my thick-bound printout in the library archives. It made sense that I should publish. And certainly, this should not be the end. And now that my PhD dissertation is published (by Wipf & Stock and SAIACS Press) I have decided to pen my thoughts… about the publishing process. Hope that any doctoral student reading this will find it helpful. What I learned was quite surprising; publishing is not something to be feared, even though it does require some “more” hard work (so don’t get tired of your completed unpublished PhD dissertation just yet!).

Step #1. Say yes to publishing

This is something I had to learn, and I want to thank one of my mentors, Dr. Cor Bennema, for pushing me to publish. The end of doctoral research did not stop at “writing”, or even defending the work, but in publishing it, he would say. He urged me again and again to look for publishers, present my proposal and hope for the best. Personally, I felt “publishing” a dissertation was more like a vanity project, but his constant emphasis made me feel as if my work was incomplete until I could gain a larger readership.

Step #2. Look out for publishers as soon as your doctoral defense is over.
Do not delay the process. If you’re from a context like mine, where once we finished doctoral studies our sending institutions overload us with work!!!, then you won’t have much time to pursue publishers. So start early. Again, because of Cor’s “nagging”, I began the process of submitting my work for approval even before I had my bound copy. Now, though the entire process took over a year, I don’t regret it. (In fact, I’m really glad I started early).

Step#3: Look out for “good” publishers.

My own process of publishing was to work with the people instrumental in my dissertation. So, in India, my obvious choice was to print my dissertation through SAIACS Press (Bangalore), because I studied here, and also was going to work here. For my western printing, I looked to McGill University’s Press, because I studied at McGill for a while, and felt my work resonated with the concerns of the Religious Studies department. I looked at their author guidelines and submitted all the details I could about my work. Interestedly, they wrote back within a few weeks, but sadly they said “no” to printing my dissertation because they felt my work was “too theological” (while McGill tends to be more “religious studies” focussed), but they politely (very nicely in fact) suggested I look for a Press that prints Theological material.

My next step was to look around and a colleague was printing through Wipf & Stock (US). I looked by Wipf & Stock’s author guidelines and sent them another detailed mail about my work (which included sending them a sample chapter). Surprisingly for me, they accepted the work for published and asked me to begin the process of getting the document ready for printing.

I was delighted and told Cor about it.  He however said that I could have tried for a more “prestigious” Press. Personally I was too grateful/thankful that Wipf & Stock agreed, and I didn’t regret anything. Though if anyone (reading this post) is looking for advice, Cor would suggest that you look for the more established presses and then work downwards.

This could help with greater visibility and recognition. Personally, I liked working with Wipf & Stock, especially since they were mainly theology focussed (like my work), plus they had a good relationship with SAIACS Press and were more than willing to allow SAIACS to have the India South Asian rights. This, I felt, was quite generous of them, and feel that because they were a smaller press probably they were more flexible. I also found Wipf & Stock people very approachable and cordial. So all that worked out well for me.

Step #4: Your contract

Another thing to look out while choosing the publisher is to read the contract carefully, and see if you agree with the stipulations. Personally, and I suspect for most doctoral publishers, we’re so relieved that someone is publishing our work that we don’t care that we’re getting stiffed! J I think that Wipf & Stock offered an ok deal… but here again I appreciated my mentor’s advice.

Wipf & Stock, like many publishers nowadays, expects the author to bear some of the cost of publishing the book. So, I had to pay some money (I forgot how much) to help cover the cost of the book. Since I was in no way to afford paying for my own book, my mentor suggested that I offer to do the layout of the book in lieu of the payment, so that would help mitigate the cost. Wipf & Stock agreed, and so I didn’t have to pay anything.

Step #5: Edit / format your work properly.

This is something I regret. I was so “burned out” after working on my dissertation, that I paid very little attention to editing it. Sure I made several changes in the text, and the more I looked at it, the more I felt like editing it, but probably that’s why I just wanted to stay away. Instead, I hired a copy-editor to read and format the work for my publisher’s requirements. I hardly paid attention to detail, grudgingly clarified when my copy editor asked questions, and basically was relieved to get it out of my hands.

It was only when I had to make the index (and yes, I feel every dissertation needs and index), that I was horrified to find so many errors. I was relieved that I was reading the work myself, finally, but I wished I had more time to edit. I should have joined the initial editing process.

Step #6: Make an index.

Yes, I said it earlier, but I say it again. An index is a lot of work, and no matter what the technology, one cannot escape some level of manual labour. It took me several days of working full time to complete the index. But it was worth it simply because I caught so many errors while looking at the text carefully. Also, the work really looks more profession and is certainly more useful with an index. So don’t shirk on the responsibility: make the index.

Interestingly, my Wipf & Stock editors did not insist that I make the index and felt I didn’t really need it. But for the reasons I said above, I was really glad that I did make it. And now the book looks really good with the index backing-it-up.

Step #7:  Follow up

Here I recommend that we keep following up (gently) with the publishers, asking if there is any clarification needed etc. I didn’t do much follow-up and months went by. Until when I started writing back, the publishers told me that they had let the project slide a bit and promised to speed things up. So a gentle reminder to the publishers may help keep things moving.

Step #8: Marketing / Get contacts

It’s now a known fact that authors need to participate as much as possible in the marketing of their book. As the printing of the book drew nearer, the marketing team talked to me about contacts for recommendations of the book, and also contacts for which libraries, faculties, we should send the book too. Sadly, being in India, I had very few international contacts. And here, I feel, that it would really help if we keep an eye out on which libraries, which teachers/professors, we could send recommendations of the book to. I helped a bit, but this can be done so much better.

Step #9: Free copies / buying more

It’s really great to get your free copies… and I got four. It was really exciting. However, four copies were just not enough. My problem was that paying in dollars was never really possible for me, so I couldn’t order copies. I did hope that the South Asian edition would come soon, so I could have more “affordable” copies. But getting a South Asian edition of my book was tougher than I had anticipated, but that’s another story. (Featured in part 2 of this post)

Step #10: Set up a blog, or something like that, to help publicize your book

While my blog wasn’t really that successful (meaning there were hardly any visitors and google only showed it in the 2nd/3rd page), still it helped to have a place where I could direct friends and interested people to where they could find more information about the book. I intended the blog to be a place to talk about discounts, reviews (so far there have been none). It helped to use Facebook to direct “friends” to the blog. Whether it succeeds or not, I still think it’s a good idea to have something like this. So do it, if you can.

In this US, the Wipf & Stock site has the book listed here: https://wipfandstock.com/store/What_Is_Religion_A_Theological_Answer

ImageI just tried my first ebooks sample through play.google.com (Google’s play store). In India, we finally have the ability to buy PlayStore books. They are expensive (really expensive). But still, they are available, which is great. However, I just found out that the Google Play Books (unless a scanned copy is available), do not have the accurate page numbers for academic references. What is ironic is that the book I was testing, was available to preview on Google Books with its academic page numbers (as we’re used to). But not on the Google Play Store. Now, that’s a downer! Why would I pay Rs. 2000+ for a book I cannot cite in my research?

To see what I mean, check out the two links of the sample pages of the introduction.

First link on Google Books (as we would expect google to show its books).

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=JTAHyyZJM4kC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Second link on Google’s play store.

https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=JTAHyyZJM4kC&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&authuser=0&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA1

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