Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Extrinsic Motivation

It's been a weird semester and this is going to be a weird post. I'm trying to work through how I made a mess of it, and doing that publicly is odd... but it fits with how this blog has helped me develop as a professional.  I shared my portfolio at the beginning of the semester, which I put together to make a case for promotion to full professor, and I've been turned down for that by the college personnel committee and our dean, after a positive but slightly contentious department vote.  The reason for for the no was no peer-reviewed publications.  Serves me right, many say, applying for full without any.
I became interested in the teaching of math in a serious way when I got the chance to make over the math for elementary teachers at Penn State. We changed texts, and my friend Sue Feeley gave me some excellent reading recommendations in response to 'what do these teachers need to know, anyway?'  I got more interested when I realized how amazing and challenging it was to think about, and just fun besides. I was going to quit graduate school and go teach high school, but my advisor correctly urged me to finish. The nail in the math research coffin for me was realizing just how few people would care about the research I was doing.

At Grand Valley they hired me to be a math educator, in what I still consider to be a minor miracle. What were they thinking? I didn't think too much of publishing then because I was really just learning the field, and then I just never got around to it. I was also changing (hopefully growing) so fast that it felt weird putting something into print - who knew if I was still going to be doing that in a year or two? Plus work in the schools with students and with teachers in professional development was so much more satisfying.  That led me to blogging, as a way to share resources and post materials for teachers, and blogging led me to writing. (Such as it is.) It was ephemeral enough that I didn't feel chained by it, and informal enough that I could share my process and stream of thought, which I value over product.

Then I started getting positive attention at work for the blog. I had long accepted that the way I went about my job meant never being a full professor and I didn't mind at all. Several friends convinced me to consider applying for promotion, and when my chair mentioned to my wife Karen that I should, it became a home discussion, too.  I decided to try; I could be a test case, since I didn't really care.  But a funny thing happened on the way, and as I put together materials and considered the college criteria, I really convinced myself that I did fit the criteria. The one thing missing: peer review. I decided that my department would be the peers, and made the process about asking them about the quality of my scholarship. They felt it met the requirements, though some felt like that was the wrong question, and the right question was publishing. But our criteria don't require publishing.

So when the negative decision came, it was totally depressing. The dean made it clear that it's a "technical requirement," and, I'm sure he thought kindly, "if you had one paper accepted..." Which to me sounded like you're right, your work is deserving, but sorry, you forgot to check a box.  My negative reaction to this makes me feel foolish beyond measure, because my life is a constant stream of blessings. This is so totally a first world problem. It made me feel unappreciated at work, despite the great support I received from many people. Karen suggested my reaction came from a lack of previous failures, and that is part of it, too, I think.  It really mired me in negativity.

I went from doing what I love because I loved it, to caring what someone else would say about it. And now I probably will try to submit for publication, though every obstinate bone in my body says to hell with it. Because it makes a financial difference for my family, though I hate that this matters. Which takes me back to having been so fortunate that I can be such an idealist at this advanced age.

Then it finally connected to me both how we do this to students all the time. Care about the grade! And how this is parallel to the new and developing teacher evaluation programs. With much higher stakes, where a no means you're out of school or out of a job. It's a nasty proposition, having to manage your professional life or academic life with someone else's criteria and interpretation of those criteria hanging over your head. 

Sympathy for the people really subjected to these extrinsic measures is helping me come out of my funk.  Plus to still be doing the job I love, with the constant amazing work that students do when genuinely learning.  Two #mathchats on math games this week! A new batch of student teachers to mentor next semester.  I want to re-evaluate how I'm trying to motivate students, and to be honest about it.

It's a Wonderful Life, when measured by what actually matters.


  1. John,

    I can relate to the "checking off a box"--in my case, right now "checking the box" is remembering to have my "learning target" posted on the board and remembering to REPEAT IT OUT LOUD if my principal happens to come in for one of the "3 minute walk-throughs" required for my evaluation--EVEN if I just said it 2 minutes before he/she walked in! And, just in case, if we are going to do a holiday craft--my learning target is posted: "I can cut with scissors". :)

    I do hope you will submit for publication! It's kind of like repeating your learning target for the dean, even though you've said it.


  2. Did you really "make a mess of it"? Or is it more that you tried for something, and didn't get it? Extrinsic motivation sucks!

    But if you do want to get published, I'm sure you can. You have lots of great stuff to say. I got my first professional paper ever published in July with the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. (They are peer-reviewed.)

    If there's anything I can do to help, let me know.

  3. Howdy John,

    One of my grad students found this blog entry and requested it as an agenda item for our seminar this year so I decided to read it early in case I didn't want it to be a discussion I would keep it off the agenda. I am very cautious of Blogs for the same reason I am when students want to use Wikipedia as a source. What a great expression of the dilemma faced by faculty. There are so many positives, I think I am going to give it two spots on the agenda. The first part (". . .just how few people would care about the research I was doing.")
    ) AND the promotion to full part. I think students would have plenty to think about and talk about. The beauty of a blog is that no-one vets the work but they can react to it. It can start a conversation and can have great learning outcomes. The downside is no one vets the work. Vetting ensures at least one important question is answered - How is it that the work contributes to the greater community? I hope that all the great teaching and experiences you are having are not all first time authentic experiences. Let me explain, I hope you are using the great teaching ideas and evidence from others on which to base your work and changes to your efforts. If you really have to take all the time to reinvent the wheel each time you have a new group of people or a new topic to teach without being able to stand on the shoulders of giants, you are worth every penny they are paying you. Because you are working 80 hour weeks and matching instruction to individuals. But I think you are using the work of others.

    I run the Aggie STEM Center at a research intensive university, I work with preservice teachers abroad (to Prague this summer) to learn how the international community views mathematics and mathematics education and that it is not one unified perspective. I conduct inservice professional development 3-4 times per month as well as work with school and district leadership. I use published research articles everyday. I share articles with teachers when they have problems but more effectively when they talk about a success - I show them in the literature that their successes are corroborated.

    From your description of your activities I think you do the same thing but perhaps not as overtly as I do. You have a lot to say and much of it good. I hope you do look to speak in vetted arenas because I think it will polish your ideas. Don't do it for the promotion to full; that's stupid in a different metric, but to ensure that your ideas are shared with those who are most likely to use them with teachers and preservice teachers (who really matter most). There are plenty of outlets for this - The Journal of College Teaching is one. I think doing the publishing for the right reasons will likely be the road to full without compromising your ideals.

    I also think you wife is a genius. I fully agree, when too many things come easy ("my reaction came from a lack of previous failures") the rejections are all too easy to rationalize away. I hope you do not retract from the critique but expand- reach out and continue to grow. I am sure your dean meant that just one published article would have shown acceptance from the greater math ed community for your ideas would have pushed you over the top. I am sure he did not mean it was merely a check box. It is important to show a full professor has standing in the community to which they are responsible and for you that is mathed. There may be many ways to show that standing but one that is accepted almost universally is peer review publication.

    When your topics come up - I would love to Skype you in to participate in the discussion as a guest. I am sure the students would love to hear directly from you. Inviting in someone would be a new idea but we can see how it goes.

  4. I'm mostly not worried about getting published, and have lots of generous support. (Including yours, Sue - thanks!)

    Dr. Math - you seem to feel I'm not attributing things properly? While the blog started as a pointer, what I write now is my work, and I want very much to attribute well and accurately what I use and build upon. My wife (thanks for recognizing her genius!) says that I do work 80 hours a week. But she is prone to exaggeration. I'd be happy to talk with your class. Regardless, thanks for a thoughtful comment.