Alcohol on Campus

As I promised in an earlier post, I am writing about alcohol use/abuse by students (and I suppose others) on campus.  Its been over a month since I said I would write about this so why now?  There have been a number of unfortunate events coinciding with the start of the new academic year including at my own institution.  For instance, a student from Calgary apparently died of alcohol abuse at Acadia last week, at least two students died at Queen’s University over the past year as a result of alcohol related issues, and most recently there was a major bar fight and stabbing on the sleepy UBC Okanagan campus just two days ago.  On a more public scale but off-campus, it doesn’t take much detective work to realize that the Vancouver riots were fuelled by alcohol.  Generally there are two views on this: (1) its just kids growing up, we all went through it, or (2) this totally inappropriate for any institution of higher learning.  I will self-declare as being fully, 100%, in the second category.  There may be a line where we cross into “no-fun territory” or “the constitution gives me the right to drink on my own time” etc, but we’re no where close to that now.

First question that must be asked: Are we satisfied with the current situation or do we consider it acceptable?  Let me spin that question around just a bit, do kids need to get completely inebriated once or twice or every weekend to “grow up”?  In my opinion, no.  100% no.  The type of thinking that considers that a feasible or viable option must be expelled from our society.  Do I need to hit my thumb with a hammer every day so that I comprehend pain and “grow up”?  Of course not.  If we define “growing up” as becoming mature thinkers capable of contributing positively to society and tackling some of the great issues in the world, I fail to see how binge drinking can even be considered a necessary condition.

Second question: What can we do to avoid these tragedies?  First we need to educate the students on the issues with binge drinking.  I’m not talking about sitting 500 frosh down and lecturing them, we’re educators for crying out loud, surely we can find a way to help students learn about the issues and ramifications of alcohol abuse that doesn’t involve their repeated first-hand experience.  Second, we MUST provide alternative activities for students that don’t involve alcohol.  I suspect, although I don’t have evidence, that many students drink because their peers drink, its THE thing to do an a Friday night, and there’s no great alternatives.  Let’s take the lead on this, be innovative and help these students out.  Third, universities must help create a sense of unity and community within the student body.  Students must learn tolerance and respect and treat each other, staff and faculty as family.  My family is in no way perfect, I verbally fought with my siblings and parents but we didn’t stab each other or cut each other with broken beer bottles.

Finally, if you are a faculty member as I am, take the lead.  Ask your Dean, Provost, and President what your campus is doing to ensure the campus is a safe and healthy learning environment for everyone.  Don’t accept hand waving answers.  And share your initiatives and proposals.  We’re all in this together.  I’m sure there is some great research and reading on this, its on my list for the winter break.  If you know of anything please post as a comment and I’ll start building my reading list.

That’s my rant for today.  To the parents affected by the events I mentioned in this post, my deepest condolences and I apologize for not doing more to protect your kids.

A request for some help!

Ok, I’m stuck on this one and I appreciate all ideas that you can provide.  In my tax class I always allow students to bring their textbook into the two midterms and final exam.  I do this to (a) promote using a reference when doing tax and (b) avoid the memorization that would be required if the resource was not allowed.  To keep the “playing field level” I stress that students are NOT allowed to write in their textbooks; they can tab and highlight but no notes can be written in the text.  That is a serious rule and subject to the strongest integrity issues at UBC.  In the past three years I have had very few problems with this system and it seems to have worked quite well.

I also encourage and promote students to use e-textbooks which are becoming more and more common.  Those e-texts avoid students having to lug around pounds of paper (which discourages them bring the books to begin with).  For the first time, students in the tax class have purchased the e-text.  Here’s the problem, well there may be two separate problems: (1) in order to allow them access to their e-texts during exams they will be required to have their laptops and wifi; (2) the e-text allows them to annotate the book with little “notes”.  I have checked with the e-text provider and they have no way of turning the notes feature off.  So how do I try to ensure that the students using the e-texts have similar access to the students using the paper copies?

Thanks in advance for your ideas!

Counting, GDP and Happiness

A double-video post! The first is a very short speech (~1967) by Robert Kennedy about what is included in GDP and what is excluded. He’s got some great points that suggest GDP is a very poor metric.

The second video is a TED talk by Chip Conley (2010) about finding ways to measure what really matters. He uses the example of Bhutan and their movement to think about GNH (Gross National Happiness) versus GDP. I was made aware of GNH about five years ago but didn’t really understand it. As Chip explains, Bhutan is not trying to make everyone in the country happy, rather they are trying to ensure that the conditions to allow happiness to be experienced are in place. Let me put a teaching/learning flavour on that to close: Professors/teachers cannot require that learning happens but we can ensure that we create an environment that encourages learning.

How do we teach “critical thinking”?

Lots of higher education teachers talk about teaching or developing critical thinking skills in students but I’m never sure if (a) we’re all on the same page and (b) if we actually know what we’re doing.  This summary of a great article suggests that some teachers have some good data to make some decisions about how to teach critical thinking.

The original article is Carrithers, D., Ling, T., and Bean, J. C. (2008). Messy problems and lay audiences: Teaching critical thinking within the finance curriculum. Business Communication Quarterly, 71 (2), 152-170.  Available here if you’re a UBC faculty/staff/student. There are five major findings that can help us develop critical thinking in students:

1) Students don’t like “messy”.  They don’t like uncertainty or estimation and try to make the problem as simple as possible.  We need to help students get familiar and comfortable with making decisions with unknowns.

2) Students respond as if the professor is the key stakeholder even when the problem is introduced from a client’s perspective.  We must have them focus on the people involved and make the client central to the process.

3) Strong students write a textbook as their responses.  Students are so keen to show us that they “know it all”, they tell us everything.  Even when such information would not be appropriate for the client.  This relates to #2 above.  We need to get the focus off the professor and the grade and onto the process and the client.

4) Students write textbooks rather than “advice-memos”.  This relates to #2 and #3 – if students write to the professor they want to demonstrate their entire process rather than just give great advice.  Personally I encourage students to show me their thinking process, even if that wouldn’t be appropriate for the client.  Maybe I’m perpetuating #2 and #3 without knowing it?  I suppose I can ask for the process (i.e. how did you come to that conclusion) and the product (written for the client) as two distinct items?

5) Students like words not pictures.  Students do not use graphics effectively, they would prefer to write an entire page when one clear bar graph, pie chart, or table would sum it all up.  Are students unfamiliar with software to produce those graphics or have we focussed on page-length or word-count far too much?

A few thoughts to ponder …




A bit more risque than usual

Thanks to Carlene (great foodie blog btw!) for this one. Philip Zimbardo does a very quick and provocative (but PG rated) discussion of what pressures males are facing and the impact on their education and relationships. If you’re a guy or know a guy watch this, I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the behaviours he mentions. He leaves us hanging without a real solution though, perhaps you can post a few via a comment?