Faculty Matter Tip #29: Helping students pull things together – Writing a letter to a future student   

One of the themes running through many of our Faculty Matter Teaching Tips is the notion of setting up one’s courses so as to enable students to be intentional about their approach to their academic work. The goal is to lead them to “engage” more thoughtfully and actively, to reflect constructively on challenges they encounter, and to “own” their academic trajectory.

As you set the stage for the end-of-semester push, it can be useful to include opportunities for students to think about your course content overall, as well as what they have done to succeed in mastering it. One activity that has been implemented by at least two SJSU colleagues I know of is to have students write anonymous letters to hypothetical future students in the course. Prompts might include the following – or other questions you think might be helpful:

  • What, in a nutshell, was this course about?
  • What was the most interesting part, for you (the letter-writer)?  Why?
  • What did you learn about yourself, from taking this course? (About you as a student?  About your interests?)
  • How might what you learned in this course apply, to your future studies or to your life outside of SJSU?
  • What advice do you have for someone about to embark on this course? Be specific here – why have you selected these recommendations?

Both faculty members mentioned above have compiled the letters they have gathered over several semesters. They frequently share some of them with students at the start of each semester, to get the new cohorts off to an informed and inspired start.

You can read all previous tips on the Faculty Matter Tips page of the CFD website, and share your own thoughts and ideas on the comment link below.

Download a PDF version of the tip: FMTT29

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #28 – Revisiting the plan for the last few weeks of the term: What to do if we’ve fallen a bit behind.

As we get closer to the end of the semester, many of us realize that we have fallen a bit behind, and the “something will have to give” if we are to get through everything we’d planned to cover.  This Teaching Tip is designed to help you think through how to handle such a turn of events in your classes, should it arise.


Clearly, there is no single “right answer” to the question of what we should do. Strategies we entertain will need to:

  • consider how critical remaining topics are to achieving the learning objectives of the course and to preparing students for courses that build on its content; and
  • maintain the coherent threads that have lent coherence and structure to the course.

In a recent study of students’ perceptions of the “ideal” professor, the authors report that their respondents placed the greatest value on instructor clarity. Ability to communicate the relevance of the material, command of the subject matter and responsiveness to students and their needs and a sense of humor were next in importance.[1] Findings such as these caution us to be careful that we do not sacrifice those elements of our teaching that permit students to find what we are saying and doing clear and easy to follow, as we speed up or omit treatment of our course content.

Speeding up and spending less time on remaining material than we had initially intended may, indeed, enable us to at least touch on everything. And omitting topics or time-intensive instructional activities may enable us to make up time. However, such solutions often result in fewer opportunities for discussion and student-centered in-class activities, and less time spent on preview and review of material. In so doing, we may be cutting out precisely those elements of our teaching that permit students

  • to reflect on what we are teaching,
  • to monitor their understanding (or points of confusion), and
  • to engage with the material in ways that are meaningful and effective for them.

So what should we do? First, reassess our plan for the course intentionally, weighing the likely impact of the changes we are about to implement and create a revised course plan. Second, be sure to follow through with students – making sure class notes, study guides and other learning supports we may have already shared with students reflect the revised agenda. Third, make a note for ourselves about why our initial time estimates were off, and whether circumstances were special this semester, or whether we should bear this in mind as we plan for the next time we teach the course.

Please add your own strategies using the comment link on the Provost’s Academic Spotlight blog under the category “Faculty Matter.” We also invite you to peruse other Faculty Matter Teaching Tips at your leisure.

[1] Goldman, Z. , Cranmer, G., Sollitto, M., Labelle, S., & Lancaster, A. (2017) What do college students want? A prioritization of instructional behaviors and characteristics. Communication Education, 66:3, 280-298.

Download a PDF version of the tip: FMTT 28

College of Business Student Wins Top Award in Competition

Tiana Khong, right, a 2017 business administration graduate, won a student paper competition in September.

Tiana Khong, right, a 2017 business administration graduate, won a student paper competition in September. Photo courtesy of Stanley Olszewski, SOSKIphoto

Recent San Jose State University graduate Tiana Khong, ’17 Business Administration with a management concentration, won first place in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) student paper competition in September.

For this year’s competition, students were charged with submitting papers that exemplify the theme “The World in 2050.” In her paper, Khong envisioned a future in which international governments and technology companies have created safety-by-design service standards. The ANSI summarizes the main preface of her paper: the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) will lead to innovative intelligence buildings, autonomous vehicles and smart roads – and these systems will increasingly rely on service safety standards to ensure optimal security for consumers and the public.

As a student, Khong worked with Lucas College and Graduate School of Business Associate Professor Nitin Aggarwal and former Associate Dean Stephen Kwan. She was recognized for her paper at an awards banquet Oct. 18 in Washington D.C. and received $2,000 prize from ANSI.

Read Khong’s paper online.

Since graduating in spring 2017, Khong has been working as a product support analyst for a start-up company called TeemWurk that offers software as a service-based solutions for human capital management with a special focus on employee benefits administration.

In her position, she has traveled overseas, including a month-long trip to India. She works with the implementation and support services team and acts as a point of contact between the client teams and the offshore IT team, among other duties.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is a private non-profit organization that is engaged in enhancing U.S. global competitiveness and the American quality of life by promoting, facilitating and safeguarding the integrity of the voluntary standardization and conformity assessment systems.

Students Form Connections to Professors and Curriculum in Humanities Honors

By Melissa Anderson

Professor James Lindahl, philosophy and humanities, lectures on Greek philosophers to a class of Humanities Honors program students. (Photo: James Tensuan, '15 Journalism)

Professor James Lindahl, philosophy and humanities, lectures on Greek philosophers to a class of Humanities Honors program students. (Photo: James Tensuan, ’15 Journalism)

Alisala Nunes, a first-year student, initially wanted to attend a liberal arts school. But when she discovered she could pursue a degree in civil engineering at San Jose State University’s top-ranked Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering and apply for the Humanities Honors program, it seemed like a win-win.

“It was a nice surprise that SJSU had a program like this,” she said.

The Humanities Honors program was founded in 1954 by four professors who combined history, literature, arts and philosophy education into a four-semester program that fulfills many GE requirements while also providing a learning community for students. The students stay together as a cohort for four semesters.

“I’ve made a few friends in my seminar,” Nunes said. “Most friends are from my living situation or major, so it’s nice to have a switch to talk to people who are interested in other things.”

For Nunes, she said the Humanities Honors Program has already begun to teach her the analytic and communication skills she will need for engineering, where she sees the ability to work as team member to be essential.

“I leave every lecture with new ideas and see the interconnectivity of disciplines,” she said. “I see how art, religion, law and culture tie together.”

Professor Cynthia Rostankowski, the coordinator of the program, said the majority of students who enter the program are from non-Humanities majors, such as business, psychology, economics, computer science and others. She noted that the qualifications for the program are within reach of many students, with a requirement that they have a 3.0 unweighted GPA and 550 on the SAT reading/writing section (students can also qualify with select other entrance exams or a 3+ on an AP English exam.)

“A lot of people think it is just for high-achieving students,” Rostankowski said. “But it’s really to help students learn how to learn.”

Through the program, students attend a lecture class that is team taught by four professors and then break out into smaller groups for seminar sessions.
Carmel Weiler, a graduate student in philosophy and Rostankowski’s teaching assistant, said she joined the program as an undergraduate. Even though she had to stop out for personal reasons, she said being part of the program helped her resolve to return to her education years later. During her time away from her studies, she kept all her books; they benefited her as she tutored neighborhood kids.

“The program stressed how to write well, and that will help me in the research phase,” she said, as she continues to work on her master’s and plans to pursue a doctorate.

In 2014, the department began offering an Advanced Honors Program that works on the same principles, completing SJSU Studies areas R, S and V. It is a two-semester program that is team-taught and provides a cohort for upper division students who have successfully completed the WST, including incoming transfer students.

Isaiah McNair-Wilson, a transfer student who will be graduating in 2017, said he joined the Advanced Honors Program as he thought it would be “fun to take eclectic classes.”

As a business major with an emphasis in marketing, he said he made many friends in Advanced Honors and has learned a lot about writing. The skills have already helped him as he pens cover letters for his job search.

“The classes teach critical thinking,” he said. “You need humanities courses no matter what field you are in so you understand the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of what you do.”

In addition to the skills and knowledge students gain in the classroom, Rostankowski said the programs also provide mentoring and advising for students.

“At orientation, I ask students if they have heard of the sport of curling,” she said, describing how players move a stone across a sheet of ice. “There is one position called a sweeper who skates backward to clear a path so the stone can slide smoothly to where it is intended to go. I see my work as doing that for students.  We need to do what we can to assist students to find their path and thrive.”

2017-18 Humanities Honors Instructors:
Tova Cooper, Humanities
James Lindahl, Philosophy & Humanities
David Mesher, English & Humanities
Johanna Movassat, Art History & Humanities
Kenneth Peter, Political Science & Humanities
Cynthia Rostankowski, Humanities
Jennifer Rycenga, Humanities
Gregory Smay, Humanities
Andrew Wood, Communication Studies & Humanities

2017-18 Advanced Honors Instructors:
James Lindahl
Cynthia Rostankowski

Teaching and Learning Span Disciplines

Gordon Douglas, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning applies his knowledge of communications and sociology to his interdisciplinary research on unauthorized do-it-yourself urban planning. (Photo: James Tensuan, '15 Journalism)

Gordon Douglas, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning applies his knowledge of communications and sociology to his interdisciplinary research on unauthorized do-it-yourself urban planning. (Photo: James Tensuan, ’15 Journalism)

By David Goll

As with many institutions of higher education, students at San Jose State University are exposed to a variety of subjects through their lower division GE courses. But many professors are also taking interdisciplinary approaches within courses, providing students with a deeper understanding of how knowledge and skills can span across majors.

Costanza Rampini, Tasha Reddy and Bettina Brockmann are taking a multi-pronged approach to tackle the myriad of issues involved with climate change in a course they are teaching this year. The trio of instructors is examining the issue through the academic lenses of science, economic and social impacts, and communications, among others.

For today’s college students, climate change is not some distant, theoretical menace years away that is unlikely to affect their lives. Many want to learn as much about the issue as possible to confront what they consider a real threat to their futures.

They view this cross-disciplinary approach as the ideal way to educate the upcoming generation of citizens and leaders on this vast subject.

The twice-weekly, two-semester course — Global Climate Change — earns six units this fall and three next spring for its 90 enrolled students (though the class capacity is 120.) It is comprised of mostly juniors and seniors majoring in communications, environmental studies or a multitude of other majors such as physics, theatre arts, economics and public relations, among others.

Developed in 2007, Global Climate Change is in its 10th year and has served nearly 1,000 students, according to Anne Marie Todd, a professor of Communications. Integrating climate science with policymaking, public communication strategies and principles of climate justice, students complete the course as climate experts. It’s the only course of its kind at SJSU and in the CSU and has twice been recognized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) for educational excellence.

“Students love community engagement projects that promote climate change awareness in schools, neighborhoods and businesses,” Todd said. “For example, students create educational materials integrating climate science with practical knowledge in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Students have founded nonprofit groups and developed programs that support ongoing community educational initiatives.”

Recent surveys and focus group interviews of course alumni show that students feel a lasting personal connection to climate change and a strong sense of personal obligation and perceived individual agency to address climate change in their personal and professional lives.

“I think ours is a unique approach,” said Rampini, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental studies, focusing on climate change adaptations in India, from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2016. She is in her second year as an SJSU lecturer.

Jamie Pilar, a senior majoring in communications studies, said she was not a climate change skeptic, but also not a passionate advocate in favor of taking action on the issue when she enrolled in the class this fall. But her class experience has changed her outlook, and she has found a cause worth studying and promoting.

“I’m a communications student, and I’ve never particularly liked science,” Pilar, who transferred to SJSU from Ohlone College, said during a break in the class held in Washington Square Hall. “This class has challenged me to view the issue of climate change from many different perspectives. I’ve started talking about this with my friends and family. They’re surprised I’ve developed such a strong interest and point of view on this subject.”

Pilar has learned to appreciate the natural science instruction of Reddy, the newest member of the teaching team who started at SJSU in August after completing post-doctoral work on climate change in the Arctic Ocean region using supercomputers. She discusses the Earth’s climate systems and how humans have an impact on climate through their activities. Rampini enlightens students on how humans are in turn affected by climate change.

Another student Akash Patel recently interact with former Vice President Al Gore during a livestream Q&A about An Inconvenient Sequel. Patel asked what students can do to influence a tax on carbon system. View a video of the encounter online.

Brockmann, who came to the United States from Germany 19 years ago and has been teaching this class since 2012, highlights how climate scientists and climate change advocates can effectively communicate their message to the public.

“The multi-disciplinary approach helps students make connections,” Rampini said.

That multi-faceted teaching style informs not only the classroom presentations of Gordon Douglas assistant professor of SJSU’s Urban and Regional Planning department but also guides him in conducting his academic research.

That includes the extensive, wide-ranging research he compiled for his book about unauthorized do-it-yourself urban planning done by residents of large cities in North America and Europe, titled “The Help Yourself City.” Described as a multi-disciplinary urbanist, Douglas is a newcomer to SJSU, having joined the Department of Urban and Regional Planning this fall. He earned his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago, a master’s degree in Global Communication from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California, among other academic achievements. He completed his post-doctoral work at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge.

Douglas conducted more than 100 interviews for his forthcoming book, spending many weeks doing research in such cities as Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, New York and London. Delving into his interest in culture and gentrification, he studied how residents of these cities created their own pocket parks, median-strip gardens, pedestrian seating, unofficial bike lanes and even their own system of directional signs along streets in an ultra-conservative Jewish enclave in the New York City borough of Brooklyn — independent of city planners.

Compiling both quantitative and qualitative data and statistics, Douglas also returned to his hometown, Davis, to study how Minneapolis-based Target Corp. managed to build the first big-box retail outlet in the famously slow-growth university town of 65,000 west of Sacramento. A development particularly surprising after city’s voters rejected a proposal for a second Village Homes project to create another green, sustainable residential community.

“An interesting study into how large companies can get what they want, even in unexpected places,” Douglas said.

He now teaches Social Issues in Planning and a course in Urban Design at SJSU. Douglas also serves as director of the university’s Institute for Metropolitan Studies and will be working with his students to create a documentary film series.