Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Pathetic Pedagogues.

A History adjunct from the South sends this:

Your site saddens me. RMP may well be useless, and allow hateful messages to be propagated on the internet, but how does flinging degrading and hurtful comments in the other direction help the matter? You seem to have admitted to yourself that it doesn't help anything, yet you've gone through the trouble of making and updating your little site for venting spleen and getting your 15 minutes anyway. Really, why? I'm looking for a rational reason here, not more emotional appeals to the effect of "OMG! Students are calling me names on the internet!"

I also find it really pathetic that so many pedagogues writing in feel so free (so entitled even!) to comment on their students' physical attributes. This goes way beyond parodying the "hotness" rating category on RMP. One writes "here's a bra that fits" for one of his (I'm guessing female) students. And there are other snarky, frankly gross comments like this (not to mention the ones that are otherwise sexist or racist).

Meanwhile, other teachers bemoan having their "jugs" commented on or their portliness discussed. Sexual harrassment and physical insults fly both ways throughout your blog. Having gotten some of the former from profs whilst I was a student, I am all the more determined to never, ever, treat my students with anything even bordering on sexualized disrespect. Silly me, I even find avoiding being disrespectful in general towards students to be an important goal. And that includes while posting pseudo-anonymously on the internet. It sets a terrible example.

I wish some of the folks writing in to your site had absorbed similar lessons during their earlier educations. I hope that as time goes on, you start to get better students, or re-vamp your teaching techniques, or come out of your depression, or all of the above. There are a lot of problems with American academia, and your site is just adding to the pile.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Silly Whining.

A student from the SUNY system sends this along this morning:

I hate to turn these things into a back and forth on the blog, but I have to call out the students are so "offended" by Professors here being human.

Students DO NOT post on RMP so that their professors can "become better." That is an utter lie to themselves and the professors. If you want your professor to take your advice seriously, use the Course Evaluation at the end of the semester. That's what Course Evaluations are for, not some silly public website that offers contests and spring break trips.

The majority of comments on RMP are not critical nor helpful, they're just silly whining and complaining of spoiled students. "He's too hard! He gives too much work! She has an accent!"

I really have to wonder why it's all right for students to make such silly and pointless complaints, and to rate professors at "hot," but when Professors turn it around with a touch of sarcasm, students get offended. It's a double standard.

For the students who don't appreciate the tables being turned, and who realize that their professors don't love and adore all of them, maybe you should think twice before you go on a berating tangent on RMP. Or before you attempt to use RMP to pick the easiest professors to breeze through next semester.

In the real world you can't pick your manager, so do us all a favor and learn to work.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Newbie From Arizona.

A college professor at a large public institution in Arizona writes to us from the second semester of her first year on the job:

I did my Ph.D. work in the Pacific Northwest and earned most of my fellowships through editing and publishing, so my work in the classroom was very light before I started my first year on the tenure-track.

I wore a nice charcoal pantsuit to my first class last September and sweated through the jacket before I even got to class. I took it off in the hallway in front of my classroom before going in - I was wearing a perfectly normal camisole top that is quite modest - and two young men walked past me, one of them saying, "Pass me the JUGS, man."

I was caught up by that, but also just the nerves of this first day of all first days. When I walked into the classroom and went to the front, the two young guys I saw outside were in the front row. One was sheepish - thanks to something I imagine his parents might have given him while growing up - but the other just fixed me with a big grin.

I felt like I was in some sort of bad TV movie called "Teacher's First Day," and all I wanted to do was crawl back into the comfort of grad school, of my safe apartment in Seattle, my coffee, my friends, my sweatpants, my bookbag, and a dream that I was entering into the life of the mind.

I made it through the semester. I'm still on the job. But that first semester wiped clean any idea I ever had that teaching in a college is anything but babysitting. My students complained if I asked them to write 500 words. They would lie to my face about any and everything. One girl told me that the college's computer lab (there are 4, 3 of them open 24 hours a day), closed unexpectedly at 6 pm and she couldn't print her paper in time. I asked her about the other labs on campus and she whined, "They're ALL the way on other side."

I fielded an endless array of stories about dead family members. I heard about car crashes on every highway in and around the city. Nobody could make it to class when it rained. The heat index was 120 and when they were in high school they didn't have to go to class. They knew I'd understand.

I sat in my new and clean office and felt like a failure most days.

I went for help from my mentor, a woman about 25 years my senior, and told her everything. She nodded her head, took it all in, and said, "They're kids, honey. They don't know any better."

She hoisted me up, boosted my confidence a bit and told me to get tough. I wear dress shirts to class. I don't take any shit. I have policies on my syllabus about being in class - regardless of temperature. I have deadlines and there are consequences if they're not met. The students started this semester in the same way, complaining, whining, but I'm a new woman.

I wear my iPod - see, I have one, too! - and don't let their innocence and ignorance bother me. I teach what I know. I help when they want it - and more and more do. And when they act like they need sitters, I refuse to be one.

But this is not the life I thought was coming.


A student in the Carolinas sends this terrific post along this morning:

Some of the professors on your site come off as remarkably unprofessional. I realize that everyone needs an outlet, and professors are only human. I also realize the website is by professors, for professors. But, "We're the experienced adults in this context," says one of you. Act like it. I mean seriously, what is this:

"Here's the lowdown. Skeeter, you're a dimwit. I better slap that face next time I see it to even us up for you ruinin-ating my class this sem. Teeter, you got the look, hunny. But you ain't got the marbles. I hears 'em rollin' rollin' rollin'. Tweeter, you reap what you sow, baby girl. You may have the necessary ADDitude, but you got a loud mouth and you pissed this tizzo off one too many times. The rest, get you some Cs and Bs and gedd-da-fuq-out! Peace. I tha Frank-bomb, and I am outie."

Also, rating students' "hotness?" Disgusting. I really hope none of these people is a professor at my school.

By the way, I am not one of those bitter, spoiled kids you frequently complain about, so keep your assumptions to yourselves. I work hard, in spite of the general lack of intellectual stimulation my university supplies. This is supposed to be a place of learning and sharing ideas, but instead it is incredibly stifling, and is often nothing but a sounding board for individual professors' egos. If there is anything I have learned, it's that so called "facts" are slaves to perception and opinion. I am left floundering for a way to best reword my professors' opinions and turn my papers into mirrors in which to reflect their "greatness," in my quest for the almighty 4.0. It disgusts me. That is not to say that they have all completely disappointed me, just most of the ones in my major. Go figure.

I will admit, however, that a lot of the students you describe are the types I hate. I would rather massage my eyeballs with sandpaper than interact with them.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Hygiene and Pedagogy.

A longtime reader from North Carolina sends this along:

The last posting was indeed excellent, not least for being evenhanded. I particularly have to hand it to the writer for acknowledging the vagaries of the vinyl generation, of which I am a proud member. But one problem of pulling the Socrates quote out of the template drawer is that we can become blind to what is right there before us on a daily basis and which bodes very badly indeed for the future of the professional world.

One of my particular bugbears is simply this: when exactly did the 18-to-21 age male student become so physically off-putting? Fashion statements nothwithstanding, I have yet to see one young guy in my classes who doesn't have--through a combination of stubble, too much sun, too little washing, and a pervasive diet of junk food--an appearance of utter hairy-legged, grimy-toed slovenliness.

I visited some isolated Mexican villages last year that had no amenities like running water or electricity, and the sense of personal hygiene was far superior to what I'm seeing every day here in the decadent capitalist West. Guys, a bit of advice from a not-quite-extinct dinosaur: the Fecal Look doesn't work!!!

Who's To Blame For the Fix We're In?

I'm now in my forty-third year of college teaching, thirty-three of them full-time before I became Professor Emeritus at a university in the South. Since then I've served as Visiting Professor elsewhere in the South and another region. There's no question in my own mind that a great decline has taken place in the quality of students over these years, especially in areas having to do with civility and maturity of attitude--subjects well documented on your blog.

Surely much of this reflects cultural degeneration and parental permissiveness as well as the creeping acceptance of lying, cheating and other forms of dishonesty as tolerable by society at large. I want to focus, though, on the extent to which members of my own profession, the ones doing the complaining here, have contributed mightily to the fix we're in today. For years now, a high proportion of faculty have apparently made it a matter of personal pride to dress like barn rats, toss verbal obscenties around in class, spend endless class time retailing their political views and personal opinions, cancel classes and alter syllabi as private agendas develop, and generally treat professional responsibility as a matter of constant reinterpretation in light of travel plans and out-of-town visitors. Why shouldn't a student show up in pyjamas if his/her instructor comes to class in bermudas, a filthy work shirt, a four-day stubble and a matted grey ponytail? Why should that student get very serious about attendance when every week or so a class is called off, via a department secretary or a note on the classroom door? Why buy a textbook when the whole term will be devoted to political ranting, sexual and domestic revelations and discussions of whatever Hollywood drivel happens to by on at the local movie house? For years and years I heard these complaints from students (I was an advisor as well as professor) about courses in a wide variety of subject areas. One associate professor made a point of collecting his mail just before class and spending the first twenty minutes or so opening and reading it aloud. Another wore the same pee-stained seersucker trousers for weeks at a steretch. Another discouraged the males in her class from asking questions or making comments, lest they prove intimidating or draw attention to their presence. Time and time again students complained about coming considerable distances to class only to be greeted by a terse "class cancelled" notice.

I'm not optimistic about the prospect of students ever returning to past standards of dignity and seriousness, but I think they might at least deserve the examples of teachers who adhere to professional expectations beyond simply picking up the paycheck.

A Few Gripes, A Few Shoutouts. Our Post of the Week.

An English professor from the mid-South is stil not sure about what we're doing here at Rate Your Students, but has helped things along with a truly excellent post:

Although I'm charmed that anyone cares what professors think of their students, one real failing of this concept is that students are at least rating us as individuals. We're rating them in the mass, and that means error and generalization. That said, though...by and large students are the best part of my job. A lot of the quirks of the so-called IPod generation are the vinyl generation's quirks in another register: dare we say it, I too cut a certain amount of class back in the day, especially on sunny days or when I was falling in love. I too have occasionally been known to skim when I should've read.

One of my colleagues complained recently that "this generation¨ seemed to have no work ethic, but I think that when we're talking moderately privileged middle-class kids, the person with the hard-core work ethic has generally been the exception and not the rule.

Even though the best way to respect someone is sometimes to fail him (it really is), comfortably-off eighteen-year-olds really haven't changed that much since Plato's day. That's the bulk of my students: maybe less committed or focused than I'd like them to be, and annoyingly unwilling to be clones at eighteen of the person that I've become at forty (how inconsiderate!), but by and large okay, even good, people who will go on to do okay, maybe good, things. And that doesn't even count the alumni who're already doing more okay things with their lives than I ever intended to do with mine.

Or the returning students with kids, the ones whose work ethic puts mine to shame--no one's mentioned them yet, or the way the professorial spirit lifts in joy and hope when we see a middle-aged woman sitting in the classroom.

But in the spirit of the cathartic gripe, I'll also admit that the good stuff doesn't count the few who bring out my what's-wrong-with-this-generation gene. Given the study demonstrating that the incompetent don't know they're incompetent, those who fit this profile probably don't know who they are, so I'll mention a few, just in case any of the guilty are listening:

Pajamas to class? I mean, folks, we don't ooh and ah at your radical savoir-faire; we snort coffee out our noses laughing. For which we should probably thank you, come to think of it, so never mind.

Calling each separate member of a department you've never visited, on Sunday afternoon, looking for someone to proofread your doomed-to-failure law school application because you were too busy¨ to go to the writing center on Friday and too incompetent to proofread your own work in high school? As we used to say in the Pleiocene, puh-leeze!

Lying about the death of your brother? Yeah, and you even intercepted one of our just-slightly-suspicious condolence cards to your parents, but you didn't get the other one, did you? Bummer, how badly your parents took that.

And you plagiarists, a new vocabulary word: when you believe we're so stupid we can't spot your five-minute Google rip-off, that's known as contempt, and contempt is what you get back. If somebody insulted you and made work for you, wouldn't you have some feelings about it?

And do you really have to pee slowly and deliberately twice in a fifty minute class, three times a week? Now, do you? Give us a little credit here. And if you do, for God's sake go get that test at the health center. It¡s free!

Yawning in class: my parents would say that maybe you should, oh, I don't know, learn to yawn with your mouth shut as a matter of common courtesy, the way we did back in the day. Me, I'll settle for your covering your mouth. That's all. Just a good-faith effort not to share the gum, the tonsils, and the dental plaque.

That said, though...the ones I'm complaining about, along with a bunch who don't merit those complaints, are also the ones who have to watch me deal with my messy cold in front of them (sorry about that miss with the hanky, folks), the ones who must wonder why my mother never taught me any posture, and the ones who really wish I had to put a quarter in a jar every time I swear. Dumbass moments are pretty universal. And some of us always have to learn things the hard way. Many an eighteen-year-old dumbass has become an impassioned activist at forty, or even a teacher.

So, you know: a few gripes, a fair number of shout-outs, but mostly a pretty good life. And generally, kids, if state and federal administration gave me as little worry as you do, I'd feel like I was having a banner year.

Where Someone Gets Us Back to Our Roots.

From an adjunct instructor at a four-year university in California who doesn't get paid enough to put up with this:

M: You don't have mono. I saw you on campus today with your sorority sisters, giggling it up and having a great time. Don't lie to your professors. Your paper is now late, and you may not pass the class. Good luck with the doctor's note and this class next term with some other professor you can try to dupe.

R: Dead grandmother? I saw *Ferris Bueller's Day Off* when you were probably still in utero. In fact, I was voted "Most Likely to Become Ferris Bueller" my senior year in high school. At least try to be original. I get 17 dead grandmothers every term. Try a dead step-godparent next time, and maybe I might believe you.

S: I don't want to see the "slut signature" tattoo on the base of your back. Please pull up your pants when you come to class and stop staring at my ass when I write on the chalkboard.

F: The books aren't expensive. They cost less than the rims you have on your Lexus. Prioritize or get a job.

P: I am not mean. All I ask is that you follow directions. I give you a very detailed expectation of what I expect, and if you don't get the grade you want, it's your fault and no one else's. I know your Baby Boomer parents have made you believe you're perfect and that your failures are everyone else's fault, but they lied. Just like those contestants on American Idol who think they can sing, you need a reality dose. Here it is in the form of a no-pass grade. Have fun not reading these books again next term.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bad Ratings a Substitute for Own Failings?

A Computer Science Prof from the Northeast sends in this post:

I am one of those who takes a beating on RMP, and I'll grant that I have had a few teaching flaws in the past that have led to less than stellar evaluations. But I think some students use those flaws as an explanation or substitution for their own failings.

For example: a common criticism is that I have a very quiet voice. Negative criticism stops there as students claim they could learn nothing. Positive critics, however, point out that I answer email promptly, welcome office visits, provide much useful assistance during visits, and answer the questions they pose in class to their satisfaction.

Another common criticism is the difficulty of the homework I assign. The positive critics will say that this forces them to think; graduate applicants will come back to me later and say they could not have passed their candidacy exams without the grounding I gave them. But since the negative voices are so loud, I sometimes feel like my position is at risk.

I received a note from the department head regarding some of the grades I gave to the graduate students in my senior-level undergraduate course. This was probably a special batch. Some scored less than 50% on exams, where the undergraduates averaged above 70-75%. One graduate student even requested a chance to retake the final exam (again under 50%) during which he asked if I could replace a question he didn't know how to answer with another one that he did.

My A students are a real delight. I don't see all of them during office hours, but those I do see are always prepared, have interesting questions, and ask how it can apply to other courses and other areas. They often come back later to talk aboutt heir graduate work or just to shoot the breeze -- which somehow makes all the other pain worth it.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Sense of Experimentation Has Been Lost.

A visiting professor at a California university sends along this insightful post:

I realized early on in my teaching career that the students I was teaching were the products of "self-esteem" building in grade and high school. The majority of them were terrified of criticism, and needed a great deal of hand holding throughout the entire class. These were Clinton-era kids who were into a false sense of empowerment that made them better students.

Now with the new regime and the supposed return to standards, everyone is incredibly results and test oriented. I've adapted by delivering discreet packets of information to them, by casting ideas and concepts that I believe to be much more ambiguous and complex in simpler terms. Perhaps I am a better teacher -- it's certainly less stressful because I "lose" fewer students. And I get better evaluations.

But I think what has gotten lost is the sense of experimentation in teaching undergraduates. I used to be much more open-ended about my courses, more willing to test ideas out loud, and to build arguments in a multi-dimensional way.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

From an Academic Voyeur in Michigan.

I, like Theology in Minnesota, have some issues with the post from the Illinois Journalism professor. I understand what he is saying, but do not agree with the concept. He seems to want to speak to modern students in their own tongue, which is admirable for teaching them a string of new facts. However, what it will not do is teach them how to learn in a different manner -- to learn how to learn.

I feel like an outsider on this whole academic business, but I do have credentials. I have a B.A. earned with honors on a full academic scholarship. In the intervening decade plus I have worked in many different industries, including multiple Fortune 500 companies. As my lovely spouse moved to grad school and then to a tenure-track position, I eased into college administration, taking full advantage of my benefits to take more (free) undergrad classes to add new languages and skills. I have seen today's students at close hand, and I find it chilling. To be ignorant is one thing. To be willfully ignorant yet still feel entitled to a good grade is despicable.

Ill-Journalism's point seems to be that college must bend to the student's upbringing. I disagree. College is a transition to the real world, or at least it is supposed to be. The real world will not make an effort to speak your language, and your only real hope is an ability to learn how to cope with a new mode of speech on the fly. Corporations are not about to bend over backwards to help you succeed. There are far too many quality applicants standing in line to coddle a slow learner. That is why companies have adopted probationary periods of up to a year, to deal with the influx of pathetic college graduates with no basic adaptation skills.

I can give you plainly the view of a typical employer regarding new college grads: If you ask me stupid questions at work, questions whose answers are covered in the written material I gave you during orientation/training, I will assume you are a moron and not waste any further time with you. Your name will go to the top of the "budget cut" list, and you will get crap assignments until you can be unloaded. Welcome to life. There are no second chances. Have a lovely time. In this case, which I have seen first hand in the banking, insurance, aerospace, automotive, and IT industries, Ill-Professor's approach is not going to help you.

There For the Paper.

A Theology student in his mid 30s from Minnesota sends this excellent post in today:

The Illinois journalism professor reflects on interesting differences in the way that contemporary undergraduates absorb and catalogue information. That said, I don't think it has any bearing on the problem(s) described by the Washington professor.

I'm in my mid-30s. I was kicked out of school twice when I stumbled into it straight from high school. I returned a few years ago to 'finish' (more like 'start and finish') my degree. The 15 intervening years made a difference. I'm excited about learning and can't imagine failing. I'm there because the learning is interesting to me, not because college was just the requisite next step in my path to adulthood. I've been stunned by the overall lack of interest, creativity, and ability by the more traditional aged students surrounding me. They don't ask intelligent questions. They don't do the homework. They can't write.

In a 300-level class last year, one student turned in a semester-ending research paper that was five pages long, had no footnotes/endnotes, lacked a title page, and relied on one classroom textbook and two websites for source material. On top of it all, my 12-year-old niece writes more clearly. Yet, this student passed the class. Why don't you professors fail people like this? I'm baffled. Are you afraid to hand out F's? Why?

Getting back to the comments from Illinois.... it's not as simple as information processing methodologies. Can he explain how the differences he highlighted result in such an incredible lack of talent and interest?

From my seat in the classroom it looks to me like the greater problem is that college has become nothing more than a waypoint on the road to a career. The overwhelming majority of companies now ask for a college degree; thus, high-school kids go to college. As the crude cliche goes: they're there for the paper. Ask any college kid what they think of a class and the response almost invariably is "I don't care, I just want to graduate."

It'd be nice if y'all would identify and focus your personal resources on those of us who want to be there: we're paying a lot of money and really want access to your knowledge and your willingness to share it. I love nothing more in school than stumbling across that occasional professor that isn't yet bitter and still gets excited about a student who wants to learn.

I want to spend time learning how you think -- college for me isn't just about absorbing the facts, it's about learning how you professors analyze and solve problems. To do that I need hallway/office conversations. I need a professor who isn't bored and frustrated with the current crop of students. I need a professor who takes the time to actually read my paper and write constructive comments so that the quality of my writing improves.

Bottom line: The existing system isn't going to fill your classes with excited students. So why not direct your attention to the few of us that really do want to learn, please?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Best Practices.

A journalism prof at a college in Illinois sends in this excellent post in response to some ideas posted earlier today. They are especially appropriate as many professors go back to work this week. Enjoy:

The post by the Washington State History Prof notes the meticulous detail he provides IN PRINT, BEFORE IT IS NEEDED to his "pomo" (postmodern) students. My adminstiration makes each of the faculty at my school do this in the name of best practices. This is a mistake, IMHO.

Growing up with information at their fingertips and a computer that can search and find so effectively at their fingertips has altered the sense ratios of our students as Mr. McLuhan would say. We of the old school, hungered for a well-organized text with answers to our questions. Our stance is to read carefully before we begin (weren't we taught that in school?) and then to refer back. We've been conditioned to see something and recall about where it occurred on a page of text within a sheft or codex of text.

Today's learner has been conditioned to take in a screen's view of information, much of which isn't text, but is iconic (think signs and signifiers.) When they have a question, they do not brook the search that yields pages of information. They want the precise information at the time they require it. In some circles, this is called "just in time" support.

Ask yourself, do you "RTFM" (read the %$$% manual) when you get new software. I am over fifty and obviously text-oriented, so I actually do read the manual for a day or so before I touch the software. How my children laugh at me! They (my children are college-age and will serve as stand-ins here for my students and yours) bootup, click, navigate and go. When they are confounded, they will seek "Help" and it is usually "contextual" not generalized with pages to scan over. If they don't find help in "Help" then they will go to a forum or seek advice from a larger pool of expertise.

As Mr. McLuhan said, I am not judging this, but to understand something you have to observe it and be able to describe it first. Most of our students have been on internet since 4th grade, if not earlier. They are often the computer expert in their homes. They engage with devices based on the "just in time" help model for many hours. This should give us educators pause.

What if the detailed syllabus was handed out on a cheap flashdrive and organized as an indexed "Help" file. What if we didn't tell students anything beyond what they needed to know at the moment, and let them look for the help they needed when they needed it with procedural questions?

Would we get more substantive questions? More effective classroom operations? And we could train students who haven't learned to effectively search electronic documents for help to do so while we teach ideas and concepts.

Alas we teach in the ways we were taught, and tend to confuse the good with the nostalgic and familiar. We need to always remember we teach people, not subjects.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Washington State Checks In.

We've received a lot of mail in the past couple of days begging us to get back to our original purpose, providing a space for professors to vent. One writer from North Dakota wrote: "Give the psychobabble a break." And another from California said: "If I wanted to be lectured to, I'd turn on a religious radio station." So, in keeping with our policy of giving the folks what they want, I've chosen this post today from the bulging Rate Your Students mailbag.

I'd have to check the records, but I believe this is our first post from the Evergreen State. A tenure-track professor of History sends this in:

With each new semester I want to believe that my students are going to be better. But afer 5 years I am always disappointed.

We've just finished our first week of school. I provide a lengthy syllabus with instructions on everything from grading to attendance to dates of tests. Yet this weekend I received more than 20 emails asking questions that are easily found on the syllabus.

Not only do I distribute the syllabus, but we talk about it in class, and I take questions over the important matters. This might seem like a minor matter, but couldn't my time be better served on something other than replying to 20 emails that never should have been sent?

"How many tests are there?" one student writes. That's on page one under a heading called 'Tests.'

"I can't be here on January 19th. Will I miss anything?" Yes, there are three readings and a comprehension quiz all noted on the syllabus next to heading that says 'January 19th.' And, in the syllabus itself it tells you the policy on missing quizzes. That's page 2, under a heading called 'Quizzes.'

One student wrote, "I have a night class on Wednesday nights, and sometimes because of so much studing (sic) I oversleep. Do you have a policy on arriving late?" Yes, under the heading 'Late Policy' on page 3, you'll find all you need.

If this material doesn't sink in, I have grave concerns about the more intricate material that we cover in the actual class. Why aren't students listening, reading? Why aren't they plugged in to what the class is about, how it runs, what I expect? Do they really care so little that they can't be bothered to read the syllabus, or LISTEN to me when I read them the syllabus? These are the rules of the game, the rules of the road, the map to a final grade. And these are not freshmen either; most of my students are sophomores and juniors. You'd think they'd know better, or at least know better than to reveal themselves as complete dolts in the first week.

These students who have written in with questions on material they are expected to have learned in our first classes are starting in a hole with me. I already think they lack the intellectual rigor to do well in college. They already have shown me something of their abilities, their attention to detail. I'm already tired and it's just the second week.

What on earth do we have to do to get them to care about the class as much as we do?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mike From Manhattan.

Mike, a tenure-track professor of English, at a large city college in NYC sends this:

First off, you're doing a superb job. I like the anonymity. I like the backtalk. I like to be able to swing away.

Yes, like you, I love my students. 99% of them are terrific kids, terrific learners. But what about that tiny group who likes to make me consider freshman-cide? I'd rather vent here than in the parking lot with a graphite racquet.

But I write today to share a couple of books I think would make my students (junior and senior humanities majors mostly) brighter, sharper, more fun to be around.

Faster by James Gleick
The Body of Poetry by Annie Finch
The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman
A Pretext for War by James Bramford

These are books I read over the break, and though they're a mixed bag, they'd give any student a leg up on the most important skill in college - creative thinking!

Go, Professor, Go. I'll be sending in some ratings after my first class next Tuesday.

Call me Mike!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Engage or Don't.

This recent spike in attention for Rate Your Students has resulted in a flood of new email from terrific correspondents. Over 3000 hits today and scores of interesting posts. This is my favorite of the bunch, and certainly one of the best things ever to grace this fledgling site. A Humanities prof at an art school in the South sends this:

A friend sent me the link to this blog with a question: "Catharsis?" Maybe. We have an ideal or value in common as professors, and that is that an education is a valuable thing, a good in itself. We are also generous: we want to share what we know. We are idealists of one stripe or another. The world from which our students come, and to which they will return, and in which they work while in college, does not hold those values. Also, I try to remember that 18 year olds are not now the people they will become, and the that person I'm teaching may not emerge for a while. Sure, I have students who drive me mad, and their general poverty of talent for "being students" is frustrating. That's their education. I tell them about this. They perk up. I was not always a perfect doll as an undergrad myself -- and now, I'm on the other side of the desk. Asked about me at 18, most of my profs would likely have just crossed their fingers, rolled their eyes, or held silent. I was not a treat. I earned the grade. But I was not a treat.

Sure we are sometimes appalled. Sure some of our students do come to class in altered states (since there have been universities, or symposia for that matter, students have come to class altered). Sure we wish some of them would put some clothes on. Sure, they sometimes threaten to kill us (four profs in my experience, all women, have been so threatened). Sure, the sense of entitlement is obnoxious and the result of their upbringing and previous education. Yes. Absolutely. This, in the modern age, is the job. As one of my former profs said when I asked why he never shared certain students' position papers, "I don't need them." After I blinked in astonishment, he said something like,"You, on the other hand, are actually trying to get Lacan. Your position papers get shared because you're trying. That is, you're sometimes wrong in a really interesting way, and it bothers you. Them? They're wrong and don't care." That was the day I learned that I could and should really expect adult level, heavy duty creative and critical thinking from my students. He "needed" us too, on some level, so he let the "problem children" go. And, well, taking that position saves me some emotional energy that is better spent on people who love me. Why try to feed someone who's not hungry?

I sometimes explain to my students what kind of work goes into becoming their prof. Some of them really do not know, can't even guess. I put it in terms of "becoming a professional" and "paying dues in any profession" -- because we do -- and because doing well in college shows a willingness to learn, and to pay those dues. Some of them listen.

Bitch, moan, vent, shake fist at heavens. Please do. Because teaching is a human interaction and it affects us just like any other human interaction. But then get on with it, stay open to them. We're the experienced adults in this context. We've been on both sides of the desk. We were not all perfect at being students when we were young. But, we caught the bug, fell in love with learning, and here we are. The ones with talent, and dedication, and drive, they need and want our guidance, advice ,and tutelage. RMP.com is proof of that. It's also proof that some people are vindictive and vengeful and spoiled. What, really, is new? Vent away.

We need not be concerned. There is no statistical standardization for the RMP site. None. So the ratings you find there are without any real value compared to your course evaluations, which are properly measured. Some are offered in good faith, some are just emotive, and there's no standardization like the IDEA folks and other evaluations companies have. And I bet our administrators do not have time to dig around for what "the jock in the back" had to say.

I talk to my students about accepted methodologies, about national standards, about how accreditation works. I tell them to go read the syllabi for similar courses at other schools by searching on the web. They do. And then they know it's not them against me in whatever Oedipal drama they're still working out with their families. It's them against what's expected of them Out In The World (where their flat tire and their hangover and their break up don't matter and their habitual rebellious self-sabotage doesn't matter either). Then, I can be their guide and advisor, not their neurotic adversary. Most of the time, this works. And some kids, and some adults, are simply unaware that a touch of medication and therapy would do them a world of good. ;-) Probably including me.

Miss class? Have a receipt for the fix on that flat. Dead grandma? Funeral program. Missing homework? Email went to Mars? Nope. Leave me a hardcopy too. Dog ate your lap top (really, got that one)? Bring the receipt for the new lap top, and shoot that dog because it is a menace. Life has a paper trail. I make them show me the trail. Really cuts down the self-sabotaging and cynically manipulative lies they sometimes resort to. No paper trail, no extra help, no extension, nothing.

For my part, they get to choose. Engage or don't. I have a whole new crop to be available to next term. I'm a blip on your radar, you're a blip on mine. That blip can help you or not. I assume they're grown-ups, I treat them like grown-ups, most of them act like grown-ups. "Here's the community rules for my class. Come back next week and I will understand that to mean you agree to these rules. So, when you break them, you just get the consequences as spelled out in the rules. Your call."

Most of the time, that works. When it doesn't, they fail.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Sacramento Sally Slams Stupid Students.

A non-tenure-track instructor at a community college in Sacramento sends this along:

I took this shit job at this backwards school because my husband has a job with the government. He pretty much has to live here now, and it's because of that that I left a tenure-track job at a pretty college along the coast.

Anyway, nobody cares about "poor widdle me." But I came into my first semester with a good attitude nonetheless, at least until I met my students. These horrible 18 and 19 year old BABIES ruined every moment I spent on campus this semester. Without exception they are rude, disrespectful, and disengaged. It was not like this at my other college job.

I teach Political Science, and I know that I make it relevant and interesting for today's students (and I have the student evaluations to prove it), but these dolts sat there for 16 weeks with vacant looks and half-dead eyes. I tried everything, showed videos when appropriate, took them on a field trip (which is a whole other story), met with them individually, but nothing worked.

The overwhelming feeling I got was that the students just didn't want to be there. They didn't want to be in college. They didn't want to take classes. They were all just waiting for life to start. It got me thinking about what a professor of mine had said: "Not everyone is cut out for college." Yet, everyone seems to think they should go.

Well you know what? You don't have to, kiddies. After high school I waited tables and worked weekends at a movie theater. And after 2 years of being tired of being broke and disrespected, I went to a community college, then transferred to a university, and then grad school. I did all of that in 7 years, and I paid for it through scholarships, loans, and working at a bar. And when I went I was EAGER to go. I WANTED to go. I wasn't just doing what Mum and Dad wanted.

If all of the kids who hated college would get out, it would empty the buildings pretty quick. But what a great life would remain for those who stayed. People would be interested. Students would talk. Teachers could teach. And, once 18 year old kids were 20 or 21, and when they got their shit together, then they could make a decision that would work, and those that came back to college would want to be there. Wouldn't that be a good system!

Instead, I presume that I'll get the same kind group in Spring semester. Dolts. Stupidheads. Assholes. Disrespectful punks. I don't know if I can stand to go back to class again.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Wally From Winnipeg Spots a Trend.

Wally, a full professor in Sociology at a university in Winnipeg, Canada, has cracked the secret RYS code - we sometimes anonymize posters by choosing a name for them that has the same first letter as their city, state, province, or commune. We also try to choose names that give us a little chuckle. Wally is a little funny, we think. Unless, of course, it's your real name. Then it's about time to use initials or something. Oh, we're clever. We're about as clever as a wooden nickel. Yet, we continue to do it.

Anyway, Wally has this say:

My nominations for the Oscars this year go to J, whose performance as the ecstasy-addled sophomore who could never find a pen or a textbook was riveting. I put H up who played the starry-eyed naif who believed in unicorns and test re-takes. B, that force of nature, was hard to ignore as the one-man army for rights for First Nation peoples (despite driving his dad's Lexus SUV, and wearing enough Eddie Bauer to fill a New Hampshire coffee shop).

But the favorite has to be N, who charmed this reviewer with a wardrobe of wooly mittens and long soliloquies under the dim lights of my office.