Sunday, December 31, 2006

Yeah, Same to You...The Final Post of 2006

I often read posts here with a little skepticism. The students seem too stupid, too conniving, too dramatic. The profs come off as too cranky and too despairing. But I always imagined that you at RYS were due a little hyperbolic license. But I had my own RYS-worthy experience here on the last day of the year.

I was lounging on a perfectly clear and sunny New Year's Eve Day, sipping rum drinks next to the swimming pool of my very rich brother-in-law a couple of days before having to head back to a snowy state and my tenure-track job that is only 10 days away.

I went inside to check my airline reservations and I made the tragic error of checking my school email. Here it is, my cautionary tale of the day:

Dear Prof. Xxxxx:

I hope you're having a good vacation. I'm not. I just got my grade and I'm so disappointed. You know that I need an A to keep my good GPA, and I remember us talking about it. I did a very thorough job of getting ready for your final and I know I aced it. And I did turn in the extra credit report, although I was a few days late.

I enjoyed your class and thought I learned a lot this semester, but if this is the grade I got, then maybe I didn't learn as much as I thought. I don’t understand where I went so wrong. I am at a loss as to what else you thought I should have done. I might not have been in class as much as other students, but I had an off-campus job, I was in a play, and I did an internship for my major. So it's understandable how stressed I am.

I’m not trying to make excuses, but I really thought that I earned an A. Could you review all of my work in time for me to get new transcripts to show my advisor and my parents? By maybe next weekend?

Obviously my work was not what you wanted, but if it was that far off, I really wish you could have told me earlier. Anyway, I have to get ready for a big party with my friends. So Happy New Year.


Oh, and when I pulled up my online grade book, the poor dear had gotten an A- in my class. So, Happy New Year to her and to everyone there at RYS.

Friday, December 29, 2006

An Adult Student Breaks It Down

I am a returning student. I love my classes, I love to study, and I cannot stand to make a bad grade - although it does happen. This is my second chance to do really well and it's making a difference.

I cannot imagine trying to teach students who are always late, make excuses about late assignments that were clearly explained, and are happy to pass with a "C." So I think it is very important teachers get to vent, hence this site. That said, let me defend rating teachers. A few of my teachers have been awesome, many very good, and a few just plain bad:
  • Let my start with awesome. These are the teachers who let you know the expectations upfront. This may or may not be a hard class, but you deal with it and are prepared. If you are not willing to do what the teacher asks, then drop this class. Now! This will make it easier for you and me. Tell your students this!
  • The good teacher. These are the teachers that allow some excuses but, in general are pretty fair. They expect assignments turned in on time, but do give leniency for some reasons. These teachers tend to be a little too easy going for me.
  • The bad teacher. This is the teacher that has no respect for students. These teachers have a preconceived expectation that all students will be bad. This comes across in how the teacher talks to the students, deals with them as a class, and on a one-on-one basis. This is the teacher who is condescending, trying to make students look bad in class. The end result, none of the students has respect for the teacher.

I have had all of these teachers over the years, but I think that teaching is about the students and their education. Showing empathy, not sympathy, and working as well as you can with your students to make sure they get the education they are paying for, is the best way to deal with students!

If you are professor looking yourself up on, maybe you need to examine why you are!!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Live Blogging from the MLA in Philadelphia - ONLINE NOW

Hungover Horst, a German scholar at a small Liberal Arts College in the northeast, has sent us a flurry of emails this afternoon from in and around the main convention hotel in Philadelphia at this year's Modern Language Association convention, the biggest gathering of English and Foreign Language faculty in the country. We think Horst might need a big pill of some kind, or a mug of his favorite brew. But, we thought we'd share his ... uh ... er ... energy with all of you:

18:40 - Room
My colleague arrived and called me on the phone. Asked me what seminars I've attended. I flipped open the 40 pound convention guide and picked out one. That seemed to satisfy him. We're here to interview 9 applicants for our Spanish position. It starts tomorrow. As I was surfing the web on the lightning fast internet connection ($10 a day; thanks to my college for paying), my colleague nattered on about plans in the morning for a "conclave" with him and a grad school colleague who is also here. What my colleague doesn't know is that I have my own 10 am interview across town at the Embassy Suites. Pass.

17:12 - Sports Bar
Yeah, so I'm not attending any of the excellent presentations this evening on postmodern linguistics and its impact on teaching the 21st century dialectic. But here in the sports bar, it's just as enriching. Just a moment ago, a woman with tiny horned-rim glasses sent back a glass of some house pinot noir. It's a sports bar, honey. They have a giant box of wine back there and you're going to get another glass from the same freaking box. When it came back, she gave a big nod of her head and told her partner, "This is really good." Yeah.

16:10 - Lobby
You have to see the MLA to believe it. It's a yearly convention where thousands of faculty members from around the country gather to give and hear presentations and papers. Oh, that's what they say. But mostly it's a big job-fest. Almost everyone here is on the job market. There are a tremendous number of almost-minted PhDs who are looking for their first post someplace. But there's also a lot of mid-career folks - like myself - who are seeking a better job or a better school. Their departments don't know it, perhaps, but that's why they come. Oh, and for the light lager.

15:04 - The Bar
My colleague and I are back in the sports bar playing interactive trivia and drinking some Pennsylvania light lager. Is it a rule that every state has to make their own thin beer? Can't they just serve up Bud and Coors and whatever and leave the design of beverages alone?

14:45 - The Room
Okay, okay. So "Red" is off the shit-list. I got my room and it's palatial. I've spent nights in holding cells that are bigger. Ba-DUM-dum.

14:02 - Some Sports Bar
I don't even know the name of this place, but it looks like the last place in America where you can smoke. So I've got my American Spirits and I'm sucking them down along with some fried cheese that is so yummy that I'm thinking of sending some to the front desk for "Red."

13:51 - Philadelphia Marriott (lobby)
There are no rooms ready. I didn't call for an early check-in. What kind of a goon am I? Who'd ever want to check in before 4 pm? What kind of a crazy world am I living in that I might actually want to use my room for a bit in exchange for the $185 I'm paying for it. Hmmm, check-in is at 4 pm, but check-out is 11 am. So where do those 5 hours go? Do they ever come back to me? Do I get a rebate? Why wouldn't "Red" just cut me some slack and send me up to some primo suite that they hold in case Johnny Movie Star comes to town?

13:45 - Philadelphia Marriott (check-in)
My cab driver has left me. And we were having such a nice time. I'd rather drive around with him all day than get out into this mess of people. I hate the MLA. I hate the never-ending line of academic drones. Every one looks like they stepped out of that Sprockets sketch Mike Myers used to do on SNL. Black turtlenecks. Product in the hair. GOT TO HAVE MY PRODUCT. They suck. I'm tapping this while I'm standing in the check-in line, but a sweetie with red hair should be waving me forward any minute.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

...and We All Ride Ponies to Work.

This is my first post here at RYS, and after reading through the rest of it, all I can say is, boy, do I have it good.

Yeah the pay sucks, and I have no job security or benefits, but what makes that tolerable is the fact that my students are great and it's not what I'm bringing to the class, it's what they are.

95% are serious about their schooling. They work their butts off. If they didn't, they'd fail. They're respectful, fun, profane, disagree with me all the time, eager, and they help each other out. The workload we thrust upon them is tremendous. I would find it crushing and that's an oft-heard comment made by my colleagues as well.

And here's something else - my colleagues and I like each other. They do their job and the students have acquired the knowledge they need to progress. My boss is even great. We fail students and kick them out of the program for low grades and attendance all the time. If students want to challenge a grade, they agree to a mediation, and their grade is raised or lowered without complaint.

If a student is having a problem, I usually don't have to set up a one-on-one session , they approach me, and most don't offer up excuses. They ask how they can improve their work and pointedly request that I not be soft with them.

I failed a student last term and he thanked me for it, saying he needed the kick in the pants, and he's come around completely.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Some Beer Helps One RYS Reader Get Perspective On Evaluations

I've just had three bottles of beer, and they gave me the courage to read my "reviews" on AND, as well as those of several of my colleagues and former professors, and I'm still feeling pretty good.

I know that when the students rate you as "easy" this is NOT a good thing. I know that when they say you are engaging and fair, this IS a good thing. I know that when they say you have passion for your subject and "know what you're talking about" and even sign their names (!) this IS a good thing. I know that when they say another prof. goes on and on about their politics or personal life, this is NOT a good thing. I know that when they say "the worst ever" not to pay attention.

For all their evil, these sites do provide some meaningful input on my teaching - the "raves" don't necessarily make me feel good about myself our my colleagues. When I get a student who has the balls to talk to me or e-mail me after the final and tell me they really enjoyed my class, when I have students who are "repeat customers"who sign up for my classes they don't "need," or repeat offenders" who fail the first (or second) time sign up again because they know I care, I know this is the REAL thing. I know that when I have a new class in the spring and 80% of the students are current and former students, I KNOW I am doing something right.

Blame it on the brews, but I e-mailed these repeat customers and asked them what they wanted to get our of the class since it was new. I hope they respond. And I love them even if they don't.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Some Quick Hits

Here are some brief posts that have come in recently:

  • Last night was rich. I handed back the extra credit papers to the four students who had submitted the work. Three out of four turned in work that was, by and large, copy and paste from articles found online, despite the fact that the assignment clearly stated that all work was to be original, and that plagiarized work would result in zero points. I had even printed out the articles, and attached them to the extra credit papers when returning them to the students. One of the students wins the award for all-time largest huevos when he asked if he could have credit for the parts of his paper that were not plagiarized.
  • This semester I had a student who went missing in action after attending only one class. She miraculously contacted me after 9 weeks into the semester (it was around the time the college sent out early warnings for failing). Basically she wants to pass after not attending class or submitting any work. The college does not allow us to penalize students based on attendance. Unfortunately, this semester I deleted a project policy of not accepting projects two weeks past the deadline, so although I will still take lateness points off the project, the student can still submit them. Needless to say, I will be adding this policy back next semester.
  • No more. Not one more time. The next time that someone asks me, or emails me, or calls me to say, "Is the final cumulative?" I will absolutely lose my mind. How many times can I say it? Is it not enough to write it on the syllabus? Is it not enough to have sprinkled it through lectures? It is not enough to have addressed it on the last day of class - at least twice? Is it not enough to hand out a review guide that only covers recent topics? Really, people... what does it take? I am clearly doing something wrong. Next semester I'm going to have students submit questions like this to me online on the course management page. It will work like an FAQ section. I'll answer it one time. If a students asks a question that appears on that page - whether on the page, in person, in email, or over the phone - I'll dock them points. Maybe then we can all finish out the semester in peace.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Clever Carl from Cleveland Gets Heavy on the Hubbub, Bub, and Lays Waste to Socially Retarded Profs and Old School Conventions of Attendance

Q: What is all this hubbub about student attendance?

A: Who knows. I don’t get it. College students are adults so why are we professors treating them like high school students?

But don’t you care if students come to class?

A: I think they should come for their own good, but, no, I don’t personally care. I get paid whether they come or not.

Q: But if they don’t come to class, they won’t succeed, right?

A: If my students don’t show up, one of two things will happen:

  1. They fail my class. This is the most common outcome by far and I have neither pity nor sympathy for students who fail because they were never in class.

  2. They pass anyway. More power to them! If they can read the textbook and figure it out on their own, that’s cool with me. My job is to ensure that students who pass my class are prepared for the next class in the sequence.

Q: But shouldn’t we be giving our students more than just a prerequisite for future classes?

A: Yes, of course. And for the students who care, my classes offer enrichment and beauty. The students who don’t show up and pass anyway don’t care about that. I’m happy to move them on to a higher-level course where they can be challenged at an appropriate level. At any rate, I would be quite the hypocrite to expect otherwise. As an undergraduate, I missed plenty of classes and still graduated summa cum laude. I knew my limits and I knew how to prioritize. One semester, I had a stupid course at 8:00 a.m. for one credit hour. On the first day, I found out that 100% of the grade was the final exam, so I never went back to class again. I got the assignments online the week before the exam, did them the day before the exam, and then showed up and aced the final exam. I’m not bragging; I’m simply pointing out that I need not get in the way of students who are capable of doing this. It is also not my job to be a truancy officer for those students who are incapable of such careful self-assessment.

Q: Why can’t we expect students to come to class every day? Aren’t we preparing them for the “real world” where they will have to show up everyday?

A: No, the professor is working in the “real world” and so he or she must show up every day. Students pay to come to college, so it’s their own money they’re throwing away (or more likely their parents’ money). Again, I get paid whether they come or not. When I start paying to go to work, I too will get to dictate what days I show up.

Q: Shouldn’t we find ways to motivate students to come to class? Maybe like scheduling a huge midterm on the Wednesday night class right before the Thursday of Thanksgiving?

A: If you want to be a dick, fine. As the professor, you have the prerogative to do this. Just cut it out with all your, “Back in my day…” stories. You hated being in school the night before Thanksgiving the same as everyone else. Quit kidding yourselves into thinking you never slept through a class as an undergraduate or never skipped class on the first nice day of spring. If you can’t relate to students on this point, you are socially retarded. Don’t blame this unfortunate condition on your “lazy” undergraduates.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Somebody Has Gotten Too Close to the Magic Markers

Good evening, folks, how are ya? Anyone from out of town? Great, great to see ya.

Y’know teaching at Mid-State Eastern Northern Community College is a real challenge, even though some of our students are quite lucky. Whoa, talk about luck, one of my students was fishing, and, after a long struggle, he pulls in this weird-lookin’ fish. So the fish says, “Please spare me! I am a magical fish. Throw me back, and I will grant you a wish.” My student says, “Gee, I wish I could think of something I need.”

Hello? Is this mic on? I know you’re out there; I can hear your livers burp. Anyway, we have our share of tragedy, too. Just recently, three of our students died in a plane crash. They found four parachutes, but couldn’t figure out how to divide them three ways.

I’m sorry. I know, I kid, but, seriously, some of these kids have some real potential. I’m talkin’ real potential. I’ve got several students right now that are halfway to becoming idiot savants.

I know, I kid, but it’s all in fun. You’ve been great. Good night and God bless. Please tip your waitress. I’ll be back at eleven. I'm here all week.

On Avoidance and Exit Strategies

This semester I learned a very important lesson: Don’t be on campus on the last day to drop classes. At my institution, this is the last Friday before finals week, which seems awfully late to me. Students actually finish 14 ½ weeks of the fifteen week semester before realizing they are failing the class and need to GET OUT NOW!! When this epiphany occurs, they are required to get the signature of both their advisor and the instructor of the class before they can officially withdraw. Much franticness ensues.

Three different students tracked me down in a dusty corner of a deserted building where I was working so they could get their papers signed last Friday. The first was my advisee, who had finally learned enough mathematics to average his grade and understand that he was failing algebra. Next was my junior colleague’s student who wanted me to help him find her so he could drop her class. No, he didn’t know how to get in touch with her, he had lost the syllabus. He hadn’t been to class in weeks because he had been hospitalized with pneumonia, and didn’t understand why she wasn’t in (because she’s adjunct and she lives 60 miles away and doesn’t come to campus to “hang out” during her off days). When I told him that she lived in another city, he wanted her home address and phone number. Of course I refused, but he seemed undaunted, and raced off to find her with astonishing vigor, considering his poor health.

Last was another student looking for a different colleague, someone senior to me (experienced enough to know better than to be on campus that day!). The student was shocked that I would not call his professor at home one half hour before the deadline, and ask him to drive in to sign his paperwork. My colleague showed up exactly 40 minutes later, and we enjoyed an afternoon of quiet uninterrupted work together.

Message to students: If you can’t manage your time and energy well enough to pass your classes, you should at least plan your escape strategy.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Call to Action: Not in My Class

Lately, idealistic professor of the humanities that I am, I have felt beset on all sides. On one side is an administration that sees students as a clientele, programs as products to be marketed, and academic standards subject to modification if students find them too difficult.

On another side are students who refuse to take their work seriously. At present, those students count for about two thirds of the students in my courses, and the trend does not look promising. On still another side is my own faculty association which cares only about how much faculty are paid, all the while fighting for the rights of the underqualified instructor and the abusive full professor alike.

And so I have made a resolution, a statement of non-compromise. A line in the sand, if you will excuse the cliche. Simply, it is this: Not in my class.

I have tenure and I'm going to use it. I will not lower my standards no matter how much my colleagues do. I will not compromise what I know to be fair and reasonable expectations because students complain. I will not turn my back on the grand tradition of university education to embrace petty division and adversarial politics. If my class is the last real university class in the English-speaking world, so be it. I will go down with this ship if I have to.

So, Deans and Vice Presidents take note. Say all you want about niche markets and the need to make things easier for our recruiters. That's fine. Do what you have to do. But not in my class.

Students, there is no one who will spend more time helping you learn to be a broad-minded, educated person than me. I know some of you want to work hard, and I have faith that the power of literature and the pleasure of honest, hard, intellectual effort will continue to attract at least a few of you every year. But if you want something for nothing, if you want less reading because you don't have time to do it, if you want a different kind of course because you think it's more relevant to your chosen career, I have to tell you, it's not going to happen. Not in my class.

Union bosses, take note too. I'll cash my paycheck because I need to live, but I'm not here for the money, and I will gladly give up a raise if it means higher standards, better access to research materials, and money to fix the crumbling plaster on the walls. I am not a worker; I am a scholar. And if you want me to be anything else, you've got the wrong guy. That's not how I do things. Not in my class.

And the thing is, I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. I'm pretty sure there are lots of others out there, idealists just like me who are tired of constant concession and are ready to say enough is enough. To all of you I say this: you can't change them, but you can decide not to change.

So say it with me: Not in my class.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Someone is Just Barely Hanging On

We're not dead, we're just numbed.

Numbed by an overabundance of office-hours. (Hours both fruitless and fruitcake-laden).

Numbed by the exam schedules that require us to proctor two different exams, in two different buildings, at the same time. (I'm gifted, but the Physics department hasn't coughed up the tech to allow me to bilocate.)

Numbed by the endless reams of administrata required before we can put paid to the semester. ("Well, we need another grade sheet filled out, this one reflecting the GPA of the graduatng seniors divided by Jon Bon Jovi's shorts size -- and we need it by noon.")

Numbed by the fact that the temps the Registrar hired to handle the spring registration/grade rush apparently really CAN'T tell the difference between their asses and their elbows.

Or, numbed by the cut-rate eggnogg the department secretary brought in, giving 3/4ths of us the runs.

Anyway, we're numb.

(University and Department Christmas parties are coming soon, though -- surely SOMEONE will prance about with a lampshade on an appendage, or act wildly inappropriately.)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Don't Cave In - Protect the Rights of the Studious and Industrious Student!

I have been dumbfounded by the reality of student requests. Prior to reading this site and any other teaching related sites, I never would have assumed that students asked such inane things of their professors. My mouth has hung open in surprise on many, many occasions. What the hell are they thinking?! I can’t believe these things go on, apparently right under my nose. In my egotistical view, I must be an absolute golden student to my lucky professors. I would never dream of approaching a professor with such ridiculousness.

Class notes, retakes, doing my laundry, taking out my recyclables, dropped grades, special above everyone else privileges – sure, I would love some. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s just utterly out of character to ever suggest such an absurdity. But if they're offering…

And if I knew this stuff went on around me, I would like to be made privy to it. I, for one, get highly offended when I realize the subjectivity of some of my professors. I don’t want anything I don’t deserve, but I absolutely do want what I do deserve. I don’t think I always get that. But do I complain? No, I take it as it is. A student who writes horribly gets the same grade as me on an essay – so be it. Some things are out of my control, but apparently not out of the control of students willing to subject themselves to the low levels of making such crazy requests of their dear professors. I’m appalled.

I believe it’s the professors right, or rather, responsibility, to stand firm in their convictions and take the evaluations for what their usually worth – shit. Stand up for what’s right! Protect the rights of innocent and studious students such as myself! Please. What more could I possibly ask of my beloved professors?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Yes, I'd Like To Skip Class On the First Nice Spring Day, But They Don't Pay Me Here if I Don't Do My Freaking Job

I'm a graduate student teaching a very difficult sophomore-level required major class, and this is to the professors out there who can't understand why some of their students, especially sophomores and juniors, aren't willing to dedicate their entire lives to succeeding in their class. It's because, for the first time, they *have* lives they're able to dedicate.

And that's very difficult to deal with. They need to cook for themselves, find a way to earn money, negotiate roommates, friends and relationships. A lot of them will be dealing with insecurity, loneliness, and mild depression. They'll make one mistake in a class, not turn in a major assignment or do worse on a test than they were expecting, and they'll get scared... especially if they were good students in high school.

Sure some of them will take that as a call to pull themselves together, but others will just feel too ashamed to think about it, and they'll run away. And at the same time they're taking your class, they're learning how to deal with failure and overcome it, how to deal with friends who are bad influences, how to survive rejection and loss, how to help the people around them. While I'm sure they've skipped class because they wanted to sleep in... they've probably also skipped class because they were helping a sick or distraught friend, they were working to catch up in a *different* class, they were too intimidated to come, or were too depressed to get out of bed.

So many professors and grad students were the quiet, anti-social, perfect students as undergrads. In fact, I've met a few grad students who I'm pretty sure skipped the whole 'social maturation' part of the process entirely. They don't understand. Life should never just be school. School is important, but life should be too. Any professor who gets righteously indignant when his students skip on the first nice day of spring deserves the sort of life he's living.

My class is difficult, and I do not grade leniently. It used to be a weed-out class before I took it, and the only serious change I've made is that I'm sympathetic to my students. If they fall behind, I suggest to them to drop by office hours, and then I get them caught up. I explain what they need to do to stay caught up, and why I think they, personally, are capable of it. I never guilt trip them. And if when they come it's clear they're very, very lost... I just smile and start from the beginning, with no weary sigh or chastisement.

In return, the students are honest with me, and they don't argue or make excuses, they do their homework and come to office hours whenever they get lost. And as a result, of course, they do well in the class. It's not so much of a weed-out course anymore. They tell me I'm a great teacher... but honestly, the only special thing I do is have busy office hours. And I try to make sure that my class isn't yet another overwhelming thing in their already difficult lives.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Testing the Creative Abilities of Our Students, And Our Own Expectations

During my entire student life, I hated to memorize, and did everything that I could to avoid memorizing. For some teachers and professors it was simply unavoidable. For these courses I would memorize (and of course forget everything shortly after the exam), but I always thought that these teachers and professors were feeble-minded failures.

Now that I'm a professor, I do what I can to teach concepts rather than lists of facts, and I try to create exam questions that reward holistic understanding and punish rote memorization.

As most of us know, it's nearly impossible to have any kind of accurate idea what most students actually think of us, but nevertheless I've received some fragmentary feedback indicating that I may have achieved my goal: one student commenting, "For your exams I actually have to understand the material."

This semester I thought that I would try to go a bit further, and make available what I thought was a 'creative' outlet, and a way to relate principles from class to their everyday lives. I wanted everyone to organize themselves into groups, and have each person present the results from some informal research: read about the effect of drugs in Rolling Stone, or interview a friend or relative who suffers from some mental disorder, or is trying to recover from brain injury suffered in a car wreck. Because I envisioned this assignment as creative, I didn't want to give much in the way of guidelines, but stressed again and again that I wanted a story. I wanted to hear what they thought was interesting, I wanted them to take the concepts from class out for a spin.

What I got was mostly a recitation of lists of facts. I have to admit that only three or four presentations (out of about 120 in three classes) were what I'd envisioned. Were my expectations too high? Did I fail to clearly convey my expectations, or are my students simply unequipped to complete a creative assignment?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Reader Harkens Back to the Good Old Days, When Syllabi Didn't Have to Be Scoured for Loopholes

25 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a syllabus for a class would be at most 2 sheets of paper that contained not much more than the text assignments, course schedule and the office hours and phone number of the instructor.

The syllabi that I compose are twice as long and include items such as what constitutes appropriate behavior, what constitutes cheating, and the various consequences of a student's action (or inaction). If I don't include these missives (and the student has a complaint) then like as not the administration sides with the student.

The syllabus has morphed into a document more closely resembling a contract than a source of information on the course and a part of my time and is spent checking for loopholes when I compose a new one. I'm spending a disproportional amount of energy for a small percent of students. The insult to injury is that most students don't even read their syllabus. I have a 25-point syllabus worksheet that's due on the second class day and a 25 point syllabus quiz on the fourth day of lecture. I never mention the quiz (which is mentioned in the syllabus and has the exact same questions as the worksheet) and there are always students who are caught by surprise and are angry that I did not mention the quiz in the previous lecture. Many students also seem angry when their question, "When is the next exam?" or, "When is the assignment due?" is answered with, "Look in your syllabus," as I can't keep track of the schedule for each of the 3 classes I teach each quarter.

I guess the part that gets my goat is the number of students, still fewer than 50%, who won't accept responsibility for anything they do. Either they were not informed, they lost the document with the information, or they should not be held to the same standard as the rest of their classmates.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Miserable Student Comes to Us For Help: The Jane Smith Post

I am writing this in the belief that there are professors out there who go beyond cynicism and see that not all students are brain-dead ignorant idiots. I am writing this in the desperate hope that some of you will have enough compassion to relate to my experience, in the hope that some of you may remember the time before you achieved professional success, the time when you too had to struggle and prove yourself, when your professional future completely depended on the mercy of the professor you worked with back then.

I received a grant to work with a professor (we'll call her Jane Smith) on an original research project. Although over 7 months have passed since then, we have made zero progress. I spent all my summer programming the experiment; it was all ready to go but she doesn't respond to emails for weeks; she makes various excuses to delay it indefinitely--her computer broke down, her files got deleted, her daughter was in a hospital, her dog had the flu, she had flat tire, and the usual "I was really busy."

All her promises, such as having me present at a conference, are nothing but lies, for she always finds a reason not to do it in the last minute. It got really bad when she made me schedule meetings with people and then forced me to cancel them the night before--making me look unprofessional and unorganized. I know what you must be thinking: why not just ignore her and move on? My main concern is that the grant agency, once it finds out that no progress has been made with the research money, will take various unpleasant actions. Since we all know that the professor is always right, Jane will obviously find a way to blame me for it, and voila, here goes my career down the toilet.

So here is my question to you people, who know the field and the rules people play by: what should I do? I can have an argument with Jane, but I know that she'll win anyway and, worse, will complain about me to other professors and damage my reputation. I can complain to the grant agency, but since it's affiliated with the university, I feel that they will side with Jane, and everything will backfire at me. I can do nothing, in which case I run the risk of having problems with the grant agency.

Or I can continue to do what I've been doing, which is begging Jane to do her job as my research supervisor--which hasn't been effective, and which I am tired of doing. Do you know if grant agencies typically check on the progress of the research work? Do you have any suggestions as to what I could do to resolve the situation? I would be most grateful to all (any) of you who respond. Please email me to

Saturday, December 9, 2006

A Favorite Correspondent Shakes Off The Easygoing New "Mission" Here and Goes RYS Old School On a Student

At midsemester break, I stopped counting the number of times you raised your hand to ask, "Is this going to be on the test?" From the scratch marks on my attendance sheet (not on my wrist, where I wanted to put them every time you raised your hand), I was at 17. And did it not occur to you that when I stopped answering this question of yours and merely sighed in resignation that you should have stopped asking the question altogether? No, apparently not.

And I do not know how you cannot understand why earning a "B+ or better" in my class is not possible at this point. You got a D- on the first test, a miserable F on the second test, and you only turned in half the homework. This is a math class. Are you honestly telling me that you do not have the aptitude for adding up the points you've earned and dividing by the total attempted? Suggesting that I provide you with evidence of your progress thus far is demeaning to both of us.

And then, I do not know where you got the balls to write me an e-mail demanding that I provide you with an extra credit assignment so that you could earn said B+ or better because "anything lower than a B in the course would totally ruin my GPA." Like I give a crap about your GPA. But if you care about your GPA, perhaps you should have attended class more often. Or you should have stayed longer than 10 minutes on some occasions. Or you should have brought something to take notes on or with rather than a cup of Starbucks.

Friday, December 8, 2006

"Try Not To Be Jerks." A Note From a Recent College Grad With Advice For Students

I'd just like to give a big thanks to professors everywhere, because it isn't an easy job and I think a lot of students don't appreciate that. I went to a large public university on the west coast, I graduated in 2004, and I had the luck to have pretty good professors on the whole. Most of the classes I had problems with were due to my own inattention, something I never made an excuse for. I often skipped classed I didn't like but needed for a requirement, unsurprisingly I often didn't do well in those classes: whose fault was that? Mine.

Professors: Thanks for putting up with that kind of bull from people like me who were only in your classes because the university decided we had to have so many hours of "multicultural" classes or any number of other things we didn't want to take in the first place. That's not your fault, that's on the administrators and the students. Also know that for every idiot who asks "do we have to do this?" or "am I going to be graded on spelling?" there are five or six, at least, who die a little on the inside.

Students: If you have general education requirements to fill, at least try to take something you think will be interesting. Don't be afraid to explore unfamiliar departments for classes with interesting synopses in the the course catalogue, and don't be afraid to drop classes you hate after the first couple of days. There are other classes. Staying in a class you hate, and this took me time to learn, will result in bad grades and a bad attitude. Also, fellow learners, try not to be jerks about things. You are not entitled to good grades, you are expected to complete the required coursework. And, this isn't primary school so don't have Mommy and Daddy call up because you're too stupid for college. You being a jerk makes things harder for those of us who aren't, and who put real effort into subjects we care about.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

A Student Reader Offers A Perspective on Professors, Respect & Responsibility

I don't have straight A's nor am I failing. I do better in some classes than I do in others and I try my best to not complain. In high school, I made some bad choices and eventually dropped out my sophomore year. Ironically, I was an exceptional student. I was just so bored. The plan was to begin home schooling. I could get a head start on college and be done with it all so much sooner than my peers. However, things didn't go that way.

Instead of continuing with my education, I allowed myself to slack off for a while. I knew I was above average, but unfortunately for me, that did not apply when it came to responsibility. I procrastinated and procrastinated for two years. By the grace of God or just by luck, depending on what you believe, I somehow stumbled upon a program for students who needed an alternative method of high school.

I finished two and a half years of high school in three months and recieved a diploma. I understand how many different kinds of wrong that seems, but I believe I learned more there than I would've had I stayed at my original high school. A week after finishing, I entered college, and in turn, had to learn that I am the only one I can blame for my lack of responsibility.

I've been here a year now. Last semester left me with a GPA that makes me sick inside and I learned from it.

My experiences with my professors have been mediocre. I find that most professors seem bitter that they are teaching where they are. I've had a few even speak about things they would rather be doing with their lives. I've had some encourage us to do as little work as possible to get by (and I mean really encouraged). They make me sad. They make me wish I could do something wonderful for them to reignite whatever dream they had of teaching when they first began. All of my efforts have been fruitless and I eventually give up.

Then there are the ones that are great, the ones that make me love learning as much as I did in Kindergarten when it was all coloring inside the lines and memorizing how to spell your name. I adore these professors, but most of all I respect them.

But the thing is, good, bad, or just plain tired, I respect all of my professors. I am there to learn something from them (them learning something from me is something amazing and entirely unexpected). I believe they know what they are doing and if at the beginning of the semester they say, "no dropped grades, no retests, no slack, no nothing," its the law of the land...or at least their classroom.

The thing that has always been told to me is that in college, they aren't there to hold you hand. Professors shouldn't have to pick up our slack. We're supposed to be big enough to stand alone now and if we aren't, we should be allowed to fall.

"Hi, I'm Britney's Mom."

As a department chair, I occasionally get phone calls or emails from irate parents when their special little genius hasn't received enough love and attention from one of my professors. Usually I go through the FERPA dance, letting them know that unless their special little genius has cleared me to do so, I really can't comment on the his/her progress. (Surprising how many students when asked for this say, "OH MY GOD, NO!")

Anyway, yesterday I had a rare occasion to have inside knowledge of the student and the class in question when Britney's mom called up. Britney is in a class in my department that I happen to have taught for 5 weeks during the semester. The regular instructor had a baby with some minor but involving complications so I spent more than a month with Britney. I can quite comfortably say that I've never seen a lazier student. She never appeared in class on time. Never brought a book. Begged and borrowed paper and pens whenever I'd ask them to (SIGH!) write something down, or (SIGH!) take a quiz, or (DOUBLE SIGH!) write an answer to a question in class.

There was never a moment during those 5 weeks when Britney wasn't angling to get out of class (SIGH!) early, be excused to go to the bathroom (PAINED EXPRESSION, but JUST GO ALREADY), and there was never an instruction or suggestion I gave that she didn't inquire about by saying, "Do we HAVE to (SIGH!) do this?"

I even had occasion to meet with Britney in my office once as students presented topics for a paper they were writing. She arrived 20 minutes late, brought no notes or secondary texts (clear requirements for the conference), and instead of talking about her essay, all she did was complain about how hard the class was. "It's so hard," she said. I asked her what was hard, and she said, "EVERY (SIGH!) THING!" When I asked her how she was progressing in other classes, if the workload was lighter there, she said, "Everything is so hard. I can't even make myself go to class most days. I've, like, missed 10 classes in Econ, and maybe 10 in my English class. I just like drawing. I go to all of my Art classes."

So when Britney's mom called, it was Twilight Zone time. She went on at length about her gifted and hard working daughter, about how all her high school teachers loved her, about her work ethic, her love of learning, etc. Britney won the science fair the past two years. She had an inquisitive and active mind and so on. She spent several minutes describing someone who just wasn't the Britney I knew.

I was so tempted to let the floodgates loose, to let the mother know what an outsider sees on this topic, but of course my hands were tied. When I wouldn't talk about the student, Britney's mom became irate, telling me that the professor's salary (and mine) were paid by her. There was good money coming my way on behalf of Britney, and who were we to "dash Britney's dreams" of being a doctor (!!!!!).

I gave Britney's mom our Dean's office phone number and then composed a quick note for the Dean to get him ready.

Is there anything that can be done to reveal what a student's real college experience, dreams, goals, etc. are when parents clearly don't know them?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The "Hold Up the Sky" Post & A Timely Response

I teach at a highly selective liberal arts college in the Midwest known for its academic excellence. You'd think that would be a dream job right? Bright and motivated students who not only complete course readings and take their written assignments seriously, but are also seriously engaged in class discussion. Wrong!

With the exception of the dedicated few, most come to class without having read the material and sit passively in their chairs. I've tried a host of approaches to engage them in discussions from providing them with questions to think about as they complete their readings to bribing them with candy. Nothing seems to work.

This wouldn't bother me so much if I I wasn't evaluated at the end of the term for my ability to lead discussion. Indeed, in their evaluations students typically refer to the discussions as "the professor's discussions" as if they were a solo activity like lecturing. I dedicate a lot of time and energy to my teaching and place it above all else that I do, but when students don't hold up their end of the bargain and if this in turn affects my evaluations the issue goes beyond lack of respect to issues of career advancement.

Are we supposed to go back to old school teaching where the teacher dominates and the students sit quietly and obediently, taking all the information in? How can we promote intellectual exchange and critical thinking when students don't 1) complete their assignments 2) view participating in class as a worthy endeavor.

Why do we need to hold up all the sky?


i immediately empathized with today's "hold up the sky" post. i taught a discussion-based course my first semester at a new university, and got many blank stares. here are some things i've learned to get students talking since then. many of them were suggested by colleagues who were sympathetic to my plight:
  1. assign more than one student to be "discussion leader" for that day. more than one, so that more than one student is talking that day. give them discussion leader grades for this.
  2. include participation in their grades. be compulsively clear and strict about how participation points are given.
  3. get students to do the readings ahead of time by including pop quizzes on the readings for the day.

in other words, hold out carrots and threaten with sticks to get them to do the readings ahead of time and to talk. yes, this is depressing in that now it will seem like your talkative students are all grubbing for grades, but at least they are talking.

and, there will be the few that you can pick out who talk because they find the readings interesting and want to learn. the others will learn as we beat them over the head with their grades.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Dream Student...Somebody is So Totally High This Morning

  • Reads the syllabus at the start of the semester. It wasn't written for my benefit.

  • Borrows or purchases the books for the course. All of them. I didn't order them by accident.

  • Notes assignment and test dates in his/her calender. This avoids those pesky shouts of: "Do we have a test today?"

  • Attends class and takes notes. And knows when class starts.

  • Wears clothing that does not flash the class. I should not have to, but I will, ask you to put away your penis or cross your legs if you chose to go "commando."

  • Either does the assigned reading, or takes the penalty for skipping it. The dream student does not say that s/he thought the reading wasn't important and shouldn't count. When you have your own class you can assign whatever reading you think best. Until then you are stuck with my assignments.

  • Shows up for tests with a writing utensil. One that works. Really.

  • Tells me in advance if s/he has a conflict with a scheduled assignment or test. How could one possibly know this in advance? The course schedule is on the syllabus. Go figure.

  • Turns in hard copies of papers/assignments on the due date or in advance. Do not try telling me that the email attachment didn't go through. You're lying and we both know it; besides the syllabus states that only hard copies are accepted. I'm not your secretary.

  • Remembers that only you care what grade you earn in this class. Plenty of students have earned "As" in this class before you; plenty have earned "Fs." What you earn in this class is up to you. It makes no difference to me.

On Dropping the Lowest Score

The 'meat' of being a professor keeps me busy enough that I am simply not interested in getting involved in the business of excuses: one student misses the exam because of a hangover, and another because of an attack of multiple sclerosis. Clearly there is a line (fuzzy or sharp) distinguishing legitimate from not, but I just don't care where it lies.

I'm not interested in wasting my mental resources deciding where to place the line, deciding whether any offered excuse is offered under false pretenses or not, and indeed, discussing any excuses. Now,
'Hang together' prof may retort that she is able to do both: refuse to drop exams, and not waste any time with offered excuses, but I'm just a different person (is it my Catholic upbringing?).

If I refuse to drop exams (as I did during my first semester teaching), when students offer excuses I'm wracked with guilt, and the time spent wallowing in guilt is time wasted. Indeed, one recent student missed the first exam of four because of an epileptic attack that occurred during the time that the exam was scheduled, took the second exam, but then during the third exam had a panic attack (a nurse at student health called me just after the exam to tell me so).

These may sound like textbook examples of malingering, but I'm actually perfectly willing to accept that they occurred. Even though I felt justified refusing to allow a makeup for the third exam, I still wasted plenty of time wallowing in my guilt. I can't say I'm proud of it, but that's just the way I am. So ultimately dropping exams reduces the number of requests for makeups, gives me leverage to refuse to drop any further exams, and though it doesn't eliminate the resulting knot in my gut, by all means it does reduce its severity and duration.

Not only that, but it allows me to give an extra little bonus to the best students: they've typically done well enough throughout the semester that they can drop the final exam. From my perspective, there are really a bunch of benefits to dropping the lowest exam, and not one of them has to do with student evaluations.