Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Our Advice? Leave it Alone. But You Decide.

My husband Mr. J. teaches freshman Calculus at a small private university (this is not his real job. This is his hobby. This is what he does for "fun" in his spare time.) He brought home his course evals yesterday. With his department chair's permission, he wrote his own evaluations (in addition to the department evals the students also completed) and used them to ask questions he felt the department evals didn't address.

All of the evaluations can be summarized in this short (and somewhat - but not entirely - facetious paragraph):
  • Hooray for Mr. J. He is the most amazing Calculus teacher ever in the history of Calculus. I would have failed this class had I taken it with any other professor. I already signed up for the second level of this class for next semester and I have prayed several Novenas to assure that I will have him as my instructor. Otherwise, life has lost all meaning and I will kill myself. I wish he were my dad. All hail, Mr. J., King of Freshman Calculus. Let me know if he needs a kidney ever, 'cause I am first in line.
My evaluations? They're kind of all over the place. I always get a few, "This is the best class I've ever taken ever in my whole life and should be required for all students at this university," and one from this summer that made me smile " She deserves a 10% raise!!" (Although why or how that student came up with 10%, I'm not sure.) But overall, I get this kind of stuff: "This class was too much work." "The tests were too hard." "I don't understand why she gave us the quizzes at the beginning of each class. Why didn't she teach us the chapter and then give the quiz at the end of the class?" "She was really tough on our papers. If you didn't write the required 5 pages then it really affected your grade." "We shouldn't have been expected to show up so much."

Now I'm going to explain the obvious, but it still bugs me: Students have math anxiety. (I know - duh!) They take calculus expecting to suffer. On some level, they've had enough experience with math to know that they can't expect to skip class, blow off reading, not keep up with homework and understand what the hell is going on. Here's what else is interesting to me: Out of approximately 18 students, Mr. J. said one of them will get an A, two or three will get a B and the rest will get Cs and Ds. And yet, they're singing his praises like they all got As. When you take calculus, you're thrilled with a C. Mr. J. said he figures that most of them (with another prof) would probably have failed the class. But his students feel that universal satisfaction of working hard to understand something and actually understanding it - it's not about the grade.

Last week a group of my students lingered after to class to discuss our guest speaker and we got on the topic of grades. That groups was all in the B-/C+ range. According to them, all of the academic advisors in their department advise them to take courses in my field because "It's a totally easy A."
Are academic advisors really encouraging their students to take ANYONE'S class as an "Easy A"? I worked in the advising center this summer - and we were told repeatedly: NEVER tell a student ANY class is "an easy A." You may not know a particular instructor's requirements, you don't know a student's interests or strengths or weaknesses. It's almost a guaranteed method of creating a bad situation.

Could this be contributing to my whiny, bitchy evals complaining that my class was "too hard" and "way too much work" or am I just looking for a scapegoat. Now: The question: How - if I bother to take this on - do I find out what (if anything) the academic advisors are telling students without coming across like I'm super-sleuth or offending some very nice, very hard-working people who are just trying to make a difference in the world and get paid a little something at the same time? Ultimately, I guess, who cares? I do, because that false advertising affects my evaluations. Or, do I just get over myself and move on because I have no control over what people say anyway?