Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Some Readers On Rachel and the Search for a Middle Ground

Rachel is serving as a warning to me. I'm currently at a regional state school that's basically a junior-senior community college; 60-some percent of our students are transfers from CCs, and I love them. They want to be here, they're hard-working, they're interested (at least the majors are), and I rarely if ever hear the kind of whining from students that's usually displayed on this blog.

But, I want to be a researcher as well as a teacher, and that's not really possible on a 4-4 teaching load. So I'm on the job market this year. After four interviews, two at R1s and two at R2s, I'm starting to think I might be better off where I am. I don't want the kind of lifestyle that Rachel describes, where your entire future depends not so much on your own productivity, but what others choose to bestow upon you in the form of grants or shiny review letters. I was told at one of the institutions I interviewed at that teaching is really unimportant, students are shocked when the prof is actually in their office during office hours, etc., etc. I don't want that as a work environment. But I don't want to remain where I am, either.

The problem is, at least in my discipline, there are *very* few schools in between. There's the high-profile research institutions (or the ones trying to raise their profile, which means grants-grants-grants), and there's the teaching schools. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing bifurcation among universities between a high focus on research and a high focus on teaching, with less and less room for those of us who, like Rachel and myself, want to be on the middle ground, somewhere in between.


I don't envy Rachel. I never could have landed at a job at a R1 university and I wouldn't want one. But that doesn't mean that I don't have a lot of the same worries that she does. Sure my research expectations are MUCH lower, but I still need to publish. And I still need to get grants (if I want to have any research to do).

But I also teach 5 courses a year and my performance (based LARGELY on student evaluations) is a critical part of my tenure review. I teach a freshman-level general education science course (with a lab) every semester which takes up a big chunk of my time (there are almost 100 students). Then I teach one or two ADDITIONAL courses on top of that. For me, teaching doesn't "break up the day"- it IS my day! Plus I have my own research to worry about and grants to apply for (I have submitted more than one grant proposal for every year I've been in my job WITHOUT a PhD student or even a Master's student to help).

Those of us not in R1 jobs have to focus a lot more of our time and energy (and grief) on teaching. For Rachel, I can see how teaching could serve as a diversion from the very stressful research workload that she has, but for many of us, it's the real deal.

Oh yeah. I work nights and weekends, too.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Rachel at the R1 Wonders, "Why Worry About the Students?"

Doesn’t anyone out there find teaching the easy part of their job? At least half of my students read the assignment for every class, most attend on any given day, are respectful, and from time to time, offer an insight on the material that gives me pause.

The difficulty is when I leave the classroom and have to fulfill my research obligations. In the past 18 months, I’ve submitted three grant proposals - one was funded, and one is still in review. Also, I’ve published four times and have a fifth paper near the end of the review process. Nonetheless, I’ve only managed to offset my salary by 50%, but 75% is required for tenure, and since my review is around the corner, I frequently wake up in a cold sweat wondering what I’m going to do if this doesn’t go well.

I’ve been told that I need to publish at least four more papers in the next eight months, and although I have the data and will try to do so, nothing in the last three months has gone right - my graduate assistant made a HORRIBLE mistake six months ago and I’m still combing through the data trying to undo the damage. This of course has delayed the publishing time line, not to mention, that I need to submit at least one more grant by September and I need this work for the preliminary data section.

As for my funded and on-going work - one of my colleagues was denied tenure and now I’m trying to replace her time; my computer blew up and I’m trying to squeeze resources out of existing grants, but it may mean cutting my time or paying my own way to the next couple of conferences to which I'm already committed. More troubling - the methods for one of my projects which received glowing reviews from the reviewers, are in fact, somewhat flawed, so now the team is retracing our steps and considering alternative approaches. Because the work is exploratory and innovative, the lack of expected results is not troubling, but nonetheless, it changes the time line considerably, and for the life of me, I'm not sure where the extra time is going to come from.

This is what I fret about - research, publishing, getting funded, and writing grants. Silly students? They’re a pleasure. They break up the day and are far less pretentious then the egos in my department who can’t seem to get over their CV’s of earlier years at Harvard, Brown and Yale. If I bemoan the students at all, it’s that I cannot possibly help those who need extra time to grasp the material. Medical schools worry first about research and non-clinical teaching second. I get 10% credit for teaching a three hour, upper level graduate course - that’s four hours a week! Anything over that is thought to take away from my primary responsibility of researching. Of course, as it’s been pointed out to me, no one works 40 hours in this environment and achieves promotion and tenure. And of course, I won’t either. I work almost every weekend - and if I’m not working, I’m worrying about it. However, I don’t work every weekend and certainly not nearly as hard as most of my peers, who regularly work EVERY weekend and every evening as well.

Anyway, this is my rant. I doubt I’ll be in a research university 5 years from now. I like my research too much to gallop through the ideas in quest of ever more publications and more money. Rather, I want to develop a few, key ideas and turn them over for consideration. May the good ones encourage thoughtful response, any may the others die a gentle death.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Readers Fill the Virtual Mailbag in Response to Tammy. How to School the Homeschooler!

Tammy needs to rein T. in fast, and be firm about it. He is trying to test the boundaries of how much he can get away with in and out of the classroom. Coming up to her after class to 'discuss' how it went is him trying to take on the role of co-teacher, positing himself as special, different, and, above all, superior to the other students in the class.

This is not only going to result in a lot of jockeying for authority in the classroom, it is very unfair to the rest of the students because their course experience is going to be dominated by T.'s constant attention-seeking and attempts to make himself 'stand out' from the rest in the most tiresome way possible.

It is interesting that Tammy reports T, asking her "Dr. Tammy, What do you think?" but doesn't report her response. Did she not respond? In fact, the student whom T. interrupted, a student who was supposed to be the focus of class attention, quickly fades from focus, and Tammy's assessment of the quality of that student's paper is absent. This is T.'s strategy: to always return the focus back to him, ultimately at the expense of his peers.

Tammy was probably so gobsmacked by T.'s comment that she couldn't think of appropriate response to "rein him in" in that very moment, but now that Tammy knows his M.O., she needs to nip it in the bud next time. Something simple like "Please do not interrupt A. until she has finished reading her whole paragraph," might work, followed by a meeting during office hours to communicate to T. that continued outbursts of that nature will not be tolerated.

Tammy might want to add that there is simply not enough time in one class session for him to respond to each and every comment made by her and the other students, so he will of course understand if she doesn't call on him, or interrupts him to call on someone else if he tries to do this repeatedly.

As for the cosy after-class discussions, just walk away. No it is not good that he is so involved, because the class is becoming all about him. This is about him manipulating the situation so that he can become the center of attention, just as he was to his mother or father or whoever home schooled him. He needs to learn that there are other people in the classroom who are there to learn as well, and that he has to share both the time and space of the class with those students.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Old School: Tammy in Topeka is Tired of T.

I can't resist the chance to put the smackdown on T. who is in my English Composition class this term.

He was home schooled, preciously so, and he works that detail into every discussion. He won't shut up. He comments on everything I say and everything anyone else says. He tells us, "This is the way it is for home schoolers. We're very active and involved."

After someone in class read her opening paragraphs to us, his comment was, "I wouldn't read any more of that. I think that maybe she needs a new topic entirely; Dr. Tammy, what do you think?" When someone in class quietly said "Harsh," he replied: "This is how it is for me. I'm all about telling the truth, and sometimes people don't want to hear it. But that's my way. People either really love me or really hate me." (You can imagine how that was met by his classmates.)

Three times in four classes we've heard how T. doesn't watch TV, and certainly doesn't read the "porn and obscenity" on the Internet. He was taught by his family in the "great books tradition," and he doesn't understand why our class in expository writing can't do the same thing. When asked to purchase the textbook for our class (a writing rhetoric with instructions and assignments about writing short essays), he said, "Can't I find the same stories and poems in one of the anthologies I already have?"

After each of the classes so far T. has stuck around to deconstruct the class with me. He said yesterday, "I think that went pretty well. I could tell that S.'s feelings were hurt, but I think it's better she learns now that her essay isn't good rather than later. I'm sure she'll thank us later."

I'll admit I'm a young professor, but I've never had a student like T. I suppose some of you will say it's good that he's so involved, but this early on he's already sucked all the life out of that classroom, and I don't know how to rein him in so that others can have a voice as well.

A New Reader Gives Us Some Perspective on Attendance and Paying Attention

I can't resist the temptation to fulfill my duty, no, obligation, to let it be known why I don't listen to my iPod in class. The simple answer is that I like what I do now that I can take classes that are actually relevant to my major. I am finally challenged to learn. It takes effort in an upper level class to understand the concepts, the theory, and the application. If I don't pay attention in class, I will miss the important details - provided there are any.

I've certainly pulled out a laptop computer during class and browsed the web. One time I laughed out loud in class while I was reading some website. I keep an ear on things at all times, but sometimes a lecture is just that - yet another way for the student to learn the material, again. I find it far easier to not attend class, than to show up and listen to an iPod. If the professor doesn't want to teach material that can't be found in the course text(s), or in the notes, the lecture is irrelevant.

It's always shocking to me when a professor demands attendance in a lecture. Last semester I had attendance checks and quizzes in one of my classes. I attended every lecture, I got all the quiz points. Sure, it's a boost to my grade, and I enjoy that, but it's far more useful to me for the lecture to be optional attendance. Those who don't want to learn, for whatever reason, won't. Going to class doesn't mean I can't stare at the chair in front of me for an hour.

Discussion might be a solution, but that never works for me. I loathe discussions during class. Social darwinism in this context is fairly simple. If you don't bother to go to class, or spend time learning the material, you won't get the grade you are aiming for. Certainly attendance quizzes and graded checks are objective metrics, but as a student, I like to know that the academic standard is high. If students are graded based on attendance, it doesn't suggest to me that much is expected.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Where's the Appreciation?

Last semester I worked several hours over my regular schedule by taking on three students who traveled extensively for my college's Kinesiology department. They are trainers for sports teams. We live in a poor county in a poor state, and the college provides support for high school teams in the area who can't afford them.

Anyway, these students met with me at odd hours all semester long, often requiring me to come in on Saturdays, or after 8 pm during the week. But they made progress, and I kept them up with the classes they were taking. At the end of the semster, all three of them had passed.

After the semester was over, all three went on to continuation classes, and 2 of them ended up in the same class. They stayed after the first class meeting this semester to tell their new instructor - a friend of mine - that I hadn't done anything for them. One actually said, "We had to learn it ourselves. He just gave us assignments and then graded them." The other said, "I can't believe that guy gets paid for being a teacher, because he made us do all the work."

Now my friend knows that their complaints are bullshit, and I don't mind that these yobos have bad things to say to me. But I can't live with this idea that after I did all of this for free, out of my own schedule, out of my own time, and for no money, that they wouldn't have just a bit of appreciation for it. How clueless is today's student about what it is we do?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Another Giant Step Forward

Sweet smokin' Jesus. My university just rolled out a policy whereby anyone celebrating any conceivable religious holiday must be accommodated in accordance with human rights law. This means they need not attend class or otherwise meet requirements, and they must be given the opportunity to make up missed work.

This includes, according to the university's interfaith calender, L. Ron Hubbard's birthday on March 13th. I'm not making this up. So for the Scientologist who would prefer not to write a midterm that day, I'm sure this is a welcome turn of events.

While it seems like such a nice idea in principle to accommodate everyone in the interest of promoting an inclusive society, all I see is open season on instructors to let students pretty much write their own syllabus. I don't think it's a far cry to suggest that this policy is going to be abused terribly.

Even a left-wing, tolerant, hyper-liberal person such as myself finds this policy to be, among other things, absurd. By the same token, I guess I can make excuses too, penalty-free. So maybe I'll get all Pagan on the administration's ass and cancel classes on the equinoxes and the solstices.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Quick Hits: Things We Could Do Better

The mail for our recent call for posts concerning things profs can do better this semester has been great. We've gotten much more than we expected, but a lot of it is short, and a lot of it repeats. So we've tried to distill it into this quick hit list:
  • More than anything, I want to quit taking it so personally when my students refuse to learn, refuse to listen, or refuse to talk in class. I know I'm giving them the chances.
  • I want to find a way to grade essays without investing my entire weekend into the process.
  • My students deserve a happier professor, and I'm going to leave my personal malaise in my office and go to class in a better mood.
  • I haven't done it since my first year here, but I'm going to start strolling over to the cafeteria at least once a week so I can eat with some students.
  • I think your CFP is probably about students, but I want to be a little kinder to my colleagues. The tension around this place was so high last year - we're running 2 job searches and everyone's miserable. So I'm going to stop along the hallways this week and say howdy to everyone.
  • I'm going to get on Facebook and see what the hell is going on there!
  • I've decided to have my students turn in papers with numerical codes on them instead of their names. I feel as though I too often grade essays and papers based on what I "think" the student is capable of. Grading blind, I call it, and I'm interested in what I'll find out.
  • I'm sure you've already heard it, but I'm going to keep more and longer office hours. I'm going to make sure my students know that I'm serious about being available. And it's not so bad, the office. I can read, grade, talk to colleagues. So, students, bring it on. I'm here and I'm waiting.
  • I bet you're not looking for this, but I'm going to quit caring so much about the little shits who don't care about my class. It won't make my class any better, I suppose, but it will sure make me happier.
  • I'm through with a 16 week, day by day schedule. I can't possibly know what we're going to need to do 10 Wednesdays from now, and I'm going to quit pretending. Students, you'll know when I know!
  • I'm going to quit worrying about whether or not my students like me. I didn't get into this profession to be popular or to get a bunch of friends. I do this job because I think it's important young people learn how to debate and be a part of the world's conversation. When I assign tasks based on how "happy" or "unhappy" my students are going to be with me, I waste everyone's time.
  • I'm going to toughen up.
  • I want to go easier on my students.
  • I need to work harder in the classroom.
  • I'm tired of spending my whole life on campus; I'm paying attention to my OWN life for a while.
  • I'm going to grade a little easier for my freshmen.
  • I'm going to grade harder for everyone!
  • I'm going to go on the job market.
  • I want to quit waiting for my real career to start, and do a good job right now.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More on Expectations, Evaluation, and That Tricky Reality

Course evaluations are affected to a large degree by expectations that students have going into the course. But, I wouldn't confine the blame to irresponsible advising. If advisors are telling students that courses in your department are an easy A, they are probably (and unfortunately) just giving voice to widely-held attitudes regarding your discipline. These attitudes are probably reinforced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in popular culture, by parents, by faculty in other disciplines, and possibly even by faculty in your own department who teach courses that actually are an easy A.

I'm a faculty member in one of the social sciences (albeit, not the one in which our basketball team is advised to major.) I've heard faculty in other divisions refer to the Social Sciences vs. the Actual Sciences. I've heard them call my discipline "soft" and tell students who are struggling in the natural sciences to try my discipline because it's less rigorous and much easier.

I've had students tell me that their parents don't want them to major in my discipline because it's bogus or wishy-washy. I also know that a few of the courses in my department ARE an easy A.

I'm in an odd position. Because of the courses I teach, I've had the opportunity to benefit and to suffer from expectations about my courses. I benefit in a math course I teach that is required for the major in my discipline. The grade distribution in this class is consistently low and the course evaluations are consistently very positive. I know that students come into this class expecting to work hard, but with very low expectations regarding their performance (e.g., "I just want to pass it this time, I want to live.") which are often met or even exceeded.

I suffer in another course--in a topic area in my social science in which the grade distribution is a little higher than in the math class, and the course evaluations are worse (e.g., "The tests are too hard. "Too much science," and "Too much theory.") The evaluations are generally positive, with the occasional "greatest class ever," but students are resentful of the same degree of rigor required in my more positively evaluated math course. I know that this is at least partly due to a mismatch between expectations and reality, because I also get comments like, "You have to take the class seriously," and "I wasn't expecting this class to kick my ass."

How do I deal with this? I try to adjust expectations on the first day of class. I talk about what I expect and about the danger of underestimating the course. I mention that not taking the course seriously enough has ruined more than one 4.0 GPA. And, I consider the evaluations of my topic-area class a badge of honor. I'm pleased when a physics major tells me that the course was a lot harder than she thought it would be. It is my mission to demonstrate to students that my discipline is fascinating and difficult, that it isn't bogus or wishy-washy, but rather that it is fully as rigorous and worthy of respect and effort as chemistry or mathematics. So, my advice to everyone is, keep doing what you're doing in the classroom, and be PROUD of those evaluations.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Being A Great Professor

When I got my first teaching gig, I attended a briefing session so we could get our heads around the basics. A lot of it was common sense, of course, but one activity has stuck with me. We were asked to write down five attributes of a good teacher, and likewise for a poor one. I quickly thought of the uncaring, snide and demeaning profs I’d had as a student, and these memories helped me fill that side of the page in no time.

Conversely, I flicked back to the great classes I’d taken – in each case by a passionate yet level-headed and inspirational teacher – and wrote down this list of traits: knowledgeable, approachable, respectable, patient and fair.

I keep these five words in mind whenever I teach, and funnily enough, my evals have been near identical – both in the near 100% approval ratings, and the handwritten comments I receive. Why is this? Because from the moment a student steps into one of my classes they realize I’m the real deal: I know my area, I genuinely care about their learning, and I advocate mutual respect from the moment I call the roll. I also let them know from the first class that I won’t be lied to about late assignments, or manipulated into giving extensions for no reason. I remind them I was an undergrad myself, and that it’s not worth their time (or mine) to try to bullshit me.

Do I get rude students questioning grades they deserve? Sure. Do I have students who throw all the effort I’ve put into each class back into my face when something doesn’t go their way? Hell yes! And like everyone else, I get the cheap shots in my evals about what I wear to class or how I need a haircut. But at the end of the semester I get glowing evaluations that outscore everyone in my school for a good reason: I care about what and how my students learn, and they reward me for it.

Crap profs will always hide behind the argument that their students don’t know their ear from their elbow and have no right to evaluate their performance as an academic. But until these people wise up and treat their students with respect, show passion for their discipline, and take the time to create classes they are challenging, worthwhile and on task, they’ll get the derisive evals they deserve.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Perfect Professor - A Post With Some Give & Take! A Point/Counterpoint For Our Times

  1. Is actually there for office hours. [A good student realizes that office hours are finite, and scheduled around other classes, department meetings, committee meetings and other responsibilities. Not showing up for your scheduled appointment -- or showing up late -- is rude and throws everyone else off. Don't show up at the END of office hours and act huffy when I can't help you because I have to be across campus for another class.]

  2. Responds to emails and/or messages within a reasonable time period. [Reasonable time period" is subjective. If you e-mail me at 10 PM on a Friday night, you probably will not get a response until Monday. This is entirely reasonable, as professors have lives off campus. We do not live to serve you exclusively.]

  3. Makes it possible to get an A , not easy, but possible. On the same subject does not start the term with statements like "It's almost impossible to get an A in my class..." We know right then and there you are an asshole, and begin to treat you as such. [It is always possible to get an "A." You have to be willing to work for it. It's usually not easy, which is what students seem to want. I am not an "asshole" for making you work for an "A."]

  4. Dresses as if they were aware they speak in front of groups of people. Not that a professor's clothes make or break the prof, but be aware. [I am not in front of you to be a fashion plate. I will dress professionally and comfortably. You are not in class to evaluate my sense of style, you are in class to learn the subject at hand.]

  5. Returns assignments within reasonable time periods, provides feedback and comments on ways to improve. [Again, "reasonable time frame" is subjective. I am only human -- if I have sixteen ten-page papers to read, think about and make constructive comments on, chances are you will not get your paper back the very next day.]

  6. Is clear on their expectations for assignments and clear on exam questions. [Course expectations and requirements are listed on the syllabus. It is expected that you pay attention and learn all of the material, and expect that it will ALL turn up on the exam. I do not teach to "the test," because this is not high school. All the material is relevant, whether I turn it into an exam question or not.]

  7. Recognizes that we, in fact do have classes other than theirs and responsibilities outside of the school such as jobs, children etc...not every second of every waking minute outside of class can be spent on their subject. [It's acknowledged that students have other responsibilites outside of my specific class. However, budgeting your time to fit all of those responsibilites is YOUR issue. If you choose to slack off in my class to make up time for another set of responsibilities, that is your CHOICE. See #3.]

  8. Knows that yes, we do give a crap about our GPA, it can make or break our entire post graduate education. [Your GPA is important. However, it is not my job to lob softballs so that you can pad your GPA. I am concerned with your assimilation of the material, not your GPA. Again, see #3.]

  9. At least ACTS like they give a crap if we learn from them or not, if they hate their job, ok fine, I can respect that but if they continue to do this job, then at least make the attempt to do it properly, don't take it out on us that you make the wrong career choice and we still have a shot at happiness. ["Acting like you give a crap" is reciprocal. If you act like you give a crap about the material and your education in general, most professors will respond positively. Eye-rolling, sighing, texting and sleeping are counter-productive in this regard.]

  10. Does not look up our skirts, even when they are too short, we don't have much time left in our lives that we can get away with clothes like this! [See #4. Dress appropriately if you want to be taken seriously. Clothes you can "get away with" should be saved for Friday nights.]

Friday, January 12, 2007

Where We Get Some Confirmation from Patty the Paper Pusher - And We Send Patty Some Empathetic Love

I work for a scholarship assisting in placing students in universities, so while I am not a professor, I deal with the same students you do. Worse, I supposedly deal with the elite who have undergone extensive testing to ensure that they are the best of the best. And I can assure you that they treat me the same way they treat you.

Vague, rude emails with unrealistic demands such as: "This is Bob, I need you to stay over lunch break in case my friend can make it to your office to drop off my resume. Also, give me your cellphone number because sometimes your office line is busy."

Stupid requests that show their belief that they are just the neatest thing on the planet: "Hi, I need to have airfare home paid for by you guys for spring break because I need to do a lot of things. Like my girlfriend."

Phone calls on Sunday nights, to order me around, from the first few I was stupid enough to give the cell number to: "Yeah, I hope I'm not bothering you at 10pm on a Sunday but tomorrow morning please send the financial guarantee letter to the university and then call me to say you did it. I'll be waiting."

Refusing to hear what they don't want to hear: "Yeah, I know Harvard has a deadline of Jan 1 and requires the GRE. Could you call them up and tell them to change that? Well, why not? What if I get the documents to you on the 7th of Jan, could you lie and say you got them the 1st and it's your fault?"

Lacking any analytical skills: "Well I know you said Big State U was #4 in engineering and had three Nobel lauretes on its faculty and won more NASA contracts than all the other universities combined and has perfected android surgery but it's still like #80 on US News Ranking (for undergrad education). Isn't MIT better?"

Best of all, asking everyone in the building the same question, trying to get the right answer: "Well, YOU said 17 year olds aren't allowed to live in off-campus apartments, but the intern who's been here one month said he didn't think it was a problem. I'm telling your manager you were mean to me!"

On the other side of the spectrum are the useless kids who won this scholarship I can't imagine how: "You wrote that we needed to send our application documents to you. Does that mean we should send all the documents or just some of them? If so, which ones? And who should we send them to you? Also you said I should do that as soon as possible, but when should I do it by? Is next week ok?"

I see people on this site offer up theories on why kids act this way. Why aren't they taught how to treat adults with respect? I'm not a bureacrat climbing the coporate ladder. I like my job because I work with students (a lot of whom are polite, fun, and kind), and everyday I help kids who are bright get into good schools. Some of them are too poor to think about college without out help and that is gratifying. To be treated like a nameless bureacrat by those above me is bad enough. To be treated like a nameless bureacrat by a 17-year old kid is enraging.

More and more, I have to blame their parents and their mentors whom I also see in abundance, unlike, I really hope, their professors. Mom and Dad are convinced the kid is a genius and unique because she's in chess club and marching band. Their uncle comes in, with his buisness card from some big company, and basically tries to bribe me with free merchandise. Their Kiwanis Club head, who used to work for the government, pops up to threaten me with a tax audit if their protoge doesn't get into MIT. And everyone who even knows someone in the organization that funds our scholarships threatens to get me fired.

Who the hell are these people to put this kind of pressure on me for the sake of a kid? About something totally out of my hands. Yes, I could rewrite their admissions essay. I could maybe put their applications in a shiny binder so it looks nice. But really placement is in the hands of the university. And these kids walk around with these support systems around them. People willing to put the resources of all their connections to work for them. I'm all for supporting children, but this is sick.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

We Finish the Clever Carl Saga With These Two Posts

I think Carl has a point, if not a blunt and rusty one. The number of students who consistently don't show up and get an A or B is considerably outweighed by the number who consistently don't show up and get a C at best. Consistent under-attendance usually, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with things like not reading the book, not studying, not getting missing notes, and not paying attention to schedule changes. The sort of things that contribute to good test scores for most people.

I offer nominal "class participation" assignments, which usually count for 10% of the grade, so I know who's showing up and who isn't, but that's about it. If I make attendance compulsory, it seems like two things will happen: a) The people who don't want to come won't come and will probably flunk (which is generally the case now), or b) The people who don't want to come will come, and will disrupt the shit out of my class.

If they don't care enough to *show up* to an obligation, why should I expect them to care how they behave once they get there? I tend to think that by the time I see students in my classroom, the damage has been done. Either they care and are there to try and learn, or they aren't. I'd rather have a few chairs empty if it means everyone else is motivated to be there. If they get surprised at their bad grade (and they rarely do - it's the ones who think they deserve an A instead of a B+ that squawk the most in my experience), that's too bad.

I care about my students, really I do. I like it when people are engaged and connected. I like it when they visibly get what I'm saying. But I am not going to expend extra time and effort to tally up attendance and micromanage and hand-hold. The sooner these kids are disabused of the notion that someone else will always wipe their nose and tell them what to do and when - that they don't have to be responsible or accountable - the better.


I didn’t much like Clever Carl’s attitude when I first read his attendance policy manifesto (“I get paid anyway” was probably the low point of it). But I have warmed up to several of his claims.

  1. Is the course about learning, or is it about obeying orders? If it’s about learning we should make sure that the purpose of the course is to see that they have certain facts, concepts, skills, etc., not that we use our power over their academic credentials to maintain a captive, respectful audience for our lectures. If my lectures are superfluous for some people, then that’s my problem, not theirs. If I’m getting paid to teach something that many students could learn just as well from a correspondence course, then I need to fix something, not cover up that inconvenient fact by making their presence part of the grade.
  2. Yes, without attendance requirements, some students will learn the hard way that attending class is really important for their grade. That troubles me, because I have the power to scare them into attending and thus I could save them the hard lesson. But while attendance requirements may teach some people the importance of attendance the easy way, they fail to teach the students that getting a good grade requires a choice on their part to do the work. Many first year students who are required to attend, just as they were in high school, think that this is still the old high school game where no one reads, no one takes notes, and everyone still does well. They’re angry at me, not themselves, when it turns out differently. It doesn’t matter what exhortations about reading I put on my syllabus—they don’t believe me. If they have to make a choice, very early on, about whether to come or not, often something clicks and the first-year suddenly realizes that this is grown-up land where you make choices in order to fail or succeed, not kid-world where you’re forced to sit through church, school, parental lectures, etc. all 'for your own good.' The attitude that one should get credit just for enduring the requirements is a childish attitude that is perpetuated by attendance requirements.
  3. Putting yourself in the classroom all by itself does not necessarily accomplish anything. I was shocked when I learned this. I’ve given a whole lecture on a single paragraph of text, and have students who were in attendance come back after the test and say they’ve never 'heard of it.' “Making the effort” (however pathetic, halfhearted that effort is) may not include learning anything at all! I’ve had D students who would have failed by a significant margin without the fact that they came most of the time and got credit for just being there. Never asked a question, never came for help, rarely took notes and didn’t do the extra credit. Just came and sat there, then failed the tests. And got college credit for it. That seems really wrong.
  4. It does make a difference if they are paying for it. Not because they should be able to dictate the requirements, but because several of them who have an aversion to your teaching style, nervous tics, dress, voice, etc. will work their annoyance up into a full blown rage after a semester of both paying and being required to sit there and endure you. I am a kind, understanding teacher who bored a few students, and required them to sit there and be bored. Now they are my mortal enemies, for only those reasons. I’m only exaggerating slightly.
  5. Morale matters. Throwing a dozen captives into a group of engaged, interested students always seems to lower morale and makes people less likely to want to make comments or ask questions.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Someone is Off the Reservation - And His Meds - And We Love It

Here at Hobbesian State, we have taken Vice Chancellor Clever Carl’s “Attendance-is-for-Proles” policy to its logical conclusion. Henceforth, by the power vested in me by the State of University, I hereby declare all quizzes, tests, raised hands, and final exams to be stupid. As all fully-formed and fully-functioning scholars entering this 20-square-mile lyceum understand, in the vaunted “real world,” all adults wear footie pajamas to work, as opposed to the piddling sartorial dictates of oppressive shirt buttons and confusing shoelaces. Obviously, what separates you and, say, your cohorts at Oxford, are but the mere vagaries of letterhead and that pink fleecy “Fendin’ Hobbesies” hoodie your mom bought at the bookstore. Dad could have bought a book to set an example, but, alas, he’s 18 years too late. As a State Institution, our professors will now set an example and behave like state workers and bureaucrats. Who cares! We get paid anyway.

And while we are in accord that “neither sympathy nor pity” is forthcoming for absent scholars, why stop there? Let’s turn that academic amp to “11,” shall we? I hereby declare your in-class questions tedious and boring. How do I know? I too “graduated summa cum laude” and skipped all my classes, often to preen at my reflection in Echo’s pond on a pretty spring day. Why do you even show up? I could be working on my short game. Let your future boss hand your ass to you, I’m too busy being . . . Me.

Here’s your book. Here’s your schedule. And most important, here’s your tuition bill. If you can read the textbook without my guidance, my insights, and singular encouragement, all gained after four years undergrad, seven odd years as a PhD. candidate, and twenty plus years teaching this topic like I invented it, then you (and apparently, I) have no business being here. Run along now. Not dazzled by the bounty of “enrichment and beauty” oozing, dare I say pustulating, from my lectures? Then you are not my concern. You paid for this, so it is only fair that you dictate your own rules.

“Form committees, not character.” That is our motto here. I care only for perfect, pre-formed Hummel figurines for students. Oopsie daisy! Dropped one. No matter. They’ll make more. This “socially-retarded” notion that you may grow and mature in college, or in my classroom? Or that I should tell anyone what to do? Stop, please, before I wet myself.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

We Don't Think This Guy is Really Eager to Get Back in the Classroom

Jonah: You turned out to be a truly friendly person and a pleasure to have in class. That's why it was so unfortunate that you are so stupid. Students like you really depress me; I try to teach you, you try to learn, but it's just not happening. Oh well.

Horatio: Congratulations. You bombed every single assignment in the first half of the semester, but then turned yourself around and managed a B+ in the course. Usually, I'm cynical about the ability of students to change their habits. Looking through my grade sheets, the most obvious pattern is the lack of variation across time: students that do well almost always do well, and students that don't do well almost never do well. It's a subject on which I'm sure many bad students delude themselves, thinking they can improve on the next assignment even though they never do. But here you are, a perfect counterexample to my cynicism.

Nelson: I'm not your friend. When I see you on campus, I don't want you to use your outdoor voice and shout boisterous greetings to me. An understated smile is more than sufficient. Unnecessary and impromptu conversations with my students are about as satisfying as speaking to a goldfish. You ask me inane questions about teaching and the university, or even worse ask me questions about the course. You're not a bad person and I enjoy having you in my class, but to repeat myself, you're not my friend, so leave me alone.

Heloise: At the beginning of the semester, I had you pegged for the smart but rude student. Then I changed you to smart and rude but also lazy. Then I discovered you were stupid and rude. That was delightful to me, because then I had no guilt in giving you a C for the course. Take my hints, take my direct remarks to you, and shut up.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Someone Goes Way Poetic - And We Like It - As a New Semester Starts For Many Of Us

My students sit in class like baby birds in the nest. Their little beaks open and shut as they clamor "Feed me! Feed me!" Like baby birds, they cannot work. Rather, I should say they will not work. They expect everything for merely existing. But mother bird can chirp her fledglings on only if they try.

I should not have to tell my fledglings that if I take the time to write something on the board, they should write it down. I should not have to tell my fledglings that they must try their wings and that they will most likely encounter a few failures before experiencing success.

Most, however, don't seem to care about leaving the nest. They expect their lives to remain unchanged. They are surprised when mother bird stops feeding them and they must hunt for their own food if they are to survive. At some point, after doing the best she can, mother bird forces them out of the nest. Some fail to fly because they still expect mother bird to continue doing for them.

Nature and life can be cruel. A mother bird does her best to prepare her fledglings. That is all she can do and all she should be expected to do. But her fledglings are oblivious. They don't realize that in preparing them to fend for themselves, I am showing how much I really care.

If her fledglings learn their lessons and take on responsibility, they soar. But each semester mother bird has new baby birds in need of her attention. She no longer has time to waste on those who lack the courage and effort to leave the nest.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

A Reply to Carl from Cleveland, Who Now Probably Doesn't Feel Quite as Clever

Dear Clever Carl,

Your attitude is as bad as that of some of the students. So teaching for you is just a paycheck, huh? Whatever happened to the idea of a vocation to teach? How about trying to instill in our students a love for learning? Okay, you aced a 1 credit course by just taking the final exam. I'm so happy for you. And you're not the hypocrite, so you won't have an attendance policy. Kudos! You have mastered the materialist mentality of education. Students are paying for their degree, and as long as they jump through the hoops, they'll get one. Why not just hand them the paper after they give the institution $100,000? After all, it's not our job to teach people, is it? We can just give our lectures and presentations to brick walls?

I thought teaching was much more than conveying knowledge. I thought the process was to help develop minds, guide them in their discovery of selves, help them see life through a thousand other people before they start living their own. I thought education was more than just the book knowledge, excuse me - for you - Internet knowledge. I thought it was developing a relationship with the student so that they can mature into educated adults, discover who they really want to be and find the passion within them that, when sparked, will be used to make this world a better place.

Your attitude conveyed in your post disgusted me. "It was the very least you could do for your students," you would probably say. And you always believe in doing the very least. Sorry, I will take attendance. I will demand presence. I will work to engage them because they need that. The college student is not a finished product. None of us are. You may take the road of least resistance. (You probably never even read your own students' writings!) I'll earn my title, my respect and my vocation as a teacher.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Where Profs Continue to Shoot Themselves In the Foot

This semester, I was a teaching assistant for a class with about fifty students. The final exam was on a Friday afternoon from 2:00-3:00 PM. Two students did not show up for the exam; we’ll call them X and Y. With a stack of fifty exams, though, I didn’t have time to go through and double-check that every student was present.

Student X e-mailed the professor around 5:00 PM in a panic. She had overslept, she said, and she missed the exam. Could she make it up? Though I was dubious of how one could “oversleep” until 5:00 PM, the professor allowed this student to make up the exam on Monday.

Then, while X is taking the exam on Monday, in walks Y. I know very little of Y except what I’ve gleaned from her Facebook thumbnail, which is that she’s quite the partier.

Y approaches the professor and claims one of the most far-fetched things I’ve ever heard of: A week prior to the exam, Y e-mailed the professor and asked, “Do I have to take the exam on Friday?” (Bear in mind that there was no reason for Y to legitimately think she may not have to take this test—everyone else in the class was taking it. It was a ridiculous question.) Since she did not receive an individual response from the professor, she assumed that she was indeed special and did not have to take the exam. What a relief!

The professor looked back through her e-mail history, and sure enough, Y had sent the e-mail—but the professor was too busy at the time and barely read it. (This professor had been busy administering exams to her other class, a class of 350 students, not to mention dealing with a brand-new baby.) So the professor told Y that she should have taken the exam with her classmates instead of waiting for a special invitation.

Y would have none of this. She stamped her foot and pulled out what she thought was her ace-in-the-hole: She looked the professor in the eye and said, “The exam wasn’t on the syllabus,” accenting the word “syllabus” the way some young women accent the word “whatever.” Y really believed this omission excused her absence from the exam. And it’s worse: The exam was actually quite prominently listed on the syllabus.

What I couldn’t believe, when the professor passed this story on to me, was that the student was then allowed—despite her complete lack of valid rationale—to not only take the exam, but to have an additional 24 hours to study because the professor was busy proctoring X’s exam.

I told this professor my opinion—that X probably should have failed the exam, and Y definitely should have failed the exam—and she agreed. But, she said, when similar cases arose in years past, the scorned students always went to the Department Chair and complained, and he always sided with them. So it wasn’t worth the agony.

Both students passed the class.


And a comment:

The prof didn't shoot herself in the foot. She was stabbed in the back by the Chair. I've had a chair suggest a "Double Zero" for plagiarism case before she breezed past me and made for the non-dairy creamers and stirring spoons. "Double Zero"? Is that like "Double Secret Probation"? Is it suddenly acceptable to pull policy out of my ass? Things I pull out of my ass seldom make the syllabus; though they may surface in a lecture or two.

Most Chairs I've dealt with have actually taught in classroom and understand what I'm going through. Some even lick their chops at the chance to swat these tuition-payers back to Earth. One showed me a file cabinet full of complaints, shut the cabinet door with a laugh and asked how the rest of my semester was going. His final words were, "Don't worry. Let me call her." One Chair had taught so long she would finish my stories, then top them. "Ill see your pissed-off plagiarizing Chancellor-dialer and raise you a mid-term missing malingerer who claims more dead relatives than the Kennedys."

Students fish for loopholes in the syllabus or go tattling to the chair because it's worked in the past. It won't work forever. This is what keeps me sane. That and a cold beer.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Memo to Self: Don't Be Like This. Oh, and Cut the Beard.

My Business Law professor seemed completely disinterested in us, his 300 some odd students, and our overall well-being. I can't say I ever felt comfortable or invited enough to meet him outside of the classroom, not even in office hours (oh wait, he didn't have them), so I definitely don't know much about him at all. Yet his demeanor in class said, "I'm going to make this class unnecessarily difficult, and do very little to calm your anxiety, or to help you along. "

He never used a microphone, on a campus where almost every professor with a class above 50 students uses a microphone, regardless of the acoustics in the room. He kept a very long beard and mumbled to a great extent. And when asked multiple times at the beginning of the semester if he could speak up, or if he'd considered using a microphone, he'd respond exactly the same way every time, "There are still a few seats left up here in the front." We asked him countless times during the semester a myriad of questions worded in many different ways regarding class grades, scoring, a curve, etc. He never gave an adequate answer. But he'd always explain that we have only a midterm and a final. The final is weighted more heavily. He couldn't give a grading scale, or even a hint of past scales used, because he just couldn't say with any certainty unless having all of the final grades in front of him. I can't say I've ever had another professor speak as ambiguously as he could. It may have something to do with his being a lawyer. Oh and to add, we have no other chances at points in that class, no homework or quizzes, nor participation grades. Midterm = 100 T/F questions. Final = 25 multiple choice + 175 T/F.

And lastly, most freshly in my mind, were the events of the last loving moments together with his 300+ stressed out and angry students and Professor Business Law. Before the tests were handed out, one student asked how we could expect to get our grades from the final. He answered very shortly, as always, "I don't know. (Odd silent pause throughout the room.) "However the University normally distributes your grades, I would assume." Then he gave us the before-test disclaimer, "Do not ask me any questions. I will not answer them. Play each question 'as it lies.'"

True-false question #58 stated, "Trademarks are all example of intellectual property." I determined there must be a typo, and thought of two ways the question may have been intended to be phrased. The question may have supposed to have read, "Trademarks are AN example of intellectual property" in which case the answer would be true. Or possibly, "Trademarks are all exampleS of intellectual property," meaning possibly trademarks are the only example of intellectual property, answer, false. And taking into account the intentionally confusing manner of all of our professor's questions, and his lawyer-esque language, option number two was not completely out of the question in my mind. I approached the professor with the question, and asked if he'd correct a typo. "No, I will answer no questions." "Not even if it's a mistake that affects the answer that I would choose?" "Everyone has to play it as it lies."

Do professors really exist that attempt to intentionally anger a student? 300 students? Could this professor actually be a decent, non-arrogant man who wishes us well in the future? Or is my opinion of an accredited University professor, that he doesn't care one bit whether we learn or don't learn, valid? I hope my post here has helped other poorly rated professors see why we students can become so hostile, especially after grades are turned in and we look back on the entire semester, remembering so vividly the times we were shunned and ridiculed as inferiors who had no right to a good grade.

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?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

We Have an Old School Start to a New Year

T: Why are you even here? I've stopped writing comments on your labs because I don't think you read them.

C: How did you get that great internship last summer? You're an idiot. Sorry.

B: I'll admit, you're kind of adorable. But you're neurotic! Stop emailing me! Also, sweetie, I assure you that your computer has the ability to print Greek letters. Really. It's brand new and very expensive.

M: So you're some kind of continuing ed student. I get that. So you might not be as computer savvy as some of the young ones. However, this class requires some level of computer literacy. Telling me that your husband usually does the graphs for your lab reports was not needed.

A: Oh surfer dude. You're smart. Why didn't you ever come to class?

W: You're a smarmy little thing, did you know that? Too bad we kind of ended up liking you. In ten years, I think you'll be on your way to an impressive political career. In twenty years, you'll be dealing with some kind of scandal while proclaiming that it's not your fault. Good luck with that.

R: You're the favorite student? Why? You're not even a good student. You're not the hardest worker. But you're totally charming, if sometimes pathetic. I admit it, you win.

S: You're a quiet one but really smart. Can we keep you?

V: You're great: smart, enthusiastic, and able to differentiate "it's" and "its." In this world, that's about as good as it gets.

L: I think we would be friends if you weren't my student. You're a fun person.

N: Were you hitting on me? Oh, I think you were. I realize that we're only three or four years apart, and you're kind of cute... wait, where was I going with this?