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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Useful Diagnostic Tool: On Evaluations (cont.)

My experience departs markedly from that of the other good folk who have commented on student evaluations. My department permits me the latitude to design my own instrument. All of the questions I pose are open ended, and they have all, at various times over the years, provided me with good feedback. I use them to get suggestions how to improve my lectures, to find out which assignments they thought they learned most from, which books they felt they understood and which not, which rubrics were helpful to them and which not, and so on.

I ask my students not just to answer the question posed, but also to explain why they think as they do. I have received generous feedback from them over the years, and have implemented many of the suggestions that they have offered. I have found this feedback invaluable in fine-tuning my teaching. I am, simply put, a better teacher because of the useful commentary and criticism I have received from my students.

The notion, put forth by one recent commentator, that my students lack the competence to judge my performance, is ludicrous. They are, if anything, more finely aware of multimedia communication, and more sophisticated at some of the modes of communication I use in my classes, than I am. I would not trust them to judge my overall value as a scholar and an intellectual, but I emphatically do trust them to be able to make discriminating judgments about performance. This is especially true of lectures before large numbers of students, which certainly have a strong performative element to them. Student evaluations are a diagnostic tool, and they have their weaknesses. They should not be the sole instrument on which I rely to improve my teaching. But the notion that they have no value at all is silly.

I see lots of my colleagues who get defensive about their student's criticisms. It stings to have some thoughtless 19 year old tell us they think we are lacking, especially given that most of us work quite hard at our jobs. But we should not take their criticisms at face value. They are well worth considering, it seems to me, if your agenda in reading them is to figure out what you are doing right, and what you might wish to improve. I do not think they provide the sole basis on which I work to improve my teaching, but without them, I would be unable to fine-tune my pedagogy anywhere near as effectively as I have been able to do.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fearing the Tyranny of Evaluations

Mail flooded us last night, with nearly all of it voicing support to our correspondent's views on the "useless practice" of student evaluations.

I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciated the recent posting on Student Evaluations. More and more I feel the Tyranny of Student Evalauations, even though (or maybe because?) mine are usually very good.

Yesterday in class we had a visiting speaker, a well-known poet whose work we'd studied--and had lively discussions about--before she came. She attended the class for no pay (just the sale of her books to my students). As she was speaking and generously sharing her wisdom, one student came in late and promptly put his head on the table and fell asleep. Another's eyes were closing, and I glared at him, and he immediately found the energy to wake up. Another opened her laptop and began typing away, even though I've banned laptop use from my classroom. I didn't want to interrupt the speaker, so I tried to concentrate on the students who were clearly focused on what she was saying.

Afterward, I struggled with what to say to the students who I felt were rude. And I won't lie. My student evaluations were on my mind. But I decided that I wasn't going to buckle under the Tyranny of Evualuations. I decided that I was doing other teachers a favor by saying something--perhaps the teachers these students will have in the future.

So I wrote emails to both students to let them know I was upset and offended by the way they treated the speaker. The Laptop Girl wrote back and apologized. She was clearly contrite. I wrote her back and said that I hoped she understood that my ban on laptops has to do with not knowing if someone is checking email or casually websurfing during class--and also that a laptop feels like a barrier between me and the students. It felt great to have this communication with her, and I was glad I didn't let the Tyranny of Evaluations dictate my human and professional response to a student.

I still haven't heard from the Fell Asleep Guy. I don't expect to. And I'm okay with that. Maybe he'll be absent or asleep next week when we students fill out evaluations.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On Student Evaluations

Let me start by saying that I love my job. I love teaching. I love the research component because it's all mine, but I mostly love the classroom and the never-ending supply of young people. I've been in the game for 26 years and think I'm pretty sure I will teach until I retire several years from now.

It's been the greatest career, with dozens upon dozens of amazing experiences. Students continue to engage me and interest me, and watching find their own feet is always a tremendous pleasure.

But today I woke up with a knot in my stomach, and I was out of sorts all day. I was giving my students the evaluation instrument my college uses. As soon as the large white envelope came out of my bag the students started their energetic twittering. I even heard the same comments I always hear: "Yeah, now we get to give the grades," etc.

I always read the preamble that my college gives me to read, about anonymity, about how grateful we all are to gather comments. How we're eager to find ways in which to teach the courses better. There's even a line that reads, "Your instructor welcomes your criticism."

And of course it's all complete bullshit.

My students, for all of their sweetness and energy, don't have any idea whatsoever about my worth as a professor. They won't know what they've learned from me for many years. They certainly don't have the wherewithal or the experience to evaluate my performance in any meaningful way.

I have tenure now, but the evaluations end up in my Dean's file. I still see them each new term. I have to read things like, "She should wax her lip better," and "She should take better care of herself, so she could get another husband," and, "She should get a life and quit caring if I get my lab projects done in time. Lighten up, bitch."

And any goodwill my students earn is gone again after that. My numericals are always above my department average, and I have many wonderful comments each term. But it only takes a handful of comments or ratings to make me just want to puke my guts out and find a job consulting for one of the biotech firms where most of my former students find themselves down the road.

I've never understood why we do it? Why do we ask them the questions at all? Are we too lazy to evaluate ourselves? When I first started teaching, a mentor or colleague would visit every term, and I'd present a teaching portfolio (assignments, worksheets, and student work). My peers would meet with me to discuss my progress, and once a year I'd sit with my department chair or Dean and talk about things I could do to make myself a better instructor in future semesters.

But once I'd been in the game for a few years, Scantron evaluations seemed to overwhelm everything. Because they came out in digits, fractions, decimal points, they seemed to be real, to have weight. My 3.24 was worse than so-and-so's 3.50 for "shows respect to students," and so this information became something that was used against me, for me, whatever applied.

And ever since then I've felt horrible when student evaluations loomed. I thought more and more about them. I worried that I might be unkind when I would not allow a late presentation. Would a petulant and half-stoned student hang on to this imagined slight and blast me on evaluation day? They all seem to know it's coming. They all seem to light up. They continue to think that they're only doing what I do when I grade their work. And it's all wrong. It's so wrong-headed I can't even believe we fall for it.

When I talk about it in class - which I've not done for years - someone always says, "You must get bad evaluations." I've had colleagues say the same thing. That's not the point. I worry even more for young faculty. I see our newest colleagues here jump through hoops to please students, inviting whole lab sections out to coffee, bringing in donuts, allowing endless test and quiz retakes in the hallways of every classroom building for fear of what Missy and Michael Student might check off when evaluation season comes around.

I'm done for this term at least. But I just hated myself and my profession today, and were I a little wiser, I'd go about finding away to banish this useless practice.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sensei Stanley Sends in a Message About a Silly Student - RYS Old School Style

I have a particular student (let's call him "B") who is among the most socially retarded people I've ever encountered. B has grated on my nerves all fucking semester, constantly interrupting me and the other students with his endless, monotonous monologues that are only tangentially related to the discussion, but mainly serve to confuse the other students. On more than one occasion, said ramblings have prompted me to blurt out, "What?," with an utterly baffled and exasperated expression on my face. The other students snicker, but B is oblivious to them because he believes what he is saying is brilliant and breathtakingly original. His eyes dart around the room to see if anyone has noticed and is impressed with said brilliance, but all B gets for his efforts are bored expressions, fidgeting, and awkward silence.

It's embarrassing and sad, really. I try to ignore B, but he always has his fucking hand up. It's painfully obvious to the other students that I'm ignoring him, but most often they are no help either because they just sit there and stare at me, waiting for me to give them the answers or break down and call on B. I must admit that I get some amount of sadistic pleasure intimidating B. He's always coming up to me after class and apologizing for interrupting or laughing at something only he thinks is uproarously funny.

B is incapable of talking like a normal human being. His language is obsequiously formal, which makes interacting with him all the more difficult and awkward. Then he bows (yes--bows!) at me like I'm some sort of latter-day Kung-Fu master, and he is my grasshopper. Muttering to himself, he walks out of the classroom.

Monday, November 20, 2006

On Power

In the years that I have been hiring fresh out of college students to work in my consulting firm, I have noticed that many younger students have no clue how to deal with real power and hierarchies, which makes my life as an employer difficult--and students' lives potentially very difficult once they leave the university. While it's hardly the role of higher education to turn students into little worker drones (even as a professor in a professional program I agree with this principle), it does not hurt to think about how investing in yourself, challenging yourself, and developing good work habits and manners as a student can help you when you get out (so you can succeed at your fancy schmancy buy-our-houses-to-turn-into-parking-lots career.)

I know it's frustrating for students who think professors are just pompous, but it is important to encounter professors strategically. If you are adept and self-aware about power, you see it and you understand how all your acquaintances in your professional network, profs and classroom peers, can hurt or help you. For example, in an accounting class, some of your colleagues may get hired at the same firm as you. Some may get promoted over you. Do you want them remembering you as that little prick who came to class with his ass hanging out, never ready? Or do you want them to remember you as the person who worked hard, helped out when asked, was a pleasant compatriot, and came prepared?

Let's think about this more systematically: How do professors have power?

  1. Recommendations. I am routinely asked, for example, to write letters and fill out forms recommending students for positions, law school, or MBA programs. Maybe people ignore my recommendations, so that a crappy or lukewarm one from me doesn't mean anything. But I don't think so. I certainly don't ignore recommendations when I am hiring. I am a nice person and don't take out grudges on students, but others do. Being savvy about power means you don't trust my niceness and grace--or anybody else's--unnecessarily by being an idiot, lying to me, cheating, cutting corners, telling me my class matters less than your frat's ear-wax removal activity (it may be very important you; just don't tell me), or any doing any other thing you know you shouldn't do but try anyway because you think you can get away it.

  2. Recommendations (II). I have an extensive network of people I know in my field. These people hire. They ask me often to recommend students for internships and new positions. If I don't like you, I can't fire you, but I also won't use the power I have to help you, and that's unfortunate...for you. Because for every one of you idiot/snotty students we have, I also have some students who make me proud to recommend them to my professional contacts. No, you don't have to suck up to me--you'll find that I can smell that 1,000 yards away. I just need to see the following in various doses: desire, motivation, time management, commitment, some smarts, good sense, the ability to cope with people who don't agree with you, and the ability to understand that "it's not about you." That's it.

  3. I can keep students from attaining credentials they want. I teach two required courses in one of our undergraduate degree programs. I can, in fact, prevent these students from graduating. If you are failing my class, I can prove to an outside authority that you are failing and therefore do not deserve to graduate. And I publish 8 papers a year and sit on $6 million in grants; my university could care less about whether you complain to the Dean about me or not--I am worth way more than your tuition dollars. Good sense suggests you couch your appeal to me in this context as "I am struggling, and I need some help in the class. Can you help guide me to additional resources?" rather than "Your grading sucks. I need at least a B."

  4. Departmental support and other goodies. If I have goodies to hand out, like assistantships or fellowship opportunities (and I do), then I won't give them to you if you piss me off. Why would I? There are employments opportunities for lively undergrads in my department because I sweat my ass off writing grants. I don't actually have to do as much of that ass-sweating as I do, and I can hire anybody I want. If you keep your relations with me positive and collegial and show me you have tact and good sense, I'll be much more likely to give these kind of opportunities to you than if you are unpleasant. For those of you on fellowships, we do regularly staff students, and on federal fellowships, I often evaluate students' progress toward the degree. So in other words, I can influence whether you get to a) have or b) get to keep the nice funding packages that pay your tuition and give you a stipend.

In other words, I was utterly shocked as an assistant professor at how much power I really do have. Not worlds of it. But more than I ever thought as a grad student. And I try very hard to respect my students. I don't generally ask that students pay me compliments and treat me like the great "I Am" (at least I hope not). But that doesn't mean I want to put up with some student's crap and over-familiarity and that, if subject to same, it doesn't hurt that student in any meaningful way. It can.

So the bottom line is that if you want a cat to sit on your lap, you don't rub its fur the wrong direction. Some people need to have their egos stroked in order to give you the candy they have (and sometimes they won't share, not even then). We are talking EQ here--emotional intelligence--that can help serve you well if you use your education as a chance to hone your institutional smarts, instead of as a 24-hour party line at McUniversity full of dumb ol' professors.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

This Letter Just Arrived From Dreamland Avenue in Fantasyville. The Rest of us Losers Must Live on Bad Vibes Boulevard in Shitburg City.

When I was in college, one of my professors lost his mother. The class got up a collection to send flowers to the funeral, along with a condolence card we all signed. When he returned a week later, almost every student with a kitchen had brought a casserole for him to take home. He got very choked up and said, "This is why I love teaching here -- people acknowledge the simple human things in your life."

Another time a professor mentioned in passing, but with a worried look on his face, that our papers would be late because his daughter was in the hospital with an ear infection run amuck. Two days later, two huge get-well cards, balloons, and a box of coloring books and crayons appeared from the class for him to take to her. We got back a lovely crayoned picture as thanks.

My senior year, I was the recipient of the generous acknowledgement of the simple human things in my life. I lost three relatives in quick succession, one of them a younger woman who still had minor children, who died very suddenly and in a foreign country. My family was REELING from the shock and struggling to muster our resources to deal with all of the funerals, and getting the suddenly-orphaned cousins home from a distant continent. It would have been easy for my professors to say snidely, "Your grandfather died last week, your grandmother two weeks ago, and now your aunt? Aren't you running out of relatives yet?" Instead, they sent my family condolence cards. To all three funerals. One department sent flowers. My student coworkers at my student job sent a HUGE arrangement. My professors, my supervisors, my fellow students all went out of the way to cover my shifts, arrange for me to have deadline extensions, reschedule tests, get notes, collect handouts, everything. I thought I might have to withdraw for the semester, but with everyone's generous help and understanding, I was able to finish the semester and graduate on time.

And guess where all my donor dollars go -- the college that treated me with human kindness or the professional school that treated me with harsh, unbending rules-adherence?

It's too bad the "Uncle Ernie" poster lives in a "real world" where people are assholes. I don't think he's doing his students any favors by preparing them for a world full of assholes. In the real world *I* live in, when I'm sick, my neighbors send over chicken soup, my husband's secretary sends him home with her trashy celebrity magazines to keep me entertained, my colleagues offer to cover my phones and appointments, and my clients are understanding and helpful about rescheduling.

I live in a world where people cover for each other at work so they don't have to miss a kid's dance recital, where neighbors watch your pets, where friends drive you to the airport at 4 a.m., and where acquaintances ask after your family. It's too bad the "Uncle Ernie" poster lives in a world with so little common decency and human kindness. He should try exercising a little and see how it works out for him.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Well, It's Not an Official Pledge, But We Like It.

I, Student X, Pledge to:
  • Respect my professor, no matter how little I think s/he actually knows.
  • I pledge to read the syllabus carefully.
  • To do all the homework on time.
  • To wear actual adult clothes and shoes at least once a week.
  • To come to class on time.
  • To give my professor the benefit of the doubt sometimes.
  • I pledge never to give stupid excuses, and to accept the fact I’m an adult.
  • I pledge not to whine about a grade I deserve I pledge not to insult my professors with bribes, unless I think they might actually take them.

I, Professor Y, Pledge to:

  • Take my students seriously.
  • Give them the benefit of the doubt sometimes.
  • Care about them learning the material.
  • Remember that this class is just one of the many challenges they face.
  • Not put them down for a question in class.
  • To tuck my shirt in sometimes and make sure I don't get chalk dust on my ass.
  • Not take my own frustrations out on them, especially the ones who are really trying.
  • Not to make ridiculously difficult tests simply to amuse myself.
  • I pledge to treat every student fairly remembering that once, I too was a student who had a dog eat my homework.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Someone is Getting Out, But Has Some Words for Profs, Students, and The iPod Generation. The "Something Shiny" Post.

The countdown has begun. In four weeks, I will graduate with an MA in British literature and a year and a half of experience teaching freshman composition.

To my professors, past and present: I love you. Over the past 10 years, you have all shaped my life in ways you could not possibly have imagined. You opened up new worlds to me, new perspectives, new philosophies. You gave me your guidance, and some of you have blessed me with your friendship. I don’t think I ever really appreciated all you do, all you go through, how I abused my position as a “good” student, and how much inadvertent disrespect I showed you. You have my eternal gratitude, and my deepest apologies.

To two beautiful students: You are exquisitely intelligent, socially conscious, and eager to become more self-aware. I have no doubt that you will experience much more pain, frustration, and rage than your classmates—but you will also find more pleasure, satisfaction, and joy in the world. I was incredibly fortunate to find you both in one of my first classes; you have helped keep me sane. I cannot thank you enough.

To the students who don’t give a shit: You’ll never know how much entertainment I’ve gotten out of your papers. My friends (academics themselves) and I have laughed long and loud at your willful ignorance, your laziness, and your insolence. You abdicated any right to respect or privacy when you repeatedly spat in my face. But I can understand your indifference. Accepting the status quo (that means “the way things are now”) makes it so much easier to get to the fun stuff, like the after-game kegger, or your sorority’s theme parties, or the latest episode of whatever vapid teenage-young-adult-beautiful-people-sex-scandal television is on this season. (Sorry—with homework and teaching, I work 16-hour days, so I can’t keep up with the latest titles.) Asking “Why?” is work. You have to start thinking. And thinking is hard. And it’s scary. And it will rob you of all the pleasure you get in life. So just don’t. Whenever someone asks you to think, turn your iPod up loud and start downloading porn; that should counteract the effects. And if anyone says you’re stupid, you just tell them that sticks and stones will break your bones, but……ooh, look, something shiny!

To those of you who remain: I know I don’t have the teaching experience that you have had, but I don’t think I can stay on to develop more. I’ll admit it freely: I’m just not a very good teacher. I care too much and I don’t care enough. It may be cowardly and selfish—or it could be the most intelligent move I’ve ever made—but in any case, it’s time for me to go.

I’m sorry. Thanks for all you have given me and others. I wish you nothing but the best of luck.

Are Students Even Capable of Evaluating Instruction? One Reader Wonders.

It's that time of year again, when the administration sends out its minions with their student opinion surveys. I hesitate to use the term "course evaluation." Now I'm sure there are a bunch of yahoos out there who claim that their instrument is valid and reliable and is currently being used in however many institutions. And of course that may be the case. I have no problem with a well-designed and well-tested measurement instrument. Where my beef emerges is around the idea that that students are capable of - hell, even understanding - what evaluation entails.

I'm not really sure that the bulk of them are in a position to do so. Let me give you an example - something from the trenches: I ask students to write weekly annotated bibliographies. A component of the assignment is to write a one or two line evaluation of the reading. And I make it clear that I'm looking for an intellectual or academic evaluation - as in something like: "The author raises some provoking questions about X, but does not address issue Y." Or something like "This article offered an interesting contrast to the previous two articles we've read given that it adopted a different methodology and a different theoretical framework."

Not surprisingly, there is seldom an intellectual or academic evaluation to be found. Rather, I get drivel like the oh so vapid, "I liked the article," or the trenchant "The article was too long." Or, "The author uses too many example." Or my personal favorites, "The article has too many big words," and "This article was too hard."

Now if I can't get more than half of my students to offer an intellectual evaluation of an assigned reading - and I've given them plenty of examples of what an evaluation ought to look like - how am I supposed to take their "course evaluation" seriously? I have students who don't know what "pedagogy" means, what a learning objective looks like, and 25% of them haven't read the fucking course outline.

Evaluation assumes that one has some knowledge about what is being evaluated. What the hell do they know about teaching? You're asking a 20 year old to critically evaluate and reflect on my capacity to teach? When was the last time a 20 year old read up on how to construct fair and accurate multiple choice questions on the weekend so that he could ensure that the exam he was giving the following week was well constructed? What 20 year old knows about Bloom's taxonomy?

I'm not claiming that what students say about their educational experiences can't be useful or shouldn't be solicited. Their feedback is, I think, productive and can go a long way in assisting us in improving our efforts at teaching. Feedback is, I think, quite a different ball of wax when compared to "evaluation" and I'm more than willing to entertain student feedback. The problem is, "course evaluations" don't allow for this - given that they are, among other things, summative rather than formative assessments.

So I have a question - one asked in the interest of doing what we can to help our students become the adults we all know they can be. What can we do to generate pedagogically useful feedback from your students?

Monday, November 13, 2006

POW! Us Versus Them Is Not Going To Cut it If We Want To Sort The Classroom Out

You never know how it's going to turn here at RYS. Here, a reader goes against some of the recent grain and gives us our "post of the week."

I get plenty of bizarre and inappropriate requests from my students for extra help, second chances, or special treatment. So I'm more than sympathetic to the problem that Hang Together describes ...... but not at all to HT's solution. Because I also get plenty of perfectly legitimate requests for extra help and second chances.

The student whose sister was murdered mid-semester certainly wouldn't have been helped in any meaningful way if I'd been an asshole and refused to grant her request for "special treatment." Nor was the integrity of my teaching blemished even slightly because I gave her carte blanche to decide when she would complete the course requirements. Those circumstances so clearly warranted a deviation from the rules laid out in the syllabus that I felt bad that I couldn't do more to be helpful.

Of course, most requests for extensions are much harder for me to adjudicate. But that's precisely why I always include some sort of "drop the low grade" or "choose four of six assignments" or "flexible due dates" option on my syllabi. Not because it improves student learning, but because it allows me to spend more time concentrating on actual teaching and research, and less time trying to decide which sob stories are bullshit and which are genuine crises.

This system also makes it much easier for my students to really see themselves as adults (rather than "kids" or "cherubs"), since it visibly puts the responsibility for balancing their workload (and their lives) back on their shoulders. They have to decide for themselves when/if they want to burn up their droppable assignments, and this makes it that much tougher (which is not to say "impossible") for them to ask for "special treatment" in December when they know they made poor choices in October.

I can guarantee you that none of this makes my students feel like they're being "coddled" or like my courses are "dumbed down." My students routinely tell me that they have to work harder in my classes than they're used to -- and I'm quite happy to have earned a reputation as a "tough A." If HT is suffering from a plague of students who feel over-entitled (and who of us isn't?), it's certainly not because faculty like me are offering students five chances to turn in three papers. Demanding that "faculty should hang together" isn't the solution here -- and not only because it's a really poor choice of phrase (unless, for some perverse reason, you want to invite people to respond with "get a rope").

This isn't a war, after all, students aren't the enemy ... and what a hardline/"us versus them"/"zero tolerance" approach to teaching says to me is that it's not always the students who need to learn how to behave like adults.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Somebody Snaps and Goes Old School With a Student Rating

I've reached a breaking point with BD, a sophomore student in my evening Poli Sci class. From day one she has taken great pleasure in arguing with other students in class, flipping her hair back, smacking on her fucking gum, playing like she's my buddy and my equal, and forgetting to wear shoes to class about half the time. I mean, like, she's got so much else going on.

From the beginning she's demanded special treatment. She comments on everything that is said or done in class, putting a little demented and inane cherry on top of anyone else's observation or question. When I ask to hear some new voices in class, she smacks her lips, plunges back into her chair with a pout, and usually fires up the Blackberry to check on the haps elsewhere.

She once came to my office before class started to tell me she couldn't come because she was "buzzed," and thought it would be disrepectful to me to attend class. Then she wondered if I'd send her a podcast of my lecture, or if she could just come by some other day and have me tell her what we covered. "Like, wow, I really just need to go back to the dorm and chill out, let this buzz wear off." She was wearing an outfit that was about right if you were a $30 whore or a circus freak.

On her midterm she misread most of the instructions, skipped 2 of the 4 essay questions, and scored a very considerate D. She came to my office the next week with such a tale of woe that I thought I might be on a hidden camera show of some kind. Her boyfriend has been an ass. Her dad divorced her mom (8 years ago!) and he was being an ass to her. Her English professor accused her of plagiarism, and he was an ass. An RA in her building caught her with 2 cases of beer the weekend before, and she was a major ass. "I mean, like, we have to unwind after all of this work." I was wondering if I was an ass, too, and if she told her other profs how I'd wronged her, but before I could daydream anymore she asked, "Uh, when can I do a retake of the test, since your instructions weren't clear enough." Gum smack. Smile. Toss of the hair.

And then, and I know it sounds like some Afterschool Special, "Gee, Dr. XXXX, I never noticed that cool bracelet before. You're really rocking those friendship beads."

So, I showed her the door, said my goodbyes, and just put my head down on the cool desk for a while. Just for grins, I logged onto Facebook to get a deeper look into BD's college experience. Most of what was posted were party photos taken in her dorm. Bottles of booze fill the bathroom sink. One guy - in another of my classes - is flashing his ass at the camera while balancing a shot glass full of something on his head. BD is in a lot of the photos making out with guys. There's a stunning series of photos of her with her roommate, where they're dry humping on a pool table with a crowd of Sigma Chis around them. And the captions of the photos are quite illuminating: "Hot." "Kisses." "Me and Matt Swapping Spit." "Look at my Boobies!" "Yummy." "Tastes Like Chicken." "Mommy told me to be GOOD."

I've got that class tonight. I just feel ill. She will come bustling in 4 minutes late, mouth wide open, telling us some idiotic series of events that kept her from getting there on time. She'll humph and harumph if I don't call on her as soon as her hand goes in the hair. She'll make fun of at least one student during discussion. She'll want to know if we "have" to do the reading. Or if she can leave early because she has "something going down."

It takes all of my will and all of my energy just to make the long walk across campus to the building. I wish I could smoke or drink whatever it is that gets BD through having to put up with the likes of me and the other asses in the way of her good time.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

You Want Them to What? Go to Class, Take Notes, Take Quizzes. Be Adults? You Want a Chocolate Fountain and a Backyard Full of Ponies, Too?

Every week a student asks me for (a) lecture notes (b) a "retake" on a quiz or test (c) whether I "drop" low quiz/test grades and (d) whether he can take a quiz/test at his convenience because he has an ingrown toenail (an actual excuse).

I could blame the students for their wheedling and whimpering, but I blame other faculty. Where are students getting the idea that faculty hand out lecture notes so the little cherubs don't have to tire themselves by taking notes or attending class? They get these ideas from other faculty. Who is giving them lecture notes? Other faculty. Who is letting them retake quizzes, drop tests, and reschedule at their convenience? Other faculty. Some "teaching excellence" or "academic support" person will answer that these dumbing-down techniques improve student learning. They clearly don't. Have we seen any improvement in learning since faculty began handing out notes, powerpoints, and "retakes"? No.

I have a proposal. Faculty should hang together. Don't give lecture notes, and don't post lecture notes. The cherubs will learn that faculty expect them to attend class and take notes. Don't give retakes. The cherubs will learn that the first test or quiz is real and they have one shot at it. Don't give make-ups. Don't drop grades. Don't come in on Saturdays. If they miss class for Uncle Ernie's birthday party, then let them take the consequences. Don't IM with students. If the cherubs have something important to address, then they can address it like adults.

Act like the bosses they will soon have. Stop making it harder on the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

The Ruination of Math Development and Playing Tag - Our Precious Dears Are Under Attack!

Within the past week, two seemingly unrelated news stories have come to my attention. First, it appears that building students’ self-esteem is related to their poor performance in math. The reports on this that I have read seem to imply that high self-esteem causes poor math performance. Of course, math professors and other well-educated individuals with reasoning abilities know that the type of study reported is a correlational study and that correlation cannot determine causation.

Yes, it may be true that our lovely little darlings’ high held opinions of themselves interferes with their ability to solve equations, but there may be a third variable at work. Perhaps our little darlings cannot add and subtract without a calculator because too much of the school day is taken up with feel-good messages and lessons on the importance of loving one’s self. If that time were spent on teaching actual subject matter, perhaps America would not be lagging in terms of math. Or, perhaps students’ high self-esteem leads them to believe that they have the ability to outperform anyone on any math test placed in front of them without having to study. After all, the sun shines out of their…uh…ears.

Which leads me to the next news story that grabbed my attention. It seems that the childhood staple game of tag is being outlawed by a number of schools. Why, you may ask. The reasons are two-fold. First, little Jimmy or little Suzie’s delicate feelings might get hurt. Heaven forbid! Never mind that by playing tag and having to be “it” all the time might actually teach Jimmy or Suzie that they just aren’t good at something. Never mind that by losing at tag repeatedly, they might just come to the realization that they might need to practice and put some effort into running and maneuvering. No, no, no….we wouldn’t want to burst the bubble that mom, dad and the school have so carefully constructed.

The second reason given for banning tag is that schools might beopening themselves up to lawsuits if Jimmy or Suzie falls down and gets a boo-boo. Evidently, the elementary schools are afraid of having to pay the medical costs involved with an application of Neosporin and a band-aid.

So kids, what are you learning in class today? That you are the best thing to ever happen on this planet, that knowing this is more important than being able to figure out the sales tax on the new car mommy and daddy will buy you for graduation, and that if anyone hurts you or your self esteem, you should sue!

Sunday, November 5, 2006

The Never Sent and Sarcastic Return Email is Always a Sure Winner Here at RYS

An email from a student:

“Hi, my family is leaving on a trip the week before finals, and my grandpa and my dad invited me to go. This is only a five day trip and I would be back before finals week. I was wondering if there was any possible way that I would be able to go, and what I would need to get done. Please let me know and get back to me asap.”

The reply I can't send:

I hope I responded to your email “asap” enough.

Sure, why don’t you go ahead and miss the entire week of classes right before final exams? I’m sure all of your instructors will be more than happy to accommodate your family’s vacation itinerary. We’ll even grant an extension on missed work so you can turn it in for full credit — will February 1 give you enough time? It shouldn’t be too much to make up, because most classes rarely do anything very important the week before exams anyway.

But since your email suggests you’re dense enough to have my sarcasm go ricocheting off your cranium, let me tell you plainly “what you need to get done”:

  • Give me your dad’s email so I can ask him how the hell he gets off asking me to make arrangements for his special little genius to miss the last week of classes.
  • Quit assuming that I have nothing better to do than drop everything and strategize how you can get around attendance policies to take early winter break.
  • Get written permission from each one of your classmates, so that they know what applies to them doesn’t count for you, since you’re special and obviously have such a loving family.
  • Look back over the graded papers I’ve handed back to you, ponder how consistently shitty your work has been, and then ask yourself if missing the last classes before finals is a good idea. Actually, never mind — that would require critical reasoning. Why start now?

    Your professor