Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Could You Try a Little?

A tenure-track professor who has taught in California and Arizona writes:

I've been teaching about a dozen years and the thing that disturbs me the most about my current students is that they don't even fake like they're trying. And this has been coming on more and more over the past few years. In my early days in the classroom, at least I could count on about half of the class actually willing to try to be interested in the material. It felt good to teach back then, because at the end of class some people would mill around, still discussing what we'd covered.

But more and more every student I see seems to act like it's the worst chore in the world to actually come to class, actually bring the book, actually stay upright.

My student evaluations are always positive, and I get through to a few students every semester, but the vast majority of people conduct themselves as if they'd rather be anywhere but a classroom. And I don't get it. It's made my own job into a chore, as I now dread going in there and looking at people who seem just dead inside.

But then out on the quad or in the commons, I see the same people animated, chatting, laughing, dancing. They're young, seem happy, and seem to be full of vigor. But next day in class they hang their heads, they mumble - if they talk at all, and they look as though I've just told them I put pigeon shit in their porridge.

I want to know why today's student doesn't even want to try.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006


From a professor in Michigan:

A week ago I assigned 14 pages of reading from our Econ text, the first part of chapter 5. It's not a bad book, not as these things go. There are charts, graphs, even a photo of Tiger Woods that fills half a page. My instructions in class were: "Read the pages from chapter 5, answer question #1 or #2, and be prepared to tell me about a situation in your own past where you were paid for doing something."

I sent an email to my class with the same info 2 days later.

Today I walked into my classroom, my 85 students sitting politely in chairs, books on their laps, smiling, peaceful, the class of someone's dream, perhaps.

I took my coat off, arranged my papers, turned on the microphone and smiled back at them.

"Who wants to start," I said. "Let's start easy and have someone tell me what the main message of the chapter was?"

There was no sound. The peaceful looks vanished. Pages began to flap. I could feel a breeze.

"Well, then let's just talk about a time when you were paid for something. Remember the chapter talks about private transactions versus public transactions."

Nothing again. This is my second year of teaching, but I'm already tired of the bullshit of a dead class. I leaned into the microphone and said, "Don't you know that we came here today so I could help you? Don't you know that I've done the reading? Don't you expect that it's your turn now?"

I guess I looked pretty upset because a few hands went up.

"What," I barked at a girl in the front row.

"Was it chapter 5 or 6 we were supposed to read?"

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Sandy From the Southwest Sends Something.

Sandy, a sophomore from a large Southwestern university, sends this along:

I have often frequented the RateMyProfessor site for information on my teachers. When I found out from our school website that the professors were finally retaliating, I was thrilled! If we students have the honor of bashing or praising you (with bashing definitely more frequent) then you guys should also have the privilege of ranting about your students. I've read through all the archives and was highly entertained by them.

I think all of us students know or can relate to being in a class with those irritating students you all have so fluently described. Many times in class I have been sitting near one of those drones, mentally begging the teacher to march over to them and give them a good swat. However, I do hope the professors ranting on this site are taking certain factors into account when dealing with a troublesome student. I'm engaged to a guy who is probably a student you would have a hard time with. He's very quiet, struggles with grammar and spelling, etc. I'm sure a lot of you would think he's another lazy student who doesn't care about school. The truth is, though, that he's dyslexic. I wish you could see how he pores over his school work every day. He works hard and is diligent; it's just that his dyslexia is such a crippling issue. I hope when you talk about your "lazy and irresponsible" students, that you remember that sometimes there are factors you aren't aware of.

I also know some of the professors are justifiably upset over the RMP site, but here's some common sense advice from a student that will keep you in good graces:
  • Don't have your class buy an $80 textbook just because you co-wrote it.
  • At least act like you enjoy teaching us.
  • Don't assume we are all plagiarizing slackers.
  • Be approachable.
  • Don't assign "busy work."
  • Be a good example for your students. What are we supposed to think if every class, you show up frazzled and 15 minutes late and then don't have anything purposeful for us to do?

Advice For Professors.

A recent college graduate sends along these great suggestions for all of us:

The best professors I ever had were tough. Incredibly tough. Sometimes this meant that they were harsh in class, but sometimes they weren’t. But what they all had in common was that they constantly challenged the class, and didn’t make any apologies for it. I don’t mean that you have to always give the maximum reading or assignments – part of how I’m defining “tough” is “intellectually-stimulating,” so repetitive assignments that don’t have much value should not be included. The point is to set the standard higher than what you would reasonably expect to be possible – and then see what happens. Granted, you may get some negative feedback, but way too often in college did I see professors babying the students just to avoid this feedback.

Some of the worst professors I had were inflexible in their teaching style. They had a particular method, and it was not about to change, no matter how awful the class was (for both them and the students). I’m sure it’s not easy, but you need to constantly be re-evaluating yourself and seeing what works and what doesn’t. If it does work, then great – but first ask yourself whether it really does.

Instead of griping about how awful the students are, do something about it. Be in command of your classroom, and set rules and stick to them. You have the power to kick students out, give large penalties, embarrass unprepared students, etc. If someone’s cell phone rings in class for the second time that semester, tell them to leave and come back next week. And even if you don’t have as much power as I think, at least pretend like you do.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

What's All the Fuss About?

A professor from Florida sends this along today:

So, you got a bad rating, or two, or twenty. Why the hell do you care? Well, you care because you’re human, and the social evaluations people make about you impact your self image. Another reason you care is that Universities and colleges use student ratings to determine your fitness for tenure, promoting, teaching award, and annual evaluations that earn or deny you merit raises. There are a lot of reasons to care. As a professor, what you need isn’t a reason to care – you need some perspective on student ratings, and a lesson in learning to ignore them, even if they impact you, the course of your career and your family.

Last year, after 16 years of teaching of University teaching, I took my first sabbatical from teaching. For the first time, I had research responsibilities, but theoretically nothing else. At the end of my sabbatical year when my department circulates the annual student comments written on the back of the teaching evaluation forms, and even though I hadn’t taught a class during the past year, I got a negative teaching evaluation. It seems that some student took a class during the spring semester and thought I was the professor. On the back of the evaluation, written very boldly, it said “Professor [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!” You can insert anyone’s name here. In this case, it was my name. I didn’t teach the course. I was excused from teaching for the year. Nevertheless, official records indicate that I have a negative teaching evaluation. Will wonders never cease.

I refer to this example because it illustrates one of the reasons we shouldn’t rely on student evaluations of professors. It seems that a number of them don’t even know who is teaching the course. For example, when I get to the end of the year, and the students are handed a teaching evaluation, one of them inevitably says “Excuse me. Do we have to fill out all this information on the top, like the course title and number, and the professor’s name? If we do, could you please write those on the board?” How useful are evaluations from students when some of them, perhaps the ones who provide the worst reviews, don’t even know who is teaching the class?

And, in what world would you let an apprentice evaluate the skill of his/her master? You might ask the apprentice if they liked working for the master craftsperson, what aspects of the training they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy, but you would hardly ask them if the master craftsperson was a “master” of their skills. No, to make that determination, you would ask other craftspersons. But, here I am, a college professor with 22 years of teaching experience, a BS, 2 MAs, and a Ph.D., and more than 110 publications, and my skill at teaching and my knowledge of my field is judged by someone who has no credentials or expertise.

Furthermore, these evaluations may have been provided by people who not only don’t do well in an educational setting; they may be provided by people I have, for example, caught cheating in my course. Why should someone who has failed my course for cheating be allowed to evaluate me? That’s almost like letting the President of a country who has a questionable moral background determine….Oh wait, that’s bad example. But, that’s kind of the point.

Friday, February 3, 2006

The Young and the Clueless.

A recent college grad from a university in another cold state has these thoughts to share about some of his past classmates:

B: That jazzy tune your cell phone plays when a call comes in is very distracting when your fellow students are giving presentations. What was it about the professor’s admonishment to turn them off that you did not understand? And not once but twice?!

A: The instructions regarding the presentations were explicit: No more than 15 minutes. We had 12 students needing to give presentations, moron. Your 35 minute ramble (which included the 10 minute summation after the professor told you to finish) meant that the rest of us had to rush through ours.

M: You know, I bet it does suck when you and your boyfriend can’t get your shit together to get to class on time. Just because there is an open seat next to me doesn’t mean that I should have to move so you two lovebirds can sit next to each other. All you two do is whisper about the awful day you’ve had anyway. Shut the fuck up and focus on the class.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Boiling Point Reached.

A full time professor of English at a college in the west sends this. The original version - I was sent two - had the most inventive and exciting combination of curse words I've ever seen. It was quite a remarkable display. I preferred it over this more modest version, but the writer wanted to keep the focus on the flaw, not her dynamic expletives!

I have often thought the posts on here were frivolous, and I've been ill at ease with the notion of rating students, but today changed all that.

I have few rules in my class, but reading what's assigned is essential. Because we're only in our second week here, I've carefully established that reading each small section of text for the next class is the only way we can have an active class the next day. I've led class when I've had to, but I've been generally pleased at how many people seem aware of what our articles cover.

But today, today was a breaking point. I reached a boiling point, and I just want to scream.

I assigned a 4 page article from our textbook, a piece that is about Hollywood, and that mentions several fairly recent movies. The article says - endlessly - that movies form much of American culture, and isn't that too bad, given how single-minded and glib these movies are.

So we gathered in our normal spot, me and 15 sophomores, and I asked the typical opening questions. Nobody was biting, however, so I went to basics. "Well, let's just get the simple things established. What's the point of the article?" No sound. Crickets, maybe.

Then I tried, "Well what is the article about? It's about Hollywood, right? But what's more specific than that?" Nothing again.

Years ago I was taught in a teaching workshop that "letting them wait" is the way to go at times like this. I sipped from my cafeteria coffee and smiled pleasantly. I looked out the window and watched some snow coming down. I counted to ten in my head. Nothing.

Some students shuffled a bit. One brave soul was clearly reading like a madman.

Finally, the one reader raised his hand. "Is it about Russell Crowe?" (He'd located one line early in the piece that mentions a movie Russell Crowe is in, but in no way is the article ABOUT Russell Crowe.)

I didn't say anything. We all went home early today, that's my point. And now the idea of facing them next week just gives me a pain in my head and my heart.

Two Students To Watch Out For.

A History prof at a large university in a cold state sent this in. Looks like the ratings are back!

V is one of those students who clearly believes himself to be a rippling genius but who suggests -- with every passing semester -- that his head is thick with nonsense. In an upper-division historical methods course, for instance V waited until the 13th week (of a 14-week semester) to ask clarification on the difference between a "primary" and a "secondary source." This, I should point out, took place after we had spent an entire session on the subject early in the semester, and after the same question had been addressed by no fewer than three of the major texts used in the course. Oh, how grateful I am that he couldn't take any of my classes this semester. From now on, I must make a point of finding out his schedule far enough in advance that I can avoid him until he has safely graduated (God knows how) from this institution. If he appears in your classes, beware.

G is a genial right-winger whom I adore in spite of his grotesque political views. He's a really smart fellow and has taken a whole load of my classes, none of which seem to persuade him that the history of the United States is considerably more ambiguous than his Reaganesque triumphalism would lead him to believe. Clearly, my efforts to brainwash my students and bully them into endorsing my crabbed view of the world have failed. Nonetheless, G has a record of not completing courses, and I would warn other faculty about being too lenient on him. He's a good writer but gets very stressed out about school and spends lots of time at the movie theater or watching cable news, with which he is inexplicably entranced. Above all, he needs a professor who is willing to draw the line and not let him turn work in late. He now has two incompletes from me and shows no sign of finishing the work any time soon. Don't fall into the same trap!