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

Friday, November 3, 2006

Someone's Fed Up, and When This Happens We Often Get a List

I like most of my students, really, even the lazy ones, the passive ones, the failing ones. It's the "I-pay-your-salary-with-my-tuition-so-please-me-you-academic-whore" students that I can't stand.

Such students are in the minority, I think. But they are a vocal minority. They speak, and speak, and speak. Not in class, of course. They are quick to spew their venom on
RMP. They have no shame in complaining to the Chair that they ONLY plagiarized one paragraph so should have a chance to rewrite. To these students, office hours are for challenging the generous "C" they got for writing yet another fascinating paper on legalizing marijuana. After all, why visit a professor except to enjoy a good moan?

Proponents of RMP say it equalizes the balance of power between student and professor. Well then, let's really play by the same rules in the classroom. In the spirit of fairness, let's all do the following:
  1. Roll your eyes every time a student asks, "Will we be tested on today's lecture?"
  2. Yawn overtly when you're bored by their amazingly thoughtful observation that morality is relative.
  3. Comment (under your breath but loudly enough to be heard) on how good or bad their asses look in those pants.
  4. Talk nonsense for the duration of the class period and inform them you met the length requirement.
  5. Check your text messages during their presentations.
  6. Complain about having to read all of their essays even though their writing does not meet the new academic standard of being "fun."
  7. Come to class with no notes, no ideas, and no shower.
  8. Nap during class, and tell your Chair that you were, per your obligation, present every day.
  9. Pay your little brother to write your lectures. Or better yet, just read something dowloaded from the web.
  10. Grade them on how cute and entertaining they were in class.
Fantasies aside, most of us will continue to rise above for the sake of the decent students.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Some Little Bits - Some So Scary, You'd Think It Was Still Halloween!

We get a ton of email from folks with little bits of stories. They're all great, and we enjoy them. They're tasty aperitifs that precede some meatier fare.

But they don't make for great posts on RYS. We sometimes work with the writers to expand the little bits into bigger pieces. We make brilliant suggestions. Writers ignore those. They make better choices. And then the piece appears a few days later. But sometimes there's nothing else to them, and we always feel bad hitting delete.

So, we've saved some of our favorites from October and they are offered below, unconnected, not thematic, just some little bits of stuff that didn't fit anywhere else.

Sure, this hodge podge of mini-posts may make it seem like we're being lazy, but put those negative thoughts out of your head. We're doing all we can, given that we had a huge crash last night after getting into the leftover Halloween stuff.

  • I got a frantic email this evening from a student in my mid-level undergrad course. She just now realized - 9 weeks into the term - that she took and completed this same course last year. It's exactly the same course, with the same title and course number, the same textbook and the same assignments. She wrote that she "didn't know" that she had taken the course before. I'm sure she didn't know, because she's been too busy playing Tetris on her cellphone.
  • It might be worth pointing out that now allows students to upload pictures of their profs for public viewing. "Ohhh Snap!" it ever-so-articulately states. " just launched Professor Pictures! Bust out your camera phone and upload your professor's picture today!"
  • I am tired of babysitting my students. I feel as if I'm in middle school, reminding them to do things like bring a pen to class, bring their books, turn off their phones, put the fucking newspaper down, stop fidgeting, close up the potato chips, take their feet off the desk (and put their flip flops back on!) I have told students several times this semester to quit talking while someone else is talking, to not come to class 40 minutes late, to not take phone calls during class. They sit there with the most perplexed looks.
  • I assigned an evaluation essay to my class, and I specified a thorough evaluation of at least three brands or items from a single product line - three different toothpastes, three different kinds of multi-grain bread, etc. The example we read in our textbook actually was a cute student essay about three different brands of soda that the writer had inventively evaluated for taste, after-taste, coolness factor, cost, and nutritional value. This one student wrote a paper that was about the first time he tasted his grandfather's beef jerky and how much he liked it. I gave the paper back after class with the D and he blew a gasket. Don't I know how hard he worked on it? Didn't I know that he went to the trouble to have his mom proofread it - "And she lives all the way in Pennsylvania!"
  • I get a paper that's a C. I give it a B. And then the mommy calls me – at home – demanding to know why I didn't give it an A. After all, mommy's S.L.G. (Special Little Genius) absolutely MUST go to Harvard or Oxford or Yale or Cambridge or wherever, and if I don't give S.L.G. an "A," mommy and daddy will have 'a talk' with the principal and pull the student - and all that tuition - from our school and send S.L.G. to a private school where he *will* get an A.
  • Let's just be clear on one thing. Sometimes they ARE pajama pants. Yes, the ones with the little slit in the front. And the guy in my 4:30 pm class who consistently wears them really shouldn't sit in a wide V-position, with one leg bent up on the chair next to him. This should be especially true when he's not wearing underwear. When the other guys in class berated him for it earlier in the semester, he grabbed his crotch and said, "I'm just giving the ladies a little something to think about."
  • You guys need to post more listings of students to avoid. I'm just getting going in this business, and I can't tell the regular ass-kissers from the ass-kissers who are going to be a problem after that first bad grade. Is there a system?
  • On the first day of class I introduce myself as Professor Hewitt. I do not use my first name around the students. I do not sign my e-mails with my first name. And yet in class and in e-mail the students seem to feel free to call me Richard, Rick, or Dick. Here's a hint, Mr. and Miss Bad Manners: if you don' t know which nickname someone uses, use their last name instead. And here's another hint: if someone is in a position of authority over you, and is two or three times your age, you might want to try formality as a sign of respect. Just an idea.
  • Where on earth do students get the idea that I am going to postpone their exam because their boyfriend's mother had a foot operation? Unless I drove over this person's foot in my own car, it's not a story I'm interested in.
  • If a cell phone goes off in class, I send that student home, mark him/her absent, and give the rest of the class a pop-quiz. The student with the phone gets a zero, of course. This way, I punish the entire class for one student’s mistake. It breeds a general hostility between class members and toward the offensive student. But I'm never bothered by cell phones again. Grow up or get out. Make room for someone who still gives a shit.