Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Busting the Myth On Older Students

The attitudes we see in students have nothing to do with their age or generation. I teach adult students in an accelerated program at a small liberal arts college. They are all at least 30 years old; many are in their 40s or even 50s. Except for slight variations in the excuses (problems with jobs, spouses, and kids as opposed to athletics, roommates, and too much partying), I get just as many slackers in these classes as I did at more traditional Big State U. These students expect that I will drop everything immediately and come up with extra credit assignments for them two days before the end of the semester when they realize that they’re failing. They pore over the syllabus trying to find loopholes that they can exploit to their advantage. They parse every word I say in class about assignments to try and justify their bizarre interpretation of the instructions. If they spent as much time with their textbooks they’d probably ace all the tests and make all this agony unnecessary.

The sense of entitlement in some of these older students may be even stronger because they’ve been told over and over again by the administration how wonderful they are for making such sacrifices of time (and money) for their educations. Thus just showing up for class once a week warrants at least a C, and if they actually crack open a book or do some homework, God help the professor who doesn’t respond with a B. If we give them the grades they actually earn, why they (and their money) might not return next semester. Students in this program pay full price for their credits, so it is a cash cow for the rest of college, which has to offer lots of scholarship money to the traditional undergraduates to get them to come at all. In fact, when I attended my first faculty meeting several years ago, one of the deans actually made the comparison between our students and customers – “It’s been shown that one unhappy customer will tell at least ten other people about their bad experience …..yada, yada yada” You’ve probably heard it before.

There’s a mysterious attitude shift that occurs in a lot of people the minute they become “students,” young or old, and it’s not pretty.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Letter to an Engineering Student, One We Hope Won't Build Bridges One Day

Is there any way I can BEG you not to become an engineer? You simply are not honest enough for it, because any engineer who wants to build anything and make it work has to answer to objective reality, also known as the laws of physics.

Every step of the way throughout my third-semester physics class, you tried to take a shortcut out of it. You tried to avoid taking the class in the first place, with your unconvincing claim to be entitled to an incomplete, because of illness that the health center actively refused to document.

It makes me shake my head in disbelief, since that class is about motion. How can any engineer possibly get by without understanding motion? Is your work going to be restricted to designing and building machines that don't move, and have no moving parts? Since you're an electrical engineering major, this isn't going to be easy, since those electrons will need to move too.

Do you think I don't know that you are copying your homework from solutions that I have clearly told you that you shouldn't have? That students do this so frequently is why the homework counts only 10% of the course grade. Since I have so many other obligations, among them involving good students in my research, I don't have time to be constantly making up new homework problems and solutions so that you can't abuse them. I wouldn't do it even if I had time anyway, because I know that the only way to learn the material is to work those homework problems, honestly. Most of the course grade therefore comes from the exams, and I can prevent cheating on exams.

You got a 38%, an F, on Mid-Term Exam 1, because you clearly do not know the material. Do you think I don't know that you're lying to me by trying to excuse your frequent absences from class by claiming car problems? That incomplete form you filled out when you tried to weasel your way out of the course had your address on it, and you live two blocks from campus! It disturbs me that you lie to me so readily, and that it is so easy for you. It isn't convincing, you know. From your actions, you clearly don't think this course is relevant to your career. I find this difficult to understand. How can radio waves, moving energy, light, and digital electronics not be relevant to an electrical engineer? Just what kind of electrical engineer are you going to become, anyway? I can answer that question: an incompetent one, whose knowledge and ability are so poor, he's a danger to anyone who uses anything he builds.

I therefore will have no reservations about awarding you an F at the end of this course, unless you change your performance dramatically. I regard doing this as a public service!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Nobody Every Told Me Advising Would Include This

Sometimes, I forget how young and foolish the freshmen we teach really are -- and how their bad decisions can end up truly hurting them and threatening their futures.

Last week reminded me.

A young female student came to class obviously distressed -- eyes red and swollen, pale and shaky -- not the usual hangover symptoms. As her head was clearly not in the game, I didn't call on her or generally pester her in class.

After class, I called her aside to ask what had happened to put her in such distress. Honestly, I was expecting to hear about a family member's death.

It turns out that she had broken up with her boyfriend over the weekend. This wouldn't have been howl-worthy, except that in their brief (three-month), torrid fling, she had let the now-ex take some...compromising photographs of her. In flagrante.

Of course, what did the ex do when he was thrown over? He posted them on the internet, added some clever captioning, commentary and a frank, unflattering evaluation of her "performance." Then he shared the link with all of their mutual friends and acquaintances.

My first thought was, "What in the world persuaded you that taking those pictures was a good idea?" Then, "What do I advise her to do?" Does she tell her parents? She probably ought to, but I cant even IMAGINE how that conversation would go.

Should she sue? Well, she's over eighteen, and consented to the activity...

In the end, I punted to the Counseling Center, but I can't get the poor thing out of my mind. What happens when she applies for an internship, or a job, and her potential employer Googles her name?

Those photos are going to follow her around forever, thanks to the wonder that is the internet.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Spring Fever

I love my job. It sounds corny, I know, but I really do love my job. I teach at a small, rural, 4-year state college in the Northeast. We don’t have a graduate program. Heck, there are more cows than people in the county where I live and work. It’s probably not what most people would consider an ideal job, but it’s a good fit for me.

I like my students, for the most part. I don’t tend to get the entitlement attitude that I hear about from my colleagues elsewhere. Many of my students are needy, both financially and otherwise. We have a relatively large number of non-traditional students, as well as a number of students who are the first in their families to go to college. Many of them struggle with their classes, but they do seem to want to learn. I have to do some hand-holding, but I also try to encourage them to test their wings and venture out on their own. They start out terrified at the thought of graduate school, but often wind up proudly adding their names to the Grad School Acceptances list that we post on a chalkboard in our department. I also have the opportunity to mentor a few honors thesis students each year, which is wonderful, but a ton of work.

I’m still able to publish, though not at the rate that I would prefer. I even like my colleagues. I’ve been teaching here for 14 years; it was my first job out of graduate school and I plan to stay here for the duration of my career, assuming that nothing weird happens. Am I that unusual in that I like what I do and where I do it? I hope not. I hope that other academics share my passion for teaching and working with students, as well as my love of doing research. If I’m not having fun in the classroom, then I know it must be deadly for the students. I had professors who seemed to no longer care, who were just in it for the paycheck, but I also had professors who clearly loved their work and their students. They inspired me to continue with my studies and to work hard and succeed. I hope that I am that professor for my students.

All of that being said, there are days when I’d much rather be selling shoes at the mall or working at a grocery store. Today is one of them. It’s right before our spring break, and the students are itching to get out of here and go somewhere warm, or to at least go home for some of Mom’s cooking. They are less attentive in class and generally cranky and unpleasant to be around. On a day like today, despite my best efforts and creative energy, I am likely to be standing before a sea of bored, disinterested faces who would much rather stab themselves in the eye with a dull pencil than listen to me blather on about attribution theory. It is at this moment that I am likely to silently invoke my mantra: 0.0 …. 4.0 ….. I get paid - either way. Today, I might even write it on the board.

In any case, happy spring everyone. It was -5F here this morning, but I’m wearing shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt, as I always do on the first day of spring.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Former Party Girl Becomes a Prof

I'm a professor, and I'm afraid I was once a typical student. I went a little wild my freshman and sophomore years, then settled down somewhat, but not completely. I blew off almost an entire quarter of calculus to go to the beach. I decided not to write the three assigned papers in one of my classes because I judged them not to be worth the effort. I was a party girl. I often went to class with a hangover, or not at all. I sometimes fell alseep in class, and spoke up in class maybe twice in 4 years. After a few years, I became interested in a subject and started caring more. I managed to get involved in research with a few faculty members, improve my GPA, and score well enough on the GRE to get into a good graduate program.

I also took responsibility for all of this behavior. What I didn't do was blame my professors for my bad grades. If I skipped class, I did not go to the professor and ask for a personal make-up lecture on the material I missed. I did not make up stories or excuses about why I missed an assignment. I did not ask for extra time on assignments, or ask to reschedule a test so that I could go on vacation early. I didn't beg for points on exams, or for a grade higher than the one I earned. I felt that it would have been deeply shameful to do any of these things. I felt that it would have demonstrated a lack of respect for my professors, and it would have been dishonest.

What pisses me off about some of my current students is not that they sometimes screw up (I can relate to that), it's that they expect me to spend time that I can't really spare (and don't want to) helping them clean up their messes. They refuse to accept the consequences of their behavior. They are shameless and disrespectful. I'm grateful that most of my students aren't like this, but I resent having to spend precious time with the bad ones that I could be spending with the good ones.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Do We Expect Our Students To Be Like We Were In College? Minus The Bell Bottoms, Of Course.

Like many faculty who post on this board, I am often disappointed in undergraduate enthusiasm (or the lack thereof). I too have been struck by the seeming laziness of students, the unwillingness to participate despite part of their grade being participation, the lack of initiative, the inability to follow instructions, to come to class, to breathe through the nose, to walk without dragging their knuckles on the ground, etc., etc., etc. And I often think to myself, not without a little Nietzschean ressentiment: when I was an undergrad, I would never have done this - damn their eyes!

And then it occurs to me: I was not the typical undergrad - I graduated cum laude with high departmental honors. Sure, I partied, but my rule was no partying until the homework was done, and no missing class because of partying. I sought out courses that I thought would be interesting and challenging - not courses that I thought would be easy A's. I went to the library and studied. While I didn't save Latin, I took over 20 credits of it - and even took ancient Greek! And I remember being irritated with other undergraduates who missed class, who didn't participate, who were lazy, who complained, and especially those who asked for my notes. I imagine that many faculty who post on this website were similar as undergrads (though maybe not so eager for punishment as to study Greek!).

Which brings me to my point: are we comparing apples and oranges? Yes, they're both fruit - but they're nonetheless different entities. Just because "we" as faculty were of a certain sort as undergrads does not mean we should expect all, or even most, of our undergrads to be of that sort. Were our fellow undergrads as eager and enthusiastic and full of initiative as we were? And at the same time, I imagine that most faculty can think of students they have, or have had, who are or were exceptional - enthusiastic, full of initiative, and eager to learn - said students may well have gone on to grad school themselves.

So while I can complain with the best of them (and I do!), it's worth trying to remind myself - and I suspect this might be of some limited solace to others - that just as not every faculty member can be Robin Williams' character from Dead Poets Society, not every student will be like we were when we were undergrads.

Why Is Mouth Breathing Such A Bad Thing? In These High Pollen Days, It Should Be All the Rage, Like Having a Blackberry, Or Going to Rehab

I got an email from this wingnut, we'll call her WN, who got 25% on the first mid term, and 0% on the second. She sent me an email saying she can't come to my office hours but she would like to make an appointment because she needs help and she doesn't want to fail the course.

Now we're not in a math course, but I don't think it takes a genius to figure out that she's fucked. There is no amount of help I can give her between now and the end of the semester, which is in a couple weeks, that'll get her a pass.

To make matters worse, I she'll probably come to my office, slouch down, sigh a big unintelligent sigh, and say she just doesn't get anything and leave it to me to decide where to begin. I completely resent the fact that I have to make an appointment with her because if I don't, I look unconcerned and undevoted and whatever other adjectives a shitty student such as WN might go to the chair with.

Student rating:
Effort: 0
Aptitude: 0
Hotness: I wouldn't know because she's never been to office hours but she's got to be a mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragger to perform the way she has been.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Not Everyone, Not Me (Part 2)

For what it's worth, you professors are not the only ones that are sick of all the partying, drinking, and anything-but-studying activities in which college students are endlessly engaged. My first three semesters of college (and my senior year of high school prior to that) were spent in complete agony. I tried my best (emphasis on "my best" - it was the best I could do at the time) to do the work and learn the material. It was torture because I knew that regardless of how hard I tried I was in over my head. I knew it on the first day of classes.

From friends in high school, I realized that I spent double the amount of time on work than those in the Advanced Placement courses. My younger brother has severe dyslexia. My parents got him tested in elementary school because he couldn't read. When my mom talked to the doctor she thought that a lot of the ways in which dyslexia manifests were similar to traits I had. By that time, I was in sixth grade. I had scored in the highest bracket on my fourth- and fifth-grade end-of-grade tests. The doctor told my mom that anyone who scores that high on end-of-grade tests didn't need to be tested for a learning disability. Even still my mom thought I had too many of the "symptoms" of dyslexia for me to have gotten off scot-free. She was right, but that didn't do me any good. Despite my parents telling me I had a learning disability in hopes of easing my frustration at how long it took me to do my work, I still felt incompetent and like I just needed to try harder.

I flunked out of school in my sophomore year. I took on-line course and summer school and was able to get back into college. Back in regular courses, I began to flunk tests even though I knew the material. I just couldn't finish. Not until then was I finally tested for a learning disability. I was diagnosed and started receiving services through the campus Learning Disability Services. They installed a program on my computer that reads my texts out loud to me to help keep me focused and ease the tediousness of reading and trying to understand the material. I get extra time on tests so I can show the professor what I know, so I can have time to "get my thoughts out" and then try to put the thoughts together in some coherent manner. I get notes from a classmate because in lecture if I try to write something down, by the time I've written the first half of the sentence I've forgotten what the professor said that I needed to remember.

So while my peers are in Cancun being filmed for Girls Gone Wild, I'm being lame and going to the library. You're not the only ones that are frustrated with students' lack of dedication. It's frustrating and lonely to always feel like a loser while sitting in the library at nine o'clock on a Thursday night and while listening to other people's tales of exotic spring break trips. It's frustrating because I wonder how in the world my peers make better grades than me without hardly ever cracking a book.

But I've done my time. I've flunked out. I know what it's like to feel like a failure. I don't want that anymore. I know what I want. I know what I'm after. With another year and a half of hard work, I'll graduate with a shit GPA and a degree in Philosophy and Psychology. And after several more years of hard work, I'll hope like hell that a philosophy program somewhere will somehow see the dedication and the passion I have and take the leap of faith by accepting me as a graduate student.

In the meantime, if one of you professors sees a student who looked like she was barely hanging on before spring break and who looks "on her game," relaxed, and tanned after spring break, know that I didn't get my tan from laying on a beach, I got my tan from cycling in the sun for the first time in months, in between hitting the library and looking at the sky.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Schadenfreude for a Chowderhead - Sometimes Titles Write Themselves

Dear P,

I can't believe that I even have to say this, but NO, I will not change a grade that you earned in my class 2 years ago. Even if I could, I wouldn't. You failed my class. You hardly ever showed up, and when you did you barely stayed awake. You did not turn in any of the written assignments and you failed the Midterm and the Final. I have rarely had anyone who so deserved to fail. It was like you were trying to fail.

It's too bad that you now realize that you needed to pass my class in order to graduate. You should have been thinking about that while you were registered for my course. It is really too bad that you will just have to suck it up and take it over the summer. Am I supposed to feel sorry for you? Well, I don't. I save my sympathy for starving children and abandoned puppies - not overly-coddled, entitled, self-obsessed chowderheads like you. In fact, I am practically drowning in schadenfreude (look it up, moron). The fact that your abysmal performance in my class has come back to bite you in the ass fills me with petty glee.

Good luck in summer school, and I hope the air conditioning breaks.

Prof. Nyah Nyah

Do We Lose Our Perspective When We Cross Over To The Other Side Of The Fence?

My eloquence doesn't even reach the 50% mark of Dr. Non-Diabolical's Faulkneresque sermon, so as an assistant prof in science I'll just have to vent in a straight forward fashion. I am certain that many have been meaning to address this issue, but nobody could have done better. Thanks, Dr. Non-Diabolical!

When I was a graduate student, I remember my close-to-retirement Ph.D. adviser ranting: "Those undergraduate students are becoming worse every year!" And I thought to myself: "Yeah, old man? It's just because you are becoming less flexible and increasingly stodgy."

I am in my second year at Small Liberal Arts College X and I now know what he meant. Or do I? I do identify with students; we listen to similar music, have similar hobbies, and I still enjoy a good "vodka-guzzle," just as I did as an undergrad. Yet, when I was an undergrad I blamed myself if I wasn't prepared for a test, and I did not dare to walk in to my professor's office while he was on the phone, then put on a mediocre act trying to probe for extra credit. And I know that when I was an undergraduate none of my classmates tried to run a comparable pathetic drama.

Did I age this fast or does the perspective change on the other side of the fence? Most of the time I don't even receive a "thank you for your time" or "sorry to disturb you while you are gulping down your lunch in the only 10 minute break that you have between lecture and lab."

The sad thing is that it's the majority of the students that suffer from caring about anyone but themselves - and I apologize to the few individuals who don't fit this category. So, why can't parents and high school teachers at least teach common courtesy, if they already fail to demand a knowledge in basic algebra?

Who is gonna fix the situation? Who is going to straighten out the spine, the basic civility in those students? Getting a Ph.D. doesn't provide you with the know-how to deal with societal adjustments of an entire generation. We all know that if you heroically take one for the team when you give a chastising lecture in the beginning of your course, and then assert frequent reminders to the large number of black sheep who act like you are their personal servant, they will let you feel their revenge in the student evaluations. Great! That's just what a low-life pre-tenured faculty member needs.

So if I would like to participate in the battle against an entire generation turning into lazy narcissists, I have to put my career on the line? I better get rid of my conscience. Or, how about replacing student evaluations with evaluations given by a small committee of faculty members, who visit your class every now and then? Probably too revolutionary.

Oh faculty of the world unite! Let's fight this narcissistic breed! We could come up with some type of solution, right?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Listen, It's Nothing Diabolical.


How exactly did RYS become a fun-phobic forum for faculty farts?

First of all, who let the children into the faculty lounge? This blog’s baffling badminton goes like this: Prof goes off on mush-minded mouthbreather in his ten o’clock class. Student who never took said class or spit said bit in class, but apparently can navigate their browser beyond their dormmate’s ass-cam on MySpace or Everquest XXIV: Revenge of the Minimum Wage Job, weighs in to doth protest too much and for about 77 lines too long. Congratulations. You care. Now get your milk-fed ass back in the library and introduce yourself to a perfect stranger: Mr. Book. The name of the blog is Rate Your Students, not Defend Yourself from the Wrath of Professor Poopenstink. Beat it. If you insist on whimpering, go wring your hanky on Facebook for your 1,327 “friends” that confuse homework with waterboarding and Heineken with cologne. We were never talking about you in the first place.

Second, some hideous PC reflex at RYS feels compelled to air both sides of a given argument. I am not interested in the other side. As far as I can tell, there’s no there there. After hacking my way with a #2 scimitar through a mind-numbing thistle of student papers all weekend, I can only weep for the future of not America, but the entire service industry. Who’s kidding who? The only meaningful shots these people will call in the future will reach no further than their television remote. Of course, that’s what screwed them in the first place, but woe to the prof who pricks that glossy bubble. Didn’t we already read enough of Chuff Charlie’s failed attempts to tango with old man logic during his failed undergrad days? Why endure his grammatically-challenged “real world” rant? Sorry Charlie. Now, shut up and get my salad.

Since when did this site become a democracy? Who cares if e-mail favors the malformed opinions of Joe Cargoshort and Ipod Annie? If we surrender to that math, why don’t we just cede the floor to the 25 somnambulistic nincompoops hogging all the good oxygen in our classrooms? I call for a tyranny of the enlightened, not a tedious soapbox for Night of the Living Abercrombie & Fitch Manikins. And by the way, I do understand that there are five real scholars in that stew of tuition payers, I read their papers too and praised the long lost ghost of Charles W. Eliot after each one. Here’s the problem. As more and more colleges swing open the gates for more and more academically unprepared kids who hemorrhage tuition dollars but are not chased away by mindful profs but instead coddled via an administrator's money-grubbing precept of “retention” (i.e., diminished expectations, consequences, and ultimately, returns), the more profs will throw up their hands before kids who have absolutely no business in a college classroom.

The more RYS tamps down the release valve for the white hot bile of these harassed profs, the fewer outlets we have and the more stymied we feel. For the sake of our career (and our marriages), we need a release that will serve to ward off cynicism, only so we can be there for those five scholars who deserve it, and the handful of students who just might step up before their four years are up. This explains the well deserved wake up call of the Snooze Alarm. I say, let the venting begin.

Snooze This

Poor Longtime Reader. S/he wants more stone-carrying, fence-swinging, kick-'em-in-the-ass rating of students and less pathetic whining about how hard it is to take pleasure in teaching these days.

Of course, where PLR misses the clue boat -- badly -- is that this site's content comes from its readers. And so instead of passing along a juicy smackdown on a poor excuse for a student, s/he offers up . . . a short, dull bit of pathetic whining about how hard it is to take pleasure in RYS these days. PLR doesn't want to put any real effort into the endeavor, but s/he wants very much to complain about how bored s/he is.

While everyone else is expected to do the heavy lifting of providing amazing tales of improbable student hijinks, PLR will sit on the sidelines watching quietly -- except when s/he wants to complain about the decline in the entertainment value provided by the people who actually are swinging away.

Monday, March 19, 2007

We Publish Anything That Supposes a Line from An Adam Sandler Movie Qualifies As a "Famous Quote"

I’m a newcomer to the site but have thoroughly enjoyed the sarcasm, wit and good-natured philosophy so many folks are bringing to this site. I finally read a post that irked me, so I figured I’d jump in and muck around a bit too. What can I say, it looks like fun.

Here’s my recommendation (followed by my concerns): RYS’s Chief Correspondent (CC) should be demoted to the mail room (i.e. – disregard all future correspondences). A professor admitting that they “give ‘em what they want for their money” and are offended that “underachieving vodka-cooler guzzling teenagers” are evaluating their effectiveness was... shocking to say the least. Rather than holding students to high standards, arguing with your Department Chair or Dean, and taking a little slack as a “hard professor,” it’s much easier to take the lazy way out and give students grades rather than require them to EARN their grades.

Just to clarify, there is a real difference between giving and earning. Faculty members don’t “give” grades, students earn them. It’s also easier to insult them (which happens a lot on RYS) than engage them and figure out why they aren’t doing the assignments, why they’ve been absent, why they fall asleep in class, etc. How about a short, personal, (actual give a shit) conversation with them before you write off all college students?

CC is so concerned with how a seventeen year old (up through 22-year-olds I assume) could be qualified to evaluate their teaching abilities – YET they haven’t taken the time to critically assess the other skills that they may not bring to college. If they can’t (which I don’t agree with) evaluate our teaching, why have the expectation that they are going to arrive with excellent interpersonal communication skills, time management, professionalism, clarity with respect to future goals, and an innate desire to feverishly memorize and regurgitate enormous amounts of information for numerous classes in a setting that provides no real context for a daily schedule? APPARENTLY teenagers (who aren’t fit to mow lawns) should somehow arrive at college with all these other “academic” skills honed to perfection... and if they don’t and party (which I’m sure CC and none of the other professors have ever done), then they are “underachieving vodka-cooler guzzling teenagers.” Something is awry here.

Finally, I want to discuss the idea that because students enjoy Adam Sandler and have turned to Facebook to communicate with many of their friends and peers, that they ONLY enjoy dumb comedies and don’t read books. Is CC really a professor, or is this just a silly post to incite other professors like myself to write in... I don’t know. But, students are not dumb; they can read our body language, our eyes and the tone of our voice. They know when we’re being condescending, when we think their questions are pointless, and when we are judging them. Rather than chiding them for engaging in practices that you disapprove of, here’s a wild and crazy thought for you – why don’t you watch Adam Sandler, "American Idol," read a few People magazines (you know, lower yourself down to the level of the idiots) and figure out a way to bridge the gap between your high moral ground and the students sitting in your class waiting to be woken up by someone who actually gives a shit about them.

I’ll end with a famous quote from Billy Madison (you know, so I can whore myself out to the idiots that read this site and try and get a good evaluation):

No more studying! No more studying! No more studying! No more studying! No more studying! No more studying! I'm done studying! I'm done studying! I'm done studying!

Snooze Alarm

A longtime reader sent this along last night:

This site sucks. The guy who started this site had some stones and he wasn't afraid to swing for the fences. This place has become so damn dull that I can hardly stand it.

What happened to rating students? What happened to "calling it little if it is little"? Your snooze-fest is like any other idiotic academic blog. I don't know what good you guys are doing anymore. I can read most of this bullshit anyplace where academics get together to pontificate about how hard their jobs are.

I used to have such a blast reading RYS, and I directed dozens of people to the site last year. But I've stopped doing that now because the level of discourse here is as flaccid as my own faculty lounge.

Can this site be saved? Do you even want to try?

Friday, March 16, 2007

On Plagiarism, Punishment, And the Surprisingly Futile Power of Zero

I suspect you’ll get a lot of support for the New Instructor in the Brambles, and I’d like to add mine to it. The way my university is set up, when a student is caught plagiarizing (which is a tiny fraction of the amount of time students actually plagiarize), the professor has a choice: Either spend hours pursuing punishment (calling the Incompetent Dean of Ethics, gathering evidence, having the uncomfortable conversation with the student, presenting the evidence to said Incompetent Dean, deciding on a punishment, and enforcing that punishment), or drop it. The sheer amount of work required to prosecute a plagiarism case is a flagrant disincentive for instructors to report ethical violators.

A friend of mine, who works as a TA for a French course, discovered that a certain student’s essay was entirely plagiarized (copied verbatim from two online sources). She reported the offense to the professor, and the professor—who didn’t happen to have hours free to pursue disciplinary action—opted to merely let the student rewrite the essay. That’s not punishment. That’s nothing. (The I-told-you-so epilogue is that the student rewrote the essay, got a “C” on the new version, and complained bitterly to the professor that his grade wasn’t higher. Appalled, the professor has now vowed to report future cheaters.)

The workload for professors who detect plagiarism should be minimal. They should be able to photocopy the evidence, give it to a Competent Dean of Ethics, and be done with it. The evidence should speak for itself, and it should correspond to a preordained punishment (or choice of a few similar punishments) based on the severity of the violation. I’m told that, at certain colleges, this is the way it works—after finding out that something is plagiarized, the professor’s role is minimal. But at my school, the professor acts as judge, jury, and executioner, even deciding the nature of the punishment (“It’s up to you!” the Incompetent Dean says cheerfully). No wonder so much plagiarism goes unreported.

One more story along the same lines: One of my students last semester (I was a TA) plagiarized an answer to a take-home midterm from an online source. (Students were allowed to use online sources, but they had to cite them—this student’s answer was taken verbatim from Wikipedia with no citation.) I reported the incident to the professor, who typically prided herself on actually following through with reporting ethical violations. Since it was only a couple sentences, the professor decided that the punishment should be loss of credit for that particular question—in other words, a loss of four points out of 100. The student, of course, knowing how much worse it could be (and thus not knowing this university very well!), agreed to the punishment with pleasure. While she was at the office signing her “I agree to this punishment” pledge, though, could she ask about something else? She thought her answer to a different question was valid, and the TA had not given her credit. Could I please reconsider her answer?

I reread the answer, and in a flash of inspiration, I Googled a few choice phrases. Behold. Plagiarized too. (And no wonder she had gotten it wrong—she answered a question about the Chesapeake Bay with a response plagiarized verbatim from a web page about streams in Vermont.) Clearly the student did not pick up on the seriousness of the situation, because hey, if the punishment for plagiarism is so minimal, what’s to lose when you point your instructor to another example of it that didn’t get credit in the first place? By this point, the professor was so exhausted from going through the ethics process that she opted not to punish the student for the second instance of plagiarism. The student was simply told, “No, you don’t get credit for that question, because your answer was plagiarized.” So instead of getting zero points for that question, the student received zero points for that question.

See why they think it’s okay?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Keener Weighs In - Nancy Notetaker From The Other Side of the Lectern

Some students share their professors' frustrations over other students. I am a student on the verge of graduating. I will be pursuing a master's degree next year. I am the top student in department X at my university. I am respectful towards my professors. I appreciate their feedback even when it's critical (I may wince, but I am thankful). And, I try to be understanding about my professor's personal and academic commitments. I realize that many of my fellow students view their professors as the "hired help," however, and I sympathize with your vexation.

In my first year of university, a woman who claimed to be a fellow student in my intro to psychology class ran up to me in while I was standing in line at the student coffee house.

"Hey, you're in my psych class," she said while she chomped on a wad of bubble gum.

"I am?" I asked.

"Yeah, you're that keener in the front row. Listen, could I get some notes?"

"Um, from the last class?" I asked.

"No, from all year," she replied, "I, like, lost mine, and need them for the final"

"You lost all of them?" I asked.

"Yeah, lost them, and missed some classes, and you know..." she replied, not making eye contact.

I offered to give her notes if she would pay for them (hey, tuition is expensive, I profit where I can) and she stormed away in a dramatic huff. Considering the designer clothing she was wearing, she probably could have afforded to pay for my notes, but apparently my academic diligence is not worth her good dollar.

Throughout my university career I have been bombarded by fellow students asking me to give them notes, tutor them, edit their papers, and tell them the secret to life, the universe and everything, and all for free. Oftentimes the same students requesting my services are the ones who sleep, chat on instant messenger on their laptops, or read Maxim magazine while the professor is trying to lecture. They make fun of me when I ask questions. After I voiced some of my opinions in my intro to Women's Studies course, a fellow student, standing in the hallway after class, hissed "dyke" at me as I passed, assuming, I suppose, that any person who believes women are still oppressed must be an angry, man-hating lesbian.

Now, as a grading assistant for department X, I read papers written by first year students who are, well ... barely literate. I have a whole new sympathy for my professors. After marking a few horridly written papers one after the other, I am often enormously frustrated. I am in a strange position, however, because I am not a professor. I don't have to think back and remember how challenging being an undergrad was, because I still am one.

As much as many of my fellow students upset me at times, I have come to realize that most students, even if they appear apathetic, have some vested interest in their education. They also may be ill-equipped to deal with their university. Students are not taught grammar and spelling in elementary school or high school anymore; I certainly wasn't and first year was a bit of a wake-up call. Many students probably got into university without ever having studied for tests or even cracking a book in high school. I am not arguing that professors should give students inflated marks, or sit back and smile when they're acting like a royal pain. I just want to ask that professors remember that, especially for first year students, university is very intimidating.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Welcome to the NFL - Another New Instructor Finds Herself In the Brambles of the Profession

I just had the most unpleasant half hour of my short teaching career. I accused some of my favorite students of flagrant plagiarism. It really was an egregious case. My university's pretty draconian about academic misconduct: automatic zeros, removal of drop privilege, notations on permanent records. They claim that this is why the rates of cheating are so low at our university.

After this interview, it seems the real reason is that most professors don't bother enforcing the rules. The students kept citing cases of "friends" who were so accused and who faced no consequences. Some professors would allow the students ("good students") to take an alternative exam. Or they wouldn't carry through with filing the incident with the dean's office.

The students were less concerned over being accused of plagiarism and more that I was having the temerity to actually punish them for their actions. They were perfectly aware of the policy, but had never heard of it being applied. It seemed entirely unfair to them.

And it was - not because there shouldn't be consequences for academic misconduct, but because it's unfair for some students to get away with something when others don't. You can complain about the lack of respect students have for their work, their classes, and you - but it doesn't help to make things easy. You're digging yourself deeper.

I've only just begun teaching, and I'm sure that there will be many more unpleasant events in the future. This was awful - but it wouldn't have been if they hadn't been right!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

FLASHBACK: One Year Ago Today - A New Instructor Experiences Spring Break Freakout!

Spring break is over and in my first class on my first day back, my kiddies have already pushed me to the limit. Their tans. Their smiling faces. They make me achingly sick.

I asked them for one thing over the 9 day break - please write in their journals on at least 3 occasions. (I'm a writing instructor at a large public university in South Florida.) I even said, "I don't care if you write your entries in lime juice, or sex wax, or Kahlua. But just do 3 5-minute free writings, so we can continue our progress on automatic writing." I didn't assign an essay. They had no readings to do. All in all, it was absolutely the lightest assignment I'd ever given. It amounted to 15 minutes of work over 9 days.

For the first few minutes of class we had free discussion, mostly people talking about which island they'd been to, and how close they'd come to getting video taped for "Girls Gone Wild" or MTV's "Spring Break Freakout" or whatever. Then, in order to get on to the last half of the semester, I asked - as I always do on every Monday - for volunteers to read a portion of their automatic writings from the past week. No hands. No comments. Dumbfounded stares.

I smiled. I thought they might be embarrassed at their work, that maybe the debauchery of the week made them feel uncomfortable. "Listen," I said. "It wasn't that long ago that I spent every Spring Break in Cabo. I know what it's like. I was ripping it up down there when you were in middle school. There's nothing you wrote about that will shock me."

Still nothing. Nobody had their journals open - a bad sign. I asked for a show of hands. Who did the 15 minutes of work? Not a hand went up. When someone finally fessed up that he'd been too busy, I just wanted to read them the riot act. Don't they know that school is in session? Couldn't they be bothered to do one thing I asked. I have colleagues who assign full papers over Spring Break. Do those papers get done? Do these airheads and assholes ignore any instructions because they get a week off to get laid, drunk, and stoned on the goodwill of their parents and me?

Am I wrong to expect them to care one tiniest little shit's worth about the assignments and duties of this class? Do we just give them a complete pass on things like this? Go ahead, fry yourselves for 9 days and then once you're ready, once you've got the sand out of your crack, we'll get started again?

Accountability - Again

Although I hate to make the college/work analogy, it seems to hold. A student's job is going to school. The rest of the things college students have to deal with are just distractions and weak excuses.
As professors, we'd love to be able to excuse our own bad days with "We have a lot to deal with." We research, teach, grade, go to meetings, deal with bosses and subordinates, manage lives that often include children, spouses, pets and money challenges. If we came to our own classes with the same kind of lame excuses students use, they'd roll their eyes and think we were incompetent.

Recently this site featured a post from a student who listed a large number of responsibilities that she was dealing with (including bad cafeteria food, not having enough duct tape, and calls from friends back home). If she really takes her education seriously, she wouldn't let anything but the most tragic of the adult challenges get in the way. Adults get their stuff done and behave like adults, whether or not their surroundings are as easy as living with mom and dad in the suburbs.

At least, please don't give me an excuse for not being prepared for class. We all have plenty to deal with on our own and all of your professors have been young adults and managed to survive somehow. All we expect is that you give school your best shot and don't whine to us or expect special treatment when your social-butterfly roomie makes it hard for you to concentrate....

Monday, March 12, 2007

Observations from "Ornery Bastard," Our New Hero

Call me an ornery bastard. I am nearly forty. I spent some years in my profession before returning back to college to finish up my degree. It has been well worth the poverty-stricken nature of being a full-time student to get this piece of paper that says I know what the hell I am talking about. I can understand the concept of student as consumer and I think the analogy of professor as work-out instructor is fitting. If the consumer/student does not put in the necessary work then there will be no results. It is all well and good that you have membership in gym, but if you do not exert any effort then your results will show it.

When I took a Gen. Ed. requirement course of 200 humans, I closely monitored the breakdown of grades across the spectrum. I developed a friendly relationship with the professor and after the end of the semester we happened to talk in the parking lot about this same subject. He finally said to me, "I have "dumbed" it down as low as I can go; I can't simplify it anymore." I laughed and reassured him that what he was presenting was not difficult and anyone who simply made use of the resources available to them would be successful in the class. There was the fairly standard distribution of grades with most of the students in the C range, but it was tilted towards the bottom end of the scale. There were very few A's and B's.

I still can't understand why this material that was virtually the same as the material I had covered in high school twenty years earlier was so baffling to many of my fellow students. Lack of work on the presented material? Lack of a foundation to build upon? I still don't know.

Many students seem to labor under the delusion that receiving an A is their right and not something to achieve with hard work. That some students complain about reading 100 pages in a book is unfathomable. Most of the books I have been assigned have been reasonably informative and some are actually entertaining! There have been a few that were laborious reading, but very few. To dredge up an old slogan from my youth, "Reading is fundamental."

One particular professor in my area of study is beginning to have a hard time finding students who are willing to take his classes. He is developing a reputation as a "hard" professor who demands work from his students. I know that eventually they will have to take his classes to get the major of their choice, but it bothers me that they are afraid of the work required.

One thought that has been entering into my mind about this sense of entitlement on the part of today's students is that they are reflecting the behavior of their parents. The idea that no matter what service you are buying as a consumer, whoever is behind the counter has no brain and you must tell them exactly what you want. It is the service industry's representative's responsibility to fulfill their every wish, no matter how ridiculous. Is there any wonder why most of the tradesmen I know have signs that say something like, "You want it when?" or "A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." "The squeaky wheel does not always get the grease."

To the students: "Go to the ant, ye sluggard!" (Look that up, if you have to.) Getting an education requires work, sacrifice and time. If you are unable to fulfill your part of the bargain, get out and make room for someone who is willing to do so. To the professors: I had fun and I will go forth knowing more than when I arrived. Keep up the good work and good luck to you all.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

On Contempt, Eagerness, and Not Being a Whore

The post from "Chief Correspondent" sums up what I take to be the current academic predicament -- a contempt for students coupled with a fearful eagerness to please them, lest they bite back in evaluations. The situation seems not very different from that of a service employee who despises and disses the customers he or she is required to greet and "serve." It's a scenario found again and again in anonymous academic blogs, in which professors write out what they would like to have said to irresponsible and disrespectful students.

I like to get good evaluations too. But from the beginning of my teaching career, I've tried not to bend. When I found blatant plagiarism in the work of one of my department's "best" students, I didn't look the other way. He failed the class. The average semester grade in my classes is often well below a B. I've had to ask my students to do less and less, as the reading and analytical skills they bring with them are less than they should be (and I let my students know that).

So yes, in that way my grades are inflated too. But a B or an A still requires a lot of work. The ire of resentful students whose GPAs have been missed up by their lack of effort is outweighed by the gratitude of students who are interested in learning. Instead of making snarky jokes about how callow my students are (cf. Chief Correspondent's joke about Adam Sandler movies), I try to offer something more worthwhile. It's a great thing to see a room of 20-year-olds watching, say, Modern Times and (mostly) liking it.

"Chief Correspondent" says "Everybody else is inflating grades like blow-up sex dolls at a frat party, so what difference does it make?" Here's the difference that it makes: it makes life more difficult for everyone who hasn't just given up and become a whore (CC's word). I hope that if I ever do become a whore, I've managed to delude myself so thoroughly that I don't even know it. I'd find it difficult to live with myself knowing that I was a fraud.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

As Evaluation Season Begins, One of RYS's Chief Correspondents Checks In

Well, it's that time of year again: teaching evaluations are coming up. They start in early March and continue for the next three weeks. The amount of labor my institution expends on them would probably pay for a dozen tenure-track positions.

Now, let's be clear: I get good teaching evaluations, mostly because I'm a total whore when it comes to marking. I give 'em what they want for their money. Everybody else is inflating grades like blow-up sex dolls at a frat party, so what difference does it make? Keep the customer satisfied! But, anyway, I for one have had it with being "evaluated" by underachieving vodka-cooler guzzling teenagers who think that good movies star Adam Sandler by definition.

And I want to know this: I teach a first-year course, so somebody explain to me how a seventeen year old, less than a year out of high school, whose only experience with books is in the form of facebooks, is qualified to evaluate my teaching abilities? I wouldn't hire most of them to mow my lawn.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Somebody Breaks Out A Government Study To Get Us An Answer About What Good Grades Are Worth In That Real World We Keep Hearing About

What does happen to C students? Do college grades matter in the real world? It turns out they do.

The U.S. Department of Education report, College Quality & the Earnings of Recent College Graduates, 2000, examines the relationship between earnings five years after graduation and various aspects of the college experience. The largest factor among those analyzed in the study was choice of major. College graduates who majored in engineering made more than humanities majors, on average. (However, a humanities major who goes on to law school might pull head later.) The second biggest factor was GPA. I was surprised to learn that the quality of the college, while important, contributed less to earnings after five years than GPA. This might be due to a higher number of graduates from elite schools going on to graduate or professional schools. Still, it is heartening to know that students at less prestigious institutions who are reasonably bright and work hard often do well.

Unfortunately, gender also matters in the real world. Although women tend to have higher GPAs they make less than their male counterparts even controlling for other factors. But, within each gender, GPA matters for future income.

So, once you find a major the suits your interests and talents work hard and get good grades. Of course there is more to college than tests, homework and grades. No one would suggest that college students should devote all their waking hours in pursuit of a 4.00. Extracurricular activities -- although not studied in this USDE report -- can also add value to one's degree.

But your college grades do matter.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

"Hey, Dude. Your Mom's On the Phone. She Just Got Your Transcript."

OK, let's see here.

You did a so-so job on your homework assignments, worth 35% of your quarter grade, and you attended class more often than not; attendance and participation was worth 10% of your grade. You managed to pass your quizzes, although just barely; quizzes were worth 25%.

You decided not to turn in anything for your quarter project, worth 15% of your grade, and you flunked the final exam, also worth 15%. So, guess what? You flunked the class. You tried really, really hard to just barely pass, and you just barely missed it. Too bad.

And now, two weeks after the quarter is over and done with, grades have been submitted, we're on to a new quarter altogether, and I don't have you in class any more: NOW, your MOMMY wants to email me and express her concerns about how you're doing in the class??

Sheesh. Maybe you ought to go sit down and have a conversation with Mom.

Every So Often Someone Who Is Reasonable Walks In the Door, And It Makes Us Who Flail Around And Whine Feel A Little Small.

The whole argument about whether Academia or The Workplace is more difficult or more "real" is only so much screeching about who has to walk further in the snow uphill both ways. Yeah, they are both demanding and yeah, some of the demands are the same and some are different .... moving on.

Students who don't take classes seriously annoy me as much as anyone. I try not to get my personal sense of honor involved, and that keeps my blood pressure lower than it would be otherwise. "Not Everyone, Not Me" has some good points, and I'd amplify a couple of them.

1) Some of us are teaching students who do have it harder in some ways than we did. It may be part of having gotten a job at a school a rung down from the one you attended yourself. I was not a first-generation college student, but some of my students are. I was privileged enough not to have to work the kind of hours they do at jobs outside of school. I'm sympathetic, and when they drift off in class from sheer exhaustion, I tap the bottoms of their feet with the end of my shoe and smile as their eyes flutter open. Mind you, when they flip their hair, roll their eyes, and put their heads down on their arms in a grand performance of boredom and intent to sleep I make their lives very unpleasant indeed.

2) Yes, yes, life is hectic all the way through, and responsibilities and demands do not grow any fewer once one enters the so-called Real World. But undergraduates are just beginning to learn how to tackle the ones they have in college. They aren't as good at balancing all of it as we, older and wiser, have become. They're just figuring out how to use that less-structured time they suddenly have. Many of them -- most! -- are just figuring out what it means to be away from home. There's a learning curve for this real-life stuff. Not that we should coddle them. They do have to learn it, and our holding them responsible for learning it makes it happen, but a little understanding couldn't hurt.

3) I'll add this too. Any of us can suddenly be socked with, say, a major family crisis during the term, but think about the 19-year-old whose parent is dying while she's at college. You, the adult with two kids with colds and power of attorney, may have sooooooo many more responsibilities than she, but you probably also have a better emotional support network. Unless you just moved there, you know, to start your first job. Remember your first year? Everything was new, you lost all that dissertation weight in the first two weeks, and you thought you were going to die. Remember? I'm guessing those four brand-new courses you worked up and taught that year did not constitute your best work.

Firm but kind, people. Firm but kind. I'm counting on meeting enough truly obnoxious, shameless, entitled students to be able to work my frustrations out on them rather on the well-meaning mob bumbling along the path of knowledge. I try to hold the mob accountable without holding it in contempt.

One More Reader Kicks the Shit Out of Chuff Charlie

Ok, I want to know where your latest outraged poster works, because his/her claims do not reflect my 17 years in the supposed "real world." (Yeah, the assumption this person brings to the post is that we've all been academics our whole lives. Many of us, like me have had careers in the "real world" and have been recruited back to academia.)

In the real world, companies don't have policies demanding you bring physical PROOF that you attended a funeral to prove you weren't lying about grandma's death.

Baloney. After a certain point, we in the real world of work would simply conclude, after too many Monday/Friday and early morning absences and emergencies, that you are a whiner, a loser, or both. And we'd find a way to get rid of you. Maybe not by firing you. But perhaps by a lavish 1 percent raise and no promotions, year after year, and marginalizing you from the projects we're working on, farming you out to some job where your incompetence/laziness won't affect anything.

Not so in the university, where I’m marked "absent" and perhaps even marked down a grade for having the TEMERITY to go get a vomiting child who needs to see the doctor, NOW.

Again, where do you work? Because where I worked in the real world, you bet you could be gone to take care of a sick kid....but if it happened too often, you got to informally join the "mommy track" even if you never left the company to raise your kids. You want to know how this happens? Well, people start to figure out that you don't show and you don't deliver--for whatever reasons--and if you have a good reason like kids, we'd still stop giving you crucial, time-sensitive stuff to do--which is usually the stuff that gets your performance the most attention, and those things yield the bonuses and promotion opportunities. We all liked mommies, and we paid lip service to wanting to support mommies and daddies in the workplace, but we didn't, not really, if they let their personal lives impinge on their professional lives too much.

Horrible, I agree, but there you go. Alas.

In the real world, important meetings can be and are routinely changed because of scheduling problems or family disasters.

Sometimes, if you are integral to the meeting and there aren't that many participants. But if you are one of many participants (as is the case with classes), most meetings will roll on without you and you'll miss out on stuff, and if you constantly have to be brought up to speed by your colleagues because you always have something better to do than get your ass to meetings, we'll conclude you are a waste of time and stop telling you important stuff.

And meetings I personally could care less about as a professor. I don't grade attendance. I grade products or deliverables, which have to be on time both for my class and the real world. Maybe you have worked in that magic part of the real world where contracts do not have to meet and you can turn things in sloppy and past deadlines, but I never did. Bids, design competitions, grant proposals--all have to be done on time to be considered. It doesn't matter if you were sick, if your grandma died, or anything else.

There was once a young professional in my firm who was responsible for delivering a proposal to a government office by 10 am. He screwed around, got there at 10:10, and they wouldn't accept it. I fired him, because that portfolio had cost us roughly $15,000 in labor costs to put together. He had one job to do, and he couldn't get up early enough to do it.

Read that? *I* fired him. That real-world enough for you? The habits my students develop when they are in my classes will affect how well they manage time later. I am convinced of that. I'm not some petty pinhead with a God complex. I'm trying to help students learn to budget their time and resources, learn to differentiate what is important from what can wait, and make difficult choices. I hope to help them do this in my class--when the stakes are low, over a grade--so they can avoid something like what happened to my young professional friend.

In the real world, I do not work for five or six different bosses who all insist their work is the most important I should be doing.

In the real world of my work, I ROUTINELY answered to five to ten different project managers or clients demanding that their project was the most important thing on my plate. Generally, their deadlines piled up just like my midterms used to.

And when 6 do? I share that work out with my colleagues and my boss and we all pull together to get it done. In academia, that’s called "cheating.”

No, in academia and everywhere, that's called teamwork, and I let my students work in teams all the times. But I don't let them hand in other people's work as their own, take credit other people's work, or free-ride on those teams--all behavior that would not make you popular on real world teams either. Sure, on some projects when you have an established team of people you trust, you contribute more sometimes and less other times. But only after you have proven your worth to your colleagues and supervisors do you get slack, and only after you have established that you can be counted on.

At work, if I get a bad performance review, I work with my supervisor to fix those problems and improve my performance before my next review (rather like high school). At university, it's one and done. I get a C in the class, and I have no opportunity to improve it, ever. "In the real world, you won't get graded -you'll get fired." Hogwash

See above. I have, indeed, fired people before their probationary period ended with the company because while they may have been trainable, they just weren't working hard enough, or there were a few too many sick days and a few too many excuses made, and a few too many unnecessary requests for deadline extensions. I hate to see that type of behavior from somebody fresh out. While I was generally considered to be a pretty good mentor when I was in the "real world," it wasn't my job to raise somebody's kid for them, and it's only generally worth my time to mentor somebody who has a fire in their belly.

The company didn't have to train anybody. Why not? Because there were at the time (this is the less the case now) fresh-out students for a dime a dozen. We did train people, don't get me wrong, but only once they proved they were worth the investment.

(I'll accept your $30,000 figure, but it sounds like BS to me, because the secretaries hereabouts don't make that in a year and such transition costs have to be related to lost personnel and training time and paperwork costs. However, even $30,000 can be cheap compared to keeping a lazy screw-up around, if they cost you contracts or cause team strife.)

There’s a reason C students do better in "the real world." Those kids who are driving you bat-shit and socializing and schmoozing and trying to wheel and deal you are going to grow up to be CEOs and top executives and bishops and PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

Are there actual statistics that C students do better than A students? Even with grade inflation? Or are you pulling this out of your butt because you want it to be true? I'm having trouble believing it. Because our last president of the United States was an excellent and accomplished student whose family, unlike our current president's, couldn't buy him new opportunity after new opportunity. Whatever you can say about Clinton, he didn't squander his education or the opportunities it raised for him.

I suspect that people succeed from all points of the grade spectrum, for reasons related (as in the case of our current president) to social class, talent, hard work, luck--the right idea, the right place, the right time. But my C students are seldom the ambitious wheeler dealers you seem imagine. Most are just rather stupid and think I can't see through their idiotic excuses. Most think because they've gotten away with doing lousy work in the past, this will continue forever. Maybe it will, if they are lucky and have enough family wealth to ensure an easy life. But that was not my experience in the "real world."

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Getting Real About the Real World. Chuff Charlie Wakes Us Up.

"You see, university is a taste--and just a taste--of your responsibilities as an independent adult.”

It. Is. Not.

This comes up all the time on Rate Your Students, and I think your professorial readership is sadly, sadly mistaken on what the "real world" is like -- probably because they're in academia.

In the real world, bosses don't demand you have a doctor’s note if you call in sick. In the real world, companies don't have policies demanding you bring physical PROOF that you attended a funeral to prove you weren't lying about grandma's death.

In the real world, important meetings can be and are routinely changed because of scheduling problems or family disasters. In the real world, if my kid needs me at 2 p.m., I can go get him at 2 p.m. and make up those hours later. Not so in the university, where I’m marked "absent" and perhaps even marked down a grade for having the TEMERITY to go get a vomiting child who needs to see the doctor, NOW.

In the real world, I do not work for five or six different bosses who all insist their work is the most important I should be doing. The level of inefficiency this would create in the workplace would be staggering. My work is COORDINATED by my boss (not bosses) to ensure that 6 top priority items don't land on my desk all at once. And when 6 do? I share that work out with my colleagues and my boss and we all pull together to get it done. In academia, that’s called "cheating.”

At work, if I get a bad performance review, I work with my supervisor to fix those problems and improve my performance before my next review (rather like high school). At university, it's one and done. I get a C in the class, and I have no opportunity to improve it, ever. "In the real world, you won't get graded -you'll get fired." Hogwash. In the real world, when I screw up, I get TRAINED, because I cost tens of thousands of dollars in transition and training costs if the company fires and replaces me. It costs $30,000 in transition and training costs just to bring someone into a new secretarial position, let alone a professional position.

At the university, *I'm* the one paying the costs, so you have no incentive to train me to do better. I don't have a different supervisor every six months who slaps a label on my work and doesn't give a rat's ass what happens next because they never see me again. Many university students are badly behaved and treat college as a four-year bar tab. I get that. I saw that. And it's not even really their fault, because corporate America is suffering from diploma creep that requires people to have BAs to do jobs trained monkeys can do. They really are there just to get their credentials so they can get a job in which they will never use them. They're putting in time. But for professors to pretend that college even VAGUELY RESEMBLES the real world for students is staggeringly ignorant of the realities of the world outside the academy. The university treats students like they are in high school (mandatory attendance, doctor's notes, etc.) and whines that they don't act like adults, and then on top of that adds all these rules and arcane that ONLY apply to the university, and then has the breathtaking arrogance to claim this is "the real world" and students better get used to it.

There’s a reason C students do better in "the real world." Those kids who are driving you bat-shit and socializing and schmoozing and trying to wheel and deal you are going to grow up to be CEOs and top executives and bishops and PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

Your A students are going to be miserably overworked lawyers suffering from depression or alcoholism, or doctors trying frantically to jump ship before the insurance companies destroy the entire profession, or adjunct professors trying desperately to claw their way back into academia where they're GOOD at things, because the real world? Not so much their thing.

What you do matters. Knowledge for its own sake is a glorious thing, and of course a liberal arts education is the education needed to be a functioning member of a free society. I have nothing against the university. I loved it. But FOR GOD'S SAKE, stop insisting the academy is the real world.

Monday, March 5, 2007

A Little Slack. But Not Much.

Dear Not Everyone,

It's Saturday, and I've been up since 5:30 to help my partner get herself to a conference that's important for her career. I have three boxes of conference proceedings to get in the mail, four essays to grade, and boxes to pack up for a move. I have two manuscripts to revise, a paper I promised but haven't completed, and a conference abstract that frustratingly fails to write itself. I've had a reminder email from computing services that my inbox is now full, a sink which needs to be unblocked, a bike which needs a new chain, and a stack of bills to pay. There's also a wedding we have to plan and pay for ourselves. Luckily, no children yet, but just imagine what exponent that would multiply everything by.

You see, university is a taste--and just a taste--of your responsibilities as an independent adult. In your life after college, everything you're experiencing now is going to multiply by a factor you're just now beginning to imagine. Cafeteria food might not be up to Mom's standard, but it's prepared for you, and the dishes are washed when you're finished. If the plumbing in your dorm stops working, someone fixes it for you (eventually). You don't get an electric bill. And if your assignments are late or poor, you get a bad mark and a scowl, not fired. And you should see the emails I get, or answer the knocks on my door. Trust me; your parents and friends are persistent, but they have nothing on a student who wants an extension, or a parent whose precious little flower has failed her first course ever.

So you do get some slack (at least from me, and other professors on this site) but only if you realize and accept that the slack is finite. The supply is not inexhaustible. A good professor will ween you off the slack by the time you graduate, because employers are not famous for their generosity in slack.

One other point...not one of us here was born with a Ph.D. Nor did we jump straight from secondary school to a Master's program. We've all done what you're doing. We understand what it's like for you now. But we also understand what it will be like for you in a few years time. I spent plenty of evenings getting drunk and neglecting work. And I might not have submitted everything exactly on time. But I learned how to get it done, through being pushed and pulled in the right direction.

That's what professors do, at least the good ones. You sound like you're close to figuring this out yourself, and you seem to be making the right choices. Every one of us is pulling for you, without hesitation, whether it looks like it or not, whether you believe it or not.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Not Everyone. Not Me.

I count myself lucky that I came across this blog when I did. As a new college student, I've found a lot of the posts about what frustrates professors and what they are looking for in their students to be tremendously helpful. Rather ironically, these past few days have been spent reading the posts here instead of actually working to make myself a better student. But I do try.

My schedule was constructed purely based om my interests and credit requirements; I paid no attention to times and days except to make sure none of them conflicted. As a result, I have a class every weekday at nine or nine-thirty, which is considered early by the majority of college students. I have never missed a class. I haven't even dragged myself in looking like a depressive, half mauled rag doll either. I know missing a class means missing important information, so I don't miss them. I do care about my classes, and the subject matter. I do my work carefully and hand everything in typed and on time, with my name legible on the top. If there's an in-class writing and I don't remember the reading as well as I should, I apologize accordingly and try my best to form an intelligent answer or thought based on what I do know.

But sometimes caring and working hard doesn't cut it. The fact is, college students have a lot of things to deal with, and no, it's not a matter of signing up for too many courses or taking on a late night job that eats up hours better spent studying. It's not as if we have one class and twenty four hours a day to devote to it. We're dealing with the new rooms, sharing space with someone with twice as many suitcases, plastering layer upon layer of duct tape on a poster to make it stick to the wall, tinkering with quarter-eating washing machines, showering in less than ideal privacy conditions, negotiating a largely confusing labyrinth of a campus, an ID card that won't open doors, dozens of required books to buy and no functioning bank account, and the barely edible dining hall food.

We're dealing with emails and phone calls from younger friends back home wondering why we haven't called them, parents calling with the same question, the sleazy boy in class who keeps trying to hold hands, the RA with a disturbing talent for picking up key words and deliberately misinterpreting them, the hordes of people knocking on our doors looking for the roommate (who has somehow made friends with everyone on campus) and the loud screaming of giddy parents-and-rules-free drunken revelers coming from outside (and below and above and to both sides).

We're dealing with our lives which have suddenly flipped over and inside out and are screaming for attention and maintenance. We can't neglect them. We have our own problems outside the classroom and not all of them turn out squeaky clean and dandy either.

So forgive us if we slip and fall a little every now and then. We are working for many professors every day, with different requirements, expectations, and policies. We have hours of reading and writing every night.

I understand that there are a lot of students who do not take college seriously, who miss classes and assignments as regularly as they lie about why, and care nothing about their work or their professors. But don't lump us all together. Some of us do care, and we do try, and being treated exactly like every other slacker or jock to take the class just doesn't help. Hopefully after teaching long enough, most of you are able to tell the difference.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

What's Being Bought?

The AP article on student narcissism is a great example of what's wrong with our debate on students-as-customers. Debating whether or not students are customers is like asking whether or not there is climate change: it's a waste of time both because the answer is obviously yes and both cases, and, in both cases, the debate is a smokescreen for avoiding the more important and uncomfortable debate. For climate change the real questions are 1) what causes it and 2) how can we control it. For the academy, the real questions are 1) what precisely did students pay for and 2) what is to be the business model of a university?

Students narcissistically (I can now use that word with some scientific backing) think that what they are paying for is their *own* grade and their *own* service. What they (usually their parents) *actually* paid for, though, was collective (as opposed to one-on-one) teaching followed by a *meaningful* grade from a reputable university. Faculty then are giving their students the best possible service by giving them meaningful grades, by working to maintain the reputation of their university, and by ensuring that no one student's service causes that of the others to suffer.

Again, accept that the students are customers, accept that the university is a business, so we can move on to framing and addressing the more meaningful debate.