Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On Discourse.

From the moderators of RYS:

Over the past 18 hours or so, we've read a ton of mail regarding a deep divide between - for lack of better terms - junior and senior faculty. It's made us awfully sad about the state of this virtual faculty lounge. So, we want to take a minute here to say a few things about the discourse that occurs on these pages.

We read through the mail and choose posts. We try to choose posts that capture the climate of what our readers are writing us about. If plagiarism stories fill up the box, we choose the best or liveliest and put it out there the next morning. If a lot of mail comes in saying cigarettes are better than cheese, we publish something on cigarettes and maybe make fun of those damn cheese-eaters!

Obviously this site started with a focus on students, those lovable but maddening creatures who stare up at us each day. But, this forum has gone much wider, and we've let it. The folks who write to us want to talk about a lot of things surrounding being a professor, and so we go where the flow goes.

We also confess that we publish posts that we think will make for an entertaining read between your 9 am and 11 am classes.

Aside from giving these things titles - which some of you think sublime, the rest ridiculous - we don't chart the course for RYS. We answer the mail, take the temperature of the crowd, do an image, and put it up.

So, we were moderately annoyed today when a number of writers (both young and old) took shots at us as though our coverage of the "Gumdrop Unicorns" issue was so clearly biased in the favor of whoever they disagreed with. It's rare you can get people on both sides of an issue mad at you! And we're overstating it saying we were even moderately annoyed. Bemused, we guess, is better.

The mail continues to come in - although it's slowed down a bit as little ones around the country are ringing bells and jonesing for chocolate - and we'll post a couple more pieces tomorrow. It's worked out that there's a bit more mail in favor of "Professor Mushy Brain," than there is against him, but we're going to pick posts for tomorrow that address the issue without some of the unhinged vitriol that absolutely bleeds out of the messages we've been receiving today.

We do think it's been a powerful enough message, however, that this issue - the seeming transience of junior faculty - has resulted in our biggest mail day ever. You would not believe the name calling and attacks that we've read today, including hateful and hurtful stories that come right from writers' own departmental struggles. We think there is a simmering and dangerous divide here that we all should think about, all might want to consider talking about. And not on a blog that spent most of yesterday urging you to buy the new Britney CD - although we're still urging you in that direction.

THE MAIL IS BLOWING UP - The Debate Over "Junior Faculty On The Move."

We've never had a flood of mail like this so soon after a post has appeared. The folks who want to lynch Professor Mushy Brain are not quite as plentiful as those who wish to throw him a parade, but it is close.

We will likely post some longer pieces tomorrow, but here is a sampling (ping pong style) of what we have already:

  • Your brains are not mushy, my brother! What you say is exactly what I've been feeling for a very long time at my own college. I mentor countless junior faculty, opening up home and hearth to one and all, showing them that this fine college in a lovely town is a place where you can have a great life. But nearly everyone we hire is secretively running up our copier bill every September and October dying to find the "next" job. It has gotten to the point when a new hire comes in, almost nobody wants to mentor him or her. What always gives me such a bad feeling is when we hear that the same person who left last year is already looking again. How many reference letters am I expected to write for these colleagues who stay here a year, then somewhere else for a year, then somewhere else again?

  • Being a junior faculty member means the university has made no long-term commitment to you, instead -- depending on the university -- you are on a series of 2-3 year, generally renewed, but not always, contracts until tenure time. I would argue that its worse if a junior faculty member isn't working hard to be attractive to another university. First, if they aren't attractive to another place, they probably won't be attractive enough for promotion and tenure. Second, tenure isn't guaranteed, so at some level you need to think about options.

  • OMG! I know the blog you're talking about. I nearly spit my coffee out when I read your description of the "gumdrop unicorns." The blog in question is a hilarious look at the inner workings of a professor in some Midwest university. She's always talking about the damn cat, and her so-far fruitless search for a REAL LIVE BOY to share space with her and her feline counterpart. And, there are others, endless yammering bloggers who are every bit as selfish and as entitled as our worst students. "What about MY needs?" "If it's selfish to put my needs above the needs of students, then color me selfish." Indeed, honey, with a fucking glitter pen.

  • If your junior faculty don't feel loyalty, blame yourself, not them. If you don't have enough resources to retain your talent, it's not the talent's fault.

  • I fear I must side with the NOT-MUSHY-BRAINED poster from this morning. I probably wouldn't admit it, but I've had conversations on this very issue with a number of my colleagues, all of us sick of the transient junior faculty who speed through a year with us never taking a moment to recognize that for some of us, this "job" is a calling, and this college is indeed a place that we cherish and love. If any of them stayed anywhere long enough, they'd recognize the immense pleasure that comes from really being a part of a college, the life of its students, the faculty, the administrators. Just walking past these buildings every day makes me realize that what I do actually matters. Could I do it somewhere where it didn't rain so much? Sure. But the "one year and out" professors never learn the real beauty of any job. At least until they grow up.

  • You are demanding a level of commitment and loyalty from your junior colleagues that they are not receiving from you in return. To put it in simple language: until you give your junior colleagues tenure, they get no loyalty from you--at least none that counts--so why should they swear undying fealty to you like some medieval serf?

  • Today's "Gumdrop Unicorns" post won't be a very popular post, I predict, but it is a brave one and one that is right on the money. I was a "striver," a searcher, and I bounced around to 4 different t-t jobs before I finally realized that my career wouldn't be right until my mind was. I was a kid - that's the unadulterated truth of it. I never gave my college a chance. I stayed 1 year, 2 years, 1 year, and 1 year before ending up where I am now. Some health issues made me nervous about moving again, so I stayed in a position for 3 years. It made a world of difference. I began to think of the college is MY college, and I began to stop thinking of teaching as some "job," and started thinking of it as what I did, what I am. I know that I would have been happy in those other positions had I only given them a chance. But I watched my grad school friends always scrambling for greener grass, and so I did, too. I am so thankful I realized that I was running for no reason. I tell this story to every new faculty member, letting them know that I was like them, looking at the yearly job lists as if they were an FAO Schwarz catalog. And I tell them that when I got invested in my career, my college, my students, and my college family, my whole life came into focus.

  • If you want junior faculty to be loyal (and since when did loyalty become a virtue operative in employee-employer relationships independent of contextual factors?), pay them more, or adopt preventive retention policies. If you don't like junior faculty getting counter-offers (because seeking and getting counter-offers are very different things), don't set the tenure bar so high that junior faculty become marketable. People respond to incentives; if they respond to an incentive (publication count, for instance) and find that they are now marketable because they have been productive, why wouldn't you expect them to go on the market?

POW: "Bright Gumdrop Unicorns in the Center of the Universe." Junior Faculty On the Move.

While I admit RYS is my favorite blog, I do read a number of other academic blogs, and had occasion to let loose on some selfishness I saw among a group of junior faculty who were spending a good deal of time congratulating one another on working in tenure track jobs while slaving like mules to get better jobs in more attractive situations - close to Mommy, warmer weather, a place where their own peculiar preciousness will be admired by all.

Nobody seemed to understand what happens to a department when a junior faculty announces his/her departure, almost always late in the Spring semester, when suddenly the department must engage in high-speed job searches for another junior faculty member probably also looking elsewhere.

They also were unapologetic about being eager to go to what they imagine will be a "better situation," saying among other things that they while they understood that their institutions would be saddled with the difficulty of replacing them (the funding, the job search, the interviews, the entire new dynamic of the department and the college), that it just "wasn't their fault."

Most of the writers also wanted to make it clear that their teaching job was really "just a job," and not their whole life. There was a certain haughtiness to this, as if they themselves were the first group to discover joy in family, friends, and pinochle. I wonder if they're comfortable with their students seeing them as "just some guy who taught me Math"? Or would they be satisfied if their colleagues saw them as "just the lady who worked on the budget"? I hope not. Of course if they're only staying in their jobs for a couple of years, maybe that's all they are. Maybe they are easily replaceable. I know it's not true in my own department, where we do everything we can to nurture the life and work of our junior colleagues.

On this other blog - which has the requisite pictures of a mangy cat, as referenced so beautifully earlier by one of your readers - I said, in part:

I can't believe not a one of you has been a senior enough member of a faculty to know the damage that this "casting around for a better gig" does to a department.The junior faculty of present day academe is made up of people like you, uncaring and selfish, not giving a shit about the students and colleagues you leave in the lurch with your pretty "look at me, love me, and miss me" announcement of departure in April of each year.

I've even offered support in the past to jumpy and nervous junior faculty so sure that there's a world of demand out there for their particular preciousness, because what else can we do? We have an endowment, trustees, the work of the university, the rest of the department, the students.

These all remain once you put your shit in boxes and go off to be unfulfilled in another institution that just will never love you as much as Mommy and Daddy. Oh, yes, it's "just" a job to us, too, but we're adults and we take it seriously. We're not children with overblown egos; we've long ago recognized that we're pieces of a larger puzzle, not a big bright gumdrop unicorn that rests in the center of the universe.

I wanted to check in with the readers and writers of RYS - because you all have saved my sanity with your own posts over the past year - to see if I'm right on this. Or, if maybe the years of sniffing whiteboard markers has turned my brain into mush.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Someone's Not Going to Grin and Bear It. We Recommend Keeping Away from Sharp Objects.


Let's get a few things out of the way, shall we?

I realize you don't want to be here.

Guess what? I don't want to be here either.

I am here teaching Stupefying Dull Intro Class because my senior faculty want to avoid you. I'd like to avoid you, too, in fact, and I would if I possibly could.

I am teaching you because my department is screwing me over. Yes, my special, special snowflakes, far from being the little treasures you believe you are, being around you is a departmental task that falls under the heading of "shitwork."

You know why people hate teaching freshmen? Because three quarters of you are so stupid you can't manage to piss downward, that's why. The rest of you are so self-important you think you have nothing to learn in any class that has the word "Intro" in the title, and so you spend your time (and, unfortunately, mine) demonstrating how above all this material you are. This unholy melange of arrogance and stupidity is what makes "teaching" you people the faculty equivalent of cleaning a latrine.

I know the right attitude would be to slap a smile on my face and be the edutainment-pushing proffie-friendie you all think you are entitled to have. Instead, let's just realize that we in this class share a deep, soul-destroying truth: we'd all rather be somewhere else, pretty much anywhere else, than in this class.

Some misguided souls might claim we should make the best of it, but then, what would you post on RMP and what would I post here?

A Subtle Pedagogical Lesson For That Certain Student.

Take a seat and shut the hell up.

This is the only message I have for you. No, I am not going to have a ten-minute conference with you in the middle of class while you are supposed to be doing group work. That's what my office hours are for, and, by the way, I haven't seen you there.

No, I will not read over your essay in the middle of class. No, I do not want you to raise your hand in mid-lecture with a question that relates only to you and your work. No, no, no, no, no.

You cannot come in thirty minutes late, walk up to me as I am in the middle of leading discussion, and start talking to me as if you were the only student in the room. What the hell is wrong with you? Yes, I told you to have a seat through clenched teeth while the rest of the class looked on. You looked shocked. What did you expect me to do? And no, after being put (momentarily) in your place, I do not want you to open your yap ten minutes later with some blather so incomprehensible that the entire class begins to exchange quizzical looks and giggles in your general direction.

I don't know where you went to high school, or what in your educational background makes you so completely inept merely being in a classroom, but it's clear you just haven't a clue about how to act. So just take a seat and shut the hell up.

Friday, October 26, 2007

One Instructor's Set of Guidelines For Walking the College Tightrope Without Dropping Your Books or Beer.

I love how students seem to assume that professors never had to struggle through college, or that we don't know what it is like to transition from high school to adulthood on our own in a brand new world. No, my young friends, the difference is that we were GOOD at college, so good in fact that we stayed here. You, on the other hand, seem to be not so good. Ignorance of the system, however, is not all right; it's a weakness that a student must overcome. In that spirit, I offer some advice from one person who was great at college (and who didn’t have to sacrifice the more earthly alcoholic and social pleasures to do so):

  1. College is all about adaptation. Pay attention to the style of instruction your professor uses. If they are close readers, approach readings and assignments by asking "what are the nuts and bolts here, and how do they work?" If your professor emphasizes discussion, read with an eye towards the questions that this particular reading poses. This will make you both a more successful and more efficient reader.

  2. Time allocation is key. If a particular subject is difficult or just plain uninteresting, it's going to take more time to prepare for class than if you are in tune with the material. This means you can’t avoid painful required classes and then lump them into a single semester--a recipe for disaster. Instead, balance challenging classes with those that you have more of a knack for or interest in.

  3. A little goodwill goes a long way. You are not too cool for school--this is a toxic attitude and will generate animosity in your prof, meaning that when you screw up, they won't feel like taking the considerable trouble to be flexible. Participating in class, on the other hand, generates a great deal of goodwill. We are constantly looking for students who interact positively with us, and if you find yourself in a tough spot, we will be more favorably disposed to helping you.

  4. Empathize with your professor. The common complaint that a professor "thinks this is the only class I have" also goes the other way: students make the mistake of thinking that they each individually dictate the terms of the class. We can't teach 20 different students in individual ways during a single class--we're human beings! This also means that you have to use the golden rule when dealing with your prof and treat them the way you would want to be treated. If you wouldn't want them emailing you at midnight asking you to do something for them the next day, then you shouldn't either. If you wouldn't like them zoning out or falling asleep when you talk to them, then maybe you should be alert in class. And as you would ask that they respect your privacy, you should respect theirs. Much of the complaints here at RYS stem from the frustration that this mutual relationship is ignored by students.

  5. By and large, colleges are not vocational in nature. Just because you will not use a particular skill in your work life (and keep in mind that what you want to do at 18 may change radically) doesn't mean it isn't interesting or worthwhile. Think about yourself not as a future employee of X, and instead as a person with broad horizons, who has the potential to do and be many different things--because this is how your professor sees his or her students, for the most part.

  6. If you screw up (and you will, we all have), be prepared for the worst but hope for the best. If you communicate to your professor that you take responsibility for your actions but would like any help they might be able to provide, you will be astounded by how willing they are to give that help. If, on the other hand, you assume that they are obligated to give you second and third chances, you will find that assumption quickly disproven. Professors, by and large, become good judges of character through years of interaction with students. They can tell when a screw-up is an honest mistake and an aberration, and when it is part of a larger pattern of behavior.
There are a lot of other pieces of advice or guidelines that my colleagues here could offer, but consider this a start. Remember that we have in some cases decades of experience "being in college" while new students have very little indeed. The less you wear your ignorance as a badge of honor, the more you will be able to have your beer and drink it too.

Slugs and Jerks and Apostrophes. Oh My!

I've been pondering the issue of the time-serving slugs in the classroom, and two incidents over the past two days have added to my puzzlement.

In one class, students occasionally show signs of life, but for the most part they just seem to tolerate me; some sit with their eyes closed, others never crack a book, some only rarely show up. You know, the usual. After class yesterday, during which I asked a number of questions which received more than usually lacklustre answers, I went to my office, feeling a little defeated, and opened my folder to mark the reading responses for the class. Reading responses are short pieces that students are supposed to hand in before the reading is discussed in class - RYS readers, being pedagogically astute, will recognize this as a cunning trick to get students to do their reading.

Imagine my surprise when I read at least 6 responses that demonstrated an intelligent understanding of the reading material. One response in particular, from a young man who sits at the back, never says a word, and looks like he can barely stand to be in the room, was an insightful answer to one of the questions I had posed to the class. Why didn't he offer his opinion during the discussion? He had clearly read the material, understood it, and even thought about it. I have no idea.

This morning in another class, I handed out an exercise on apostrophes. I gave students a few minutes to work on it. I wandered around the room, and noticed one young slug busily texting his pal instead of working on the sheet. I suggested that if he didn't want to participate in the class, he was under no obligation to remain in the room.

"That's a bit presumptuous of you," he said.

Thinking about the student from the previous class, I choked down my knee jerk response - Presumptuous? That's a big word for a boy who apparently doesn't know how to brush his hair - I gave him the opportunity to explain the error in the first example sentence. He gave the classic answer of the student who hasn't done his work, and is hoping to bullshit his way through: "It's a bit vague." Prodded to be more specific, he hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, while other students in the class squirmed on his behalf.

Eventually, I let him off the hook, and asked someone else for the answer. This student correctly pointed out the apostrophe error in the sentence. "Oh that," said slug-boy, "I thought that was a typo." And he tuned out of the rest of the discussion, opening his laptop, no doubt to check how good his hair looks in his Facebook photo.

I don't really know what the lesson is here, except that maybe sometimes students who appear to lack interest in my classes don't, and some of the jerks really are jerks.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"We're Still Just a Bunch of Kids." A Student Waxes on Adulthood.

My list of frequented websites has expanded to include this semester. I bring my laptop to one of my classes to help take notes when the discussion gets too fast (I promise). When the argument dissolves into a semantic debate, I whip up the site, and viola! Problem solved. See how useful computers are in class? (OK, I admit, on slower days I spend some extra time wandering the Internet a bit.)

I've noticed a popular debate on RYS that is somewhat semantic in nature. It has to do with that one word, that high-powered word… we students throw it around expecting fanfares (or at least more consideration) to follow, and professors toss is sarcastically back when our whining disproves its application to us: adult. Why, what does it mean? Ask!

a*dult [uh-duhlt, ad-uhlt]


  1. having attained full size and strength; grown up; mature
    If the large and Neanderthal-like boys (men?) who barely fit in the doorway are any indication, I'd say this one can definitely apply to college students.

  2. of, pertaining to, or befitting adults
    I thought we weren't allowed to use a word in its own definition?

  3. intended for adults, not suitable for children
    What, like, heeheeheesex?


  1. a person who is fully grown or developed or of age
    Fully grown - as in the first definition very possible. Developed? Enough to have a lot of loud sex, apparently.

  2. a full grown animal or plant
    Sometimes we do seem rather like them, I suppose.

  3. a person who has attained the age of maturity as specified by law
    Boom. And that's the issue.

Arrogant and self-absorbed? Slackers, shirkers, and sleepers? Of course we are! We're adults! We finally have a legitimate claim to all the exciting freedoms and privileges that we came to resent in our parents every time they told when we had to be home, when he had to finish our homework, when we could eat and what. Furthermore, the accompanying responsibilities that are meant to sober us up, they aren't essential to our survival yet. The sole requirements placed upon us pertain to academic excellence, and we're already experts at getting by with as little work as possible. Failure to live up to our responsibilities doesn't have dire enough consequences to make us try harder - for the most part, someone else is paying for our living expenses, our housing, our tuition. Nothing is real, yet. We're just a bunch of kids, living together with no idea how to cook, do laundry, or go grocery shopping without buying more potato chips than real food.

Disdainful and needy, at the same time? Of course we are! Of course we scorn the valuable information you give us freely and comprehensively, and then follow you around like incompetent puppies asking for special treatment and more, more, more attention and help. We've graduated high school, gone through application hell to get here, to get into college. All our lives, this was the goal our parents made us work for, college was the reason to do homework or to join the Science Club, college was the ultimate end goal for our parents, and therefore, for us. We've just finished celebrating and saying, guess what Mom and Dad, I made it! And what's this you're telling us? We have to keep doing work, and "make it" all over again?

And on the other side, our professors - the ones stuck teaching the huge intro level course - face year after year of crazy, ecstatic, self-satisfied, newly-freed juveniles, and they have to be wondering, did we get the age of adulthood right? Are we really supposed to treat these people with respect, when they skip class and forget exam dates, forget to shower and wear pajamas all day, when they still waste class time giggling at the word 'penis'?

By law, it is true, we are adults. Does that automatically mean we're mature and that we deserve to be treated like rational, responsible, perfectly capable human beings? Dear lord, no. Eighteen is one day older than seventeen. Just in the way we still need to learn what a derivative is or how to write an effectively persuasive paper (that is why we're taking your classes, isn't it?), we're still learning how to take responsibility, we're still learning how to show humility, how to interact professionally, how to manage our time when it's left up to us. It's completely unreasonable to expect, fresh out of childhood, suddenly away from parents, and out of substandard public education, that we'll suddenly be able to exhibit these skills.

And on the other hand? It's completely unreasonable for us, as brand spanking new adults, fresh out of the factory and new to the grind, to demand respect and equal footing with all the veterans. And yet we still demand it. In a few semesters - and you probably won't know us then - we'll truly begin to grow up, we'll being to be responsible and respectable. But as for right now? Like I said - we're still just a bunch of kids.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

If They All Expect the "Gentleman's B," Couldn't They At Least Dress Better?

Last semester, after I added a writing component to a few of my classes, my students were shocked—ABSOLUTELY SHOCKED!—that I was more than willing to give them a zero if the crap they handed in didn't fulfill the clearly articulated requirements on the assignment sheet. It's as if the directions were just general suggestions instead of what they would be graded on.

As an example, one student, upon receiving her zero, actually told me I wasn't allowed to give a zero. I informed said snowflake that I could award a zero…and then promptly proved to her why she deserved it. Right there, after class, I quizzed her on the material to be assessed on the assignment. She had NO CLUE what I was talking about. You see, little snowflake arrived 10 minutes late for the class this material was taught in, decided she didn't need to pay attention, and web-surfed for the remainder of the lecture.

This entire class was filled with students who felt entitled to receive grades they did not earn. They habitually ignored instructions (which were given in both orally and in writing just in case something was unclear), decided that proofreading just wasn't necessary in this class required for their major, and thought that my expectations that they come to class, pay attention, and not web surf were just too high.

They all felt that just handing in something —anything—would at least get them what used to be called a Gentleman's C (which of course is now a Gentleman's B at most schools). Excuse me for actually grading them on their ability to perform to measurable criteria, which of course they all claim I didn't do; to admit that would be for them to admit they didn't do the work. I was unimpressed with most of them, and the fact that most of these idiots will just be passed along by other, lazier professors disgusts me.

A Plagiarism Policy as An Object Lesson in Customer Service.

My university's policy on plagiarism is nothing short of ridiculous. Not only does accusing a student of plagiarism cost the instructor vast amounts of time, energy, and red-tape, but we are asked never, ever to utter the word “plagiarism” to the student until we have discussed the instance of alleged improper borrowing with a department higher-up.

I have attended one such meeting (my first and last). I brought with me the student’s paper and the online article from which vast paragraphs were copied verbatim. It was a slam-dunk case. I expected to be told something like, “Well, when it’s this obvious, you don’t even have to come see us. Just nail the sucker.” Instead, I was met with questions about my integrity as a teacher: “How thoroughly have you covered the rules about plagiarism?” “How much of your class is devoted to in-depth discussion of citation?” “Did you offer the student the appropriate help with these difficult, taxing citations?” “Have you asked the student if he perhaps simply forgot to cite properly?” In short, “How are you to blame for this?” They then recommended that I return the assignment with a firm but kind comment about the need to revise the paper for a grade, and that I sit down with the student to work out every single detail of how to cite the sources and where the paper “borrowed” improperly.

So I had this conversation with the plagiarizing asshole, whom I now hated even more and who clearly knew that he was getting away with murder. He walked away with a grade he didn’t deserve and the idea that he, as a coddled and over-privileged student “paying for his education,” had all the power in the student-teacher relationship.

I guess he was right. In the interest of having happy “customers,” the department strips students of their integrity, and instructors of their authority. I now enact my own plagiarism (yes, I use the word) code. But I know that if a student ever complains, no one upstairs is going to back me.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Complex Nature of Two-Faced Sammy.

Sullen Sammy, my least favorite student, sent me a short and almost unintelligible email requesting a meeting after the midterm grades. I didn't reply, but did see him in class and told him that he could see me right after class. He acknowledged me, like he always does, with a bored sort of nod.

Sammy is the dullest student I've had in 8 years of teaching. He looks on the verge of death or heavy sleep at all times. His voice is never more than a whisper, and the slightest motion he makes looks so pained and lugubrious, that I often think he might be suffering from some malaise.

An hour after class he still hadn't shown up. (My office is 40 feet away from the classroom. I've measured.)

It was the end of the day and so I headed to my car to go home. Sullen Sammy came charging (still slow by ordinary standards, but an absolute gallop for him), and said, "I thought you were going to be in your office."

"Yes," I said. "I was there for an hour and fifteen minutes after class. Those are part of my normal office hours."

Sullen Sammy says, "Uh, well I'm here now. I really need to talk to you."

"Okay," I said. "What about on this bench?" We were in the middle of my college's lower quad, a gorgeous late Fall day, and it was quiet.

"Nah, I want to talk in your office."

"Okay," I said. "Let's go."

We start walking back until Sullen Sammy is now suddenly Sunny Sammy. "Yo, you go ahead. That's one of my bro's over there." And off he scampers, now at absolute breakneck speed, toward another student.

I watch while he greets the "bro" and starts an animated conversation. Sammy is unrecognizable in this new guise. He's laughing. His voice is full and loud. They are actually jostling each other, and their pleasure is palpable.

I get to my office, sit down in my chair and wait. After 15 minutes I decide I've had enough. As I'm getting to the door, Sullen Sammy arrives again, in his normal manner, with his normal dark cloud around him. I put the lights back on in my office and then go behind my desk, motioning him to one of the chairs.

I say, "Okay, Sammy, what is it you wanted to talk about? Were you wondering about the midterm grades? I'm happy to go over them and I could set you up with one of the department's undergrad tutors."

Before Sammy can force himself to answer, his phone goes off. He looks down at the screen and says, "Oh, man, this is one of my bro's. I have to take this." And then he does.

Again, Sunny Sammy reappears and the one-sided conversation is about a party later that week. It's all "Oh, man!" and "You're KIDDING!" I watch the clock and 5 minutes pass. Sammy is worked up and laughing and his bro's voice is coming through the phone loud enough to hear. The disembodied voice says, "Man, I love just shooting the breeze with you, brother."

And that's when I stood up. I motioned to get Sammy's attention, pointed him to the door, and watched a cloud of misery fall on his face.

"But, what about my grades?" he said.

"Some other time, Sammy. Some other time when you've got the time."

As I left the building, I could hear Sammy's voice from the hallway, ringing out. "Oh, bro. This party is going to be off the chain!"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Little Saturday Smackdown.

To Your Highness, Great King of Entitlement:

I have decided to respond to each line of the semi-literate and offensive email you sent to your very capable teaching assistant. My comments will demonstrate that I support her actions and decisions in every way.

But before I convey my response, may I remind you of something you already know: Rather generously, ALL students in this class have been given the opportunity to revise their essays so that THIS TIME, they might use proper citation form. Those of you who take advantage of this opportunity will lose only 10 points (out of 100), instead of receiving the Fs you actually earned on your first attempts at writing an academic essay. Given this coddling, you dare to whine?

“I got the email about citations and I totally disagree with the way that this is being handeled.”

Your “disagreement” is your prerogative, but means absolutely nothing to me. In addition, your spelling is atrocious.

“Its not anything against your teaching, but I feel that if so many students messed this up it cannot be a issue of not doing the assignment correctly, but rather a lack of communication and teaching.”

I do not care what you “feel.” Your teaching assistant explained citation rules in your discussion section, displayed these rules on an overhead projector, and posted citation guidelines on the website for this course. She carefully observed what I call the “Three Time Rule For Undergraduates.” I will clarify this rule for you: Tell undergraduates EVERYTHING three times, and hope beyond hope that one of these iterations will be retained. Her meticulous adherence to this rule is, to me, sufficient evidence of her ability to communicate, and her ability to teach. I daresay that the fact that so many students “messed this up” is, rather, evidence of the inability of most of your peers to follow simple, clear, thrice-repeated directions.

“We are all smart students here at [Middling University] if we weren't we wouldn't be going here.”

If you were actually smart, you wouldn’t make such patently false assertions. If you were smart, you’d know where commas belong. If you were smart, you’d surely be going to a much better school. I suggest you take a look at the admissions office’s published statistics regarding admitted students. Your SATs and ACTs are average. Your GPAs are average. The only thing remarkably above-average about you as a group are the incomes of your families. The degree to which you all have swallowed unquestioningly the administration’s compensatory puffery never ceases to bewilder me.

“I feel that not just myself, but everyone should not be punished for a horrible effort at communicating the assignment.”

While I am able to decipher the meaning behind this wretched syntax, again, I still do not care what you “feel.” No one was “punished.” I did not take a cat-o-nine-tails to any of you, despite the occasional temptation to do so. As a matter of fact, you were all offered the opportunity to rewrite and resubmit your essays. And despite your overweening sense of entitlement, everyone in this class shall receive the grade he or she EARNS. This is how it works, at least in my classes.

“I hope you read this and talk to whoever you have to try and help your students out. I am not paying $30,000 dollars a year to be cheated out of a grade.”

Your teaching assistant did “talk to whoever.” I am “whoever.” And while I seriously doubt you are personally paying ANYTHING to attend this school, I am sure your parents are. (By the way, if they’re paying full freight, they’re getting rooked.) And if you dare ask them to contact me in order to amplify your pathetic complaint, I will refer them directly to the Dean, as rules of student privacy require. As to your accusation that we are somehow “cheat[ing you] out of a grade,” your final sentence again betrays unbelievable arrogance, and an astonishingly puerile level of self-involvement. Let me put this as clearly as I can:

Your parents’ money does not entitle you to ANYTHING in the way of grades.

Your teaching assistant and I are not paid to give you grades, nor can we “cheat" you "out of” a grade. You earn your own grades, you arrogant little twerp.

You have been given the undeserved gift of an opportunity to rewrite, and to provide COMPLETE, CORRECT, and CONSISTENT citations, and thus to improve said grade.
Finally, we suggest you temper your infantile petulance and show some gratitude to your professor and to your underpaid and overworked teaching assistant, particularly since in our shared inclination toward kindness and mercy, we are refraining from squashing you like a bug.

Most sincerely,
Professor "Whoever"

Good Intentions and Student Tragedy.

A former colleague was approached in 1998 by a teary-eyed student in his seminar. The student had missed a couple of weeks of work, and he explained that he had been in a car accident with his twin brother. The brother had died in the accident. He pleaded with my colleague to allow him back in the seminar. My colleague let him return to class and helped him make up the work he had missed. The student did well in the class.

The following year the student asked my colleague for a letter of recommendation for medical school. My colleague agreed and in his letter he devoted a long paragraph to how this student had dealt with this horrible tragedy. Then my colleague got a note from the dean. During an admissions interview an interviewer had asked the student to say a few words about his brother. "Oh, he's doing great" the student exclaimed."He's starting at Goldman-Sachs in September." Busted.

The university decided to expel the student a month shy of graduation, and of course medical school was out of the question. The parents sued the university and my colleague had to give a deposition because he was named in the suit. The next day the student stepped in front of a passing Amtrak train. The suit was dismissed, but it very easily could have ruined my colleague's entire career. It certainly contributed to ending the kid's life.

So now whenever a student approaches me with a tragedy my stock response is: "I am very sorry to hear that. I am not a mental health professional so I am not equipped to help you. Here is a list of mental health resources available to students through the health center. Please have someone from the health center contact me so that we can make arrangements to help you finish your work."

I'm not being cynical, just rational. The moral of the story is that the best of intentions can lead to unintended consequences that really are tragic. I don't assume that the kid is lying. I just acknowledge that I am not trained to deal with the situation.

For the more cynically inclined, another colleague of mine always pulls the student's home address from the registrar and sends a condolence card to the family. Only once has she received a thank you note. In every other instance she has received either an apology or an angry phone call from the putatively dead parent. But the student always drops the class immediately, which solves the real problem.


More info on this story.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Someone Offers To Draw A Line For The Facebook Dilemma.

I have a Facebook page. I don't think that Facebook in itself is a line the faculty shouldn't cross. Thanks to college and graduate school, most of my friends are scattered around the country, and we use Facebook to keep in touch. I post very little personal information (as seems more common among people my age who are older than our students but younger than our colleagues) and what I do post is limited to favorite books, music, etc. that might be edifying for students to look up, should they stumble upon my profile. That said, I think it IS inappropriate for professors (or other professionals) to post pictures of their drunken parties, both because it may undermine one's authority in the classroom and because it doesn't model an appropriate, professional use of social networking tools. If we're going to tell students not to post pictures or information they wouldn't want future employers (or their teachers) to see, then those of us using Facebook should set the bar high.

I think the professor described in the post is crossing a line. As in real life, I would never be "friends" with my students on Facebook -- perhaps with alum, but not with students. I think that kind of relationship, even if the professor can keep it straight, is potentially confusing to students. They may end up not sure how to interact with the professor in class, and certainly future students -- who have heard how "cool" the professor is on Facebook -- may be confused if the classroom version doesn't add up to what's online.

To choose an image of oneself that seems clearly aimed at making students think you're "hip" and "fun" -- anything involving alcohol or parties, any mention of hot dates, in short, anything you used to brag about when YOU were in college, and to so clearly put that image out to your students by being their "friend"... we get it. You want your students to think you're cool. You're hoping Facebook will give you some street cred. But your students are not your friends. After this semester, when the grades are in and you gave them the D they earned (or didn't, because they were your "friend" on Facebook), that student will probably not be your "friend" anymore. Heck, they might even dissolve your Facebook friendship. And they would be right to, because most of them -- whether they know it or not -- are just using you, allowing the boundaries to get blurred so that you DO feel badly about failing them or generally being a hard ass.

The other, more pedagogical, problem with heavy use of Facebook between students and faculty, is that it can allow professors to be far too available to students. I've heard of people using Facebook as an extension of IM, so that students can quickly ask questions and get a response. But honestly, I don't WANT my students to post questions about MLA citation on my wall two hours before the paper is due -- not because it crosses a boundary, but because I want them to be learning to find the answer on their own. I don't want my students to know that I'm updating my profile right this very second and therefore could be poked so they can ask what they missed in class today, simply because I don't want them to get the idea that I will always drop everything to deal with their problems. I won't, and when that day comes, I don't want my student to have thought I would always be accessible.

A professor like the one described in the email risks a lot. Do you really want students (or your dean) to know that you have a glass of wine while you grade their papers? (Evaluation: I got an F because he graded my paper while he was drunk). Do you really want them to know you're planning class twenty minutes before it happens? (Evaluation: Teacher isn't prepared). Do you want them to know where you are and what you're doing when you're ignoring their inane emails? (Evaluation: Teacher is difficult to get in touch with and doesn't answer email promptly). Do you really want them to see it if the prof across the hall from your office, or your real life friend, writes something snarky on your wall about your most precious little snowflake, about whom you have been complaining a great deal?

But in the end, it's just kind of sad. I think it's totally ok to have professors on Facebook, just as professors may go to the same bars, coffee shops, etc. that their students frequent. It's a social gathering place, of sorts. People will be there. But to INVITE your students to the bar or coffee shop is something else... it's confusing the social/professional boundary, but it's also a little pathetic. I think of Facebook like my local bar. I go there with my friends, and if I run into an undergrad student I quickly make necessary small talk and then try to avoid that student for the rest of the night. If I were to buy that student a drink and ask him to dance, I might be cool for awhile, but it's cool with a big side of creepy. After all (this is the part that professor seems to be missing) if you were really that cool, you wouldn't HAVE to be friends with your students on Facebook. You'd have your own friends. Cooler, more intellectually stimulating friends. Your own age.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Helping Our Students Wrestle With Tragedy and Depression.

I've faced the same question as "Wrestling" a few times in my teaching career. My response in each case depends on the attitude of the student, the particular course structure, how far into the semester the issue comes up, whether I've had enough coffee, etc.

While I completely agree with the assessment of what the student needs to be doing, I would also play Devil's advocate a bit: maybe, even if the student is ultimately going to fail the class--or, as likely, come for a couple weeks and then drift away again--maybe she needs someplace to be for a few hours a day that's not at her mother's bedside.

In my (large) classes it wouldn't be particularly disruptive for a student to show up mid-semester. The grading policies preclude makeup exams, but this is one of the situations for which we could justify dropping the grade on a missed exam, or even two. Realistically, a student walking into my course at this point in the semester is going to stand almost no chance of earning a passing grade, because of the cumulative nature of the material, and yadda yadda; I would make sure to say that to the student up front, and I would encourage her to consider withdrawing for the semester, even talking to her advisor and seeing if there's some way she can get some money back, and re-enrolling for a later term; but I would also say, if she wants to try, she can. This student may have been putting off going to classes one day at a time, and may have just figured out that she's running out of days--things can catch up with you that way when you're in the midst of a personal crisis, especially if you're also dealing with depression--and she may need a couple of days or weeks to adjust to the idea that it's too late for this term. It's hard for a person to just suddenly turn her self-image around 180 degrees; to her it will feel like "Yesterday I was a college student, today I'm not," even though anyone looking from outside could see that really she hasn't been a college student for weeks.

While it's frustrating on my side to spend a lot of mental energy and time on a student who is very likely not going to complete my course, it may pay off in the future, in having her feel it's worthwhile coming back later, when she no longer has the obligation that is currently consuming her life. I wouldn't want her to shut the door on her future education because I turned her away when she was vulnerable.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Wrestling with Student Tragedy.

Sometimes, tragic events in students' lives can't be overcome, and the best advice--indeed only advice--we can give is to drop the class, withdraw from the university, and find some activity more suitable to the situation.

I know this sounds cold and unforgiving, but consider the email I received last week from a student who has attended only a single class session this semester. Her reason for missing the first five weeks of the semester? She had to attend to her dying mother. Now, five weeks into the semester, she wants to leave her mother (still terminal and not yet dead) and return to school. In her email she promises to "make up" all the work that she has missed. She seems unbothered by the fact that my lectures and in-class discussions cannot be reclaimed. And she seems quite confident in her ability to keep up with the new material in the class even as she is working to complete the readings and assignments from the last five weeks.

She also seems to believe that education is not cumulative and that the material we covered in the first third of the semester won't be critically important to understanding the material we cover in the remaining weeks of the semester. Finally, she seems to think that she can do the missing work and keep up with the new work while she is grappling with the impending death of her mother.

Forget the fact that this student is treating me like a well-paid grading machine, my only real purpose to stamp evaluative letters and comments on the work my students hand in. Surely my role as a teacher is irrelevant. She doesn't need my instruction, only my judgement on the work she hands in for a grade. This of course speaks to her woeful misunderstanding of how education works, but this isn't what bothers me most about her email. What bothers me is that this student doesn't realize that trying to complete a course while her mother is in the process of dying is fundamentally a bad decision.

Her proper place is with her mother and family, spending as much time with her mother as she can in these final days. It's doubtful that she is in the emotional and psychological state to really engage with her courses and reap the full benefits of her education. She might manage a C in this class, but what will she really gain in the process? Isn't she better advised to withdraw from the course (and the university) and attend to this personal crisis?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Too Goddamn Many Ph.D.s"

It seems like everyone’s ignoring the main issue driving experiences like Helga’s: there are just too goddamn many Ph.Ds (and masters) degrees out there. People like Helga take pay that would be insulting to the guys who work at the gas station because she knows damn well that there’s a line of other adjuncts who would gladly take the assignment if she refused. Supply and demand, baby. If there are too many fourth-tier universities are pumping out people who have no job skills besides teaching Philosophy courses, the pay for Philosophy adjuncts will go down.

What’s the solution? Maybe it’s reducing the number of graduate programs out there. I suspect that many bottom tier Ph.D. and masters programs exist not to turn out capable scholars and teachers, but because they allow the university to take advantage of the only kind of labor that is even cheaper than adjuncts: graduate teaching assistants. Graduate students at these programs start out as exploited graduate TAs and graduate a half-step up the food chain to become exploited adjunct professors. I’m sure that such programs have produced the occasional excellent scholar and teacher who beats the odds and gets tenure. But it’s dishonest and immoral for these programs to tell potential students that they will be trained to be scholars. They are recruited to have the life wrung out of them as graduate students and then passed on to other institutions to have the life wrung out of them as adjuncts.

At the very least, undergrad advisors owe any student who wants to apply to such a program a good hard dose of reality. If a student asks you for a letter of recommendation for the History Ph.D. program at North-North-Eastern Dinky State School, sit them down. Tell them about people like Helga. Ask them to think really hard about their commitment to the discipline. At the very least ask them to look at the program’s placement record (and if the school isn’t forthcoming with that information, ask them to take this as a sign). I have no doubt that a lot of people make a good life out of adjuncting, because they love teaching or because they love the subject so much that they can’t imagine a career that doesn’t involve it or because they love pretending they are Jeff Gordon racing around from job to job. But I suspect that a lot of other people wake up at the age of 30 with a degree that over- or under- qualifies them for everything except adjuncting. That stinks, both for them and for the other adjuncts whose wages are lowered to subsistence level by the flooded market.

Adjunct Agitation.

Highway Helga's post from yesterday has proven to be one of the biggest response generators we've ever had. But despite the fact that Highway Helga is now officially the 235th poster who hates the made-up name we've given her - seriously, everyone, we're just some pudknockers having fun - we're very grateful for the thought-provoking post, one that has really brought light to a situation many of our tenured and tenure-track folks are frankly a little astonished by.

We've got such a vast pool of things to pull from, we thought we might give you a sampling of the mail that has been coming in since yesterday morning, in addition to a couple of longer posts we'll post later.

  • I used to be a freeway flyer adjunct before I got on the tenure-track gravy train & all I can say is that Helga must have a good crystal meth dealer because that is the only thing that could animate the corpse that is madly dashing around teaching 11 courses. I once taught six and it nearly killed me. To answer your questions: No, it’s not fair to the students & it’s not fair to – or good for – Helga. Helga’s situation, though, is the reductio ad absurdum of the system that has developed over the last thirty years in which college administrators cut one corner after another and patch the mess that’s left with adjunct hires. But self-exploiters like Helga don’t help. Helga, Just Say No!

  • I’m also an adjunct in a large metro area, and I understand how Helga could end up teaching 11 classes. There’s always a university or two begging on my college’s doorstep for additional adjuncts to pick up a class or two. It’s hard to resist that extra money just waving itself in my face. That said, my first reaction was to think, “My GOD, that woman’s INSANE!!!!” My second, more reasoned, reaction was, “Gosh, I hope she’s teaching something with an easier grading load, like math, rather than grading tons of English papers!” My third thought, having actually given it some thought, is “Well, yeah, that’s totally doable.” Although I have no idea how she’s getting from campus to campus that quickly or keeping up with the lesson plans, as long as it’s not too many different classes and they use the same book/books, it sounds reasonable and workable to me.

  • We’ve found that the adjuncts that do this normally have so many shortcuts to make it doable for them that the students are “breezed” through—i.e. Large Group Labs, lab experiments done as a demonstration and the students work up the data as a group, no homework, few if any quizzes, minimal exams (that aren’t tough enough to distinguish A’s from B’s). The students get exactly what they want (large grade, small effort), the tenured faculty get what they want (a body in the classroom that is not them), and the administration gets what it wants (large volumes of students pushed through with minimum pay-scale instructor). Everyone wins… except education.

  • Adjuncts are essential economically for colleges today. If it weren't for us, enrollment would have to stagnate and drop, or tuition would increase beyond ridiculous. Even working as hard as I do, I barely make half the salary of an untenured full time instructor at any of the colleges where I teach, with no benefits. I have an office at one of the universities, not that I have time to sit in it often and mull over my fate! I'm not complaining, whining or even bitter. I'm actually happy - just tired.

  • I think “Helga” is probably pretty delusional to think that she is able to teach 11 classes and give her all for each of her special snowflakes. I also had course load of 11, and I wanted to rip my own eyes out! I was constantly reading and grading papers, the only “me” time I had was on the toilet. I even dreamed about ways to better grade papers and had student comments, questions, and lame-ass answers/excuses plaguing my dreams. I know I was breezing through my grading just to get it done and be able to sleep a few hours a night. I also know my in-class students weren’t getting my best because I was so freaking tired all the time! I got stellar evaluations also. I don’t know if it’s because I was not as picky with my grading or I am just that fabulous of a person, but I have a sneaking suspicion of what the answer is. On top of that, speaking as a professional in the field of psychology, it doesn’t look like she is devoting enough time to herself to be a balanced individual. We cannot live through our students and work every waking minute. Life is short and if you only half-ass your way through an insane schedule, not only are you cheating your students, but also yourself.

  • Here we go again with the exploited adjunct issue. I AM an adjunct, by the way, but after years of whining and crying "exploitation," I have come to realize that adjuncts have created their own sorry state of affairs by becoming academic whores, willing to turn academic tricks every semester for peanuts. Adjuncts will finally pull their heads out of a very dark (and dank) spot when we demand certain rights and perks afforded to our tenured "peers": 1) Organize into STRONG unions; 2) Demand fair pay for the excellent job most of us do; 3) Demand pro-rated benefits, such as health care, retirement, professional travel, and education; 4) Insist on two-year contracts; if enough adjuncts do this, then colleges will be forced to negotiate fair contracts for their part time instructors; 5) Insist on reasonable office space. Broom closets and cars are unacceptable; 6) Refuse to be marginalized; we have the numbers to back us up. Speak up and out--and often.
  • Oh, lord. I thought I had it bad at five. The reaction I get from most people when I tell them "five" is one of horror - how can I do that much? And I've only got them spread around three colleges. I don't know how Helga manages it. How does she keep the classes straight? How does she manage to be at the right place at the right time? I've had two horrible days where I realized I had the wrong books, on the wrong campus, at the wrong time. More classes would only compound the error. Also, surely her numerous departments would disapprove. I spend a ridiculous amount of time "covering my tracks." All three of my schools frown on those who teach at more than one place. (Of course, obeying their rules would leave me homeless and hungry and at the mercy of collection agencies.) I don't think my students are getting my best teaching effort. I often leave class with the feeling of regret that I can't linger to talk to the one or two fresh-eyed students who really have things to contribute. I can't put the time in to preparing for the classes that I would like to. I won't change textbooks because there is no time for me to review new ones. But given the way adjuncts are paid...and there any way our students can get "our best effort"?

  • Bless Highway Helga's long-suffering little heart. By accepting such conditions, she is a huge part of the problem, and if she expects sympathy, it won't be forthcoming from THIS quarter. This adjunct, by the way, tried to organize her part time peers; however, no one wanted to "rock the boat." The hell with you all; I hope you LOVE wallowing in your self-misery.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Eleven." At Any Point In Any Day, Highway Helga Is Either Driving or Grading.

In our recent poll that asked how many classes people taught each semester, our highest option was "5+." That wasn't nearly high enough for some regular readers, and certainly not high enough for one of our favorites, "Highway Helga," who is currently teaching 11 classes this semester.

She reports to us, we assume, between classes - or instead of sleeping.


Last year I put 17,000 miles on my car. One of my colleges has several campuses--and pays the least. When gas went up so much this year, I said I would only teach at the campus nearest me--and that's a big help. While I go to the highest bidder, I also look at distances and close is a good thing, to paraphrase Martha Stewart.

The accelerated programs that colleges are starting all over the place are wonderful because of the pay, the time, the mix of students (young and old). For the same time period (a semester), one can teach two courses--almost double the money that "regular" college pays.

Okay--now here's one more thing--I love teaching. My evaluations are good, and my standards are high.

Here's my schedule:


MW 8
MW 10
MWF noon
TTh 8:15
TTh 10
TTh 11:30

Night and Weekend:

M 6-9
W 5:30-8:30
Sat 9-3 (every other week)

How on earth? Well, I work every hour God sends. I teach in a large metro area, and no one has ever told me I couldn't teach this many classes. I do a heavy load in the fall to make up for summer and spring when there are not so many courses offered for adjuncts. It feels good when it is spring, and I only have 8 courses. Rather like a batter warming up with half a dozen bats who then drops them to pick up one.


We know a good number of our regular readers are adjuncts, and we're wondering what their take is on this kind of schedule. What about your regular faculty folk, do you think Helga is giving each student the best experience possible? Could you teach 11 courses in the same way you teach your 2, 3, or 4 now? Is this dangerous to Helga? Dangerous to the quality of education? How much are adjuncts teaching at your college, and how much is too much? Share your ideas here.

Reasonable. We're Always Knocked Out When Someone Just Walks In And Is Reasonable. The "Screw 'Em" Post.

I think it's normal to care if your students like and respect you. Personally, I prefer respect. But, I know that you can't please everyone all the time - especially the spoiled brats who seem to be the most vociferous. Negative comments do hurt. Students do not understand the time and effort we put into our courses. They think we just show up at class time, yammer at them for an hour, and then disappear back into the professor mist from whence we sprang. Because most of them spend so little time preparing for class themselves, they think we go in with no preparation also. They are egocentric and lack empathy. But, that is the nature of the late adolescent beast. For that reason I consider student comments in context.

What do you know about the student who's making the comment? If it's a D to C student who achieved that distinction by giving you lazy work (or no work at all), disregard whatever they say completely. They blame you for not gifting them with grades they haven't earned. They will not be happy with you even if you show up at their dorm and do all their laundry for them.

You should also disregard any student comments on evaluations that complain that the class is "too hard." That comment is meaningless, unless no other students the class were able to earn Bs and As. The way I see it, if some students were able to make higher grades, then higher grades were possible and the class was not "too hard." It's the students who did not make As and Bs who were doing something wrong then; not me.

Comments that you are "boring" should also be taken with a grain of salt. You are there to teach, not entertain. Are you boring, or is the subject boring? Let's face it: some of the stuff we teach is boring. I have taught research methods several times, and short of tap dancing through the lessons, I can think of no way to make that more interesting. Sometimes, the material is what it is. And quite often, the stuff we find fascinating, many students will find duller than watching paint dry. There is nothing you can do about that. Don't concentrate on the snoozer in the back row. Concentrate on the student in the front row who is awake and attentive. He obviously finds what you have to say less boring.

Finally, face the fact that your class may indeed be "a waste of time" for some students. How many classes did you take as a student that have proved to be little more than filler in your schedule? I took that Music Appreciation class because I had to take something in that area to fulfill my requirements, and that seemed the least painful. But, I barely remember it now and it has brought no enrichment to my life. However, it was not the professor's fault that I did not find it useful to my life or my major. Those were the University requirements. I think most students recognize that it is not our fault that they have to take classes unrelated to their majors. I'm sure few hold it against us personally. And the ones that do? Screw 'em.

Academic Haiku Friday!

What needs to be cited?

Explain more on


How should the body paragraphs be set up?

How many should we have?

What are we doing?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

This Guy Is Just Dying For Us to Call Him an Asshole. So, Okay. You're an Asshole.

Hi. It’s me. That guy who sits in the front row and does things that are completely disruptive, but which are sneaky enough that you can’t really bust me for them.

I know what you’re thinking. “Did he really just whistle the first measure of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel' while I was having an enriching and animated discussion with a student in the back row?” Why yes, I did. And for the record, I really do sing songs under my breath when you aren’t looking, giggle for no apparent reason, and on my best days, stare at your wardrobe in a way that is bound to make you uncomfortable.

Why do you let me get away with it? I rely on your integrity as a teacher. I know that you’d rather spend quality time with the rest of the class while I clown around and make you feel flustered, helpless and angry than confront me directly and openly. In a way, it’s like vandalism or road rage. Your inability to think like me renders me invisible in your class.

You have trouble considering me even to be of the same species as you because I do things that violate every rule of politeness and decorum that you know of. You plan, and plot, and render yourself apoplectic thinking about what you’ll do to me during class tomorrow—the “pre-class one-on-one” (ah, but I’ll be late that day) the “stop what you’re doing and shout me down” (but once you get up the nerve, I will have stopped and you’d look like an idiot) the “couched reference within a lecture to immature students who act in a certain way without direct confrontation” (which only validates my control over the class)—each of these will fail.

Why? I’m a sneaky little shit, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. I just thought I’d rub it in a bit more.

We Finish Up Our Series on Weakness With These Quick Blasts of Negative Energy.

  • I talk too much when I'm nervous. I'm always nervous. I ramble. I get really excited about things my students don't care about, like, or understand. I'm a nerd, a dork, a geek. I care too much about what these kids think of me. I know I shouldn't. I suspect I grade more kindly the students I like, and make no exceptions for the students I don't. And I might favor the girls over the boys. I'm self-conscious, needy, insecure, talky, naive, and judgmental. In other words: the weaknesses I have as a prof are the same weaknesses I have as a person.

  • I've stopped spending enough time on grading. I just give rather general grades to anything that comes in, basing it - a little bit - on whether the student is a pain in the ass or not.

  • I've been teaching for ten years now, and have a stock set of assignments and lesson plans that work beautifully. That's caused me to be incredibly lazy. I don't prepare for class anymore, except for photocopying old stuff. It never occurs to me to try something new, or order a new book. This term a book I like to use (and that I have a series of assignments for) went out of print. The book store couldn't find it anywhere, and so I used a personal relationship I have with my department chair to buy 60 copies of the thing off of eBay and I lend the books to my students and at semester end I'm going to take them back in and give them to my class in the Spring, too.

  • I'm always late to class. It ranges from 5-7 minutes. I know that adds up to a couple of hours a semester, but I really give my all for the time I am there, and the students don't seem to mind.

  • I have no ability to tell if a student is feeding me a line of B.S. or not. And when I guess, I often find out later I was wrong. I denied one kid a chance at a re-take because of his "lame" excuse about a terrible car accident on the highway to the college. Two days later I read about a 25 car wreck on the same highway, at the time and on the day as the student claimed. That student never looked at me the same, and I'm sure I lost any chance of helping him.

  • I didn't want it to happen, but since I got tenure, I spend more time on my own projects than I do on classroom stuff. I say, let the junior faculty carry the load.

  • I have become increasingly sensitive to the opinions of my students over the years. If I have 90 "best class I ever took! greatest professor I ever had!" comments and one "unbelievably dull, could be a great subject if someone else taught it," I will obsess over that one comment all summer long and feel miserable well into the next year.

  • I'm a happily married female professor, and I find I favor the young girls in my class over their loutish and ill-mannered male counterparts. I don't want this to happen, and I constantly try to find a way around it, but the "boys" in my classes behave horribly, arrive in soiled and smelly clothing, and either treat me like their mother, or stare at my tits as if they were reading the fine print on the back of a Red Bull.

  • I resent how poorly my chair and Dean treat me on a personal level, and I've begun to take it out on my students. They're no great prizes, but they deserve better than they're getting.

  • My greatest weaknesses – I have more than one – as a teacher are that I’m pretty disorganized and I improvise too much. I also, in my enthusiasm – or is it to cover the silences? – talk too much. Even after twenty-five years, I have not learned to let the silences fester long enough to make the silent students squirm. When I go on & on, I’m covering for them, protecting them from confronting their own ignorance. Do I do it because I want them to like me, or because I love them? That changes from day to day, I think.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What's Wrong With Being Cool For the Cool Kids?

I'm actually rather glad that the first few posts about "weakness" addressed the two things I've been thinking a lot about lately: what my students think of me (or rather, what I think about what my students think of me) and the way we have of calling each other out on weakness.

First, a confession: I am the author of the Cowboy Up Post. I called another professor a potential wuss for wanting to quit in the face of a department that doesn't validate teaching as much as she wishes it would. And I'm ready to admit that I got sharp instead of snuggly because she's on tenure-track, and I'm not. Whatever.

Point is, I wish I'd written an encouraging post instead of a condemnatory one. But let's face it--something about our profession, or our society, or the roiling combination of the two, encourages us to present a face to the world, and each other, of self-assured perfection so perfect that one of the ways we score points is off of each other's insecure heads.

Pick the field--business, politics, professional football, literary criticism--and you're likely to find an accepted way of making yourself look good by making others look bad. One big opportunity to look weak, it occurs to me, is in front of our students. When a lesson plan, reading assignment, or concept doesn't enthrall them the way it was supposed to--the way our much-vaunted educations (frequently from institutions "superior" to the ones where we teach, right?) and years/decades/quarter-centuries of experience led us to believe it would enthrall and enlighten them, we risk looking like idiots, or tyrants, or both. And standing in front of 24-400 undergraduates two-to-fifteen times a week, knowing that we're at least slightly out of touch, knowing that those students came to us fully expecting absolutely useful, 100% comprehensible, knowing that at least five or six of them are asleep or doing the crossword puzzle or thinking about breaking up with their girlfriends, knowing that no matter how good you do today, your tenure review will have more to do with the publications you don't have time to achieve because you're writing lectures that might not enthrall, etc... it's natural to start feeling used, or stupid, or like a chump.

And then you realize that being funny and charismatic just feels *good.*

Let's ask ourselves the following in these situations: are our students learning something accurate and valuable from our classes? Do they leave freshman composition even somewhat better writers? Do they leave History 101 knowing at least a little about history? Can everyone who passes Calc 2 do... whatever it is people who pass Calc 2 have to be able to do, so that bridges don't fall down? If you can answer yes, you're doing a good job.

In more advanced classes, I felt okay expecting the students to bring their A game at least twice a week, and by and large it happened. Being a dork at my thing was both funny to them and educationally productive. It's in the introductory, required shit that I found myself compromising my useful dorkitude to make them laugh so that we could all get through the 75 minutes. But at the end of the day, I tried hard to be able to say, "yes, maybe I was a little cloying about the baseball team with the baseball player, but I also made a good point about semi-colons."

We get to enjoy our jobs. We don't have to do this job EXCLUSIVELY because we feel like we "owe" the People of Pennsyl-tenne-sconsin the education of a Land Grant University... as long as you do, in fact, keep the learning process at the center of your teaching, you're allowed to enjoy the fact that you seem cool to the cool kids for the first time in your life. Don't sleep with them, okay? But if the pretty girls or boys (or girls AND boys, for that matter) flirt with you and you like the feeling, and it keeps you from tossing yourself off the building or yelling at your own children or quitting to take some job where you will likely NEVER get to what?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

No More the Academic Romantic.

I will confess that when I started teaching I was still romantic about education.

But it ended fairly early in my second year when I realized that most of my students did not want to be there, and did not - certainly - want anything more than a grade and a degree.

And so my weakness is that I simply punch the clock. And before anyone gets too excited, I believe I still do a good job. I like my field, know it well, and have certain facilities to get it in front of the vacuous student body.

I know others like me who are tormented by these feelings. They worry that their passion is gone, that they're charlatans. The others, the believers, would never understand my view, and therefore I don't share it with them.

You may ask why I don't get out, make a difference, do something else. Well there are a number of reasons, I guess. I don't have any other marketable skills. The hours are terrific. I work 5 days a week, but it's never all day. My pay is substantially less than my brothers - who are a plumber, a banker, and the assistant manager of a grocery store - but it pays for my cable, mortgage, groceries, and a modest amount of fun.

It is not the life I dreamed of, but most of my waking hours are NOT spent on worrying about the pajama-panted snowflakes. I have a great life away from the campus, and I wouldn't trade it.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Scenes From a Midterm.

  1. Student e-mail: “I forgot to get a blue book for the test tomorrow morning. I just wanted to let you know that I might be a few minutes for the test, if the bookstore doesn't open early. Thanks.”

  2. Faceless high schooler: “I forgot to get that blue book. Do you have any extras?”

  3. Three sorority sisters, in unison: “Whaddaya do if we don’t have a blue book?”

  4. Compulsively smiling coed: “I completely forgot my blue book!”

  5. Former valedictorian: “Where do we get the blue books?”

  6. Muddled half-dressed coed: “Umm…I don’t have that blue sheet thing…”

  7. Stoned young male voter: “What if I don’t have a blue book?”

  8. Total stranger: “Are we having an exam today?”

  9. Future Jesuit priest: “Exactly what do you mean by ‘blue book’?”

  10. Future lawyer: “I don’t have my blue book WITH me, but…”

Saturday, October 6, 2007

What Else Can This Be Called: "The Spitter."

To the Precious Little Snowflake in the Parking Lot,

You should be thanking God or the Spaghetti Monster or whatever deity you prefer that you are not actually one of my students. When you came barreling through the middle of the parking lot this morning on your bike with no care for drivers or other students on foot, rocking out on your iPod, I'm sure it never crossed your mind that someone would actually be driving through that very same parking lot. I especially enjoyed the way you cussed me out after you almost ran into the front bumper of my vehicle. (Please note, Cupcake, that YOU almost hit me. I was obeying the rules of the road, perhaps you've heard of those before? Or maybe you were absent that day of first grade.)

While I could not hear your words, the emphatic look on your face and the frantic movement of your lips indicated you were probably inventing new and colorful descriptions for where I could shove it. But you did something that impressed me even more than your creative language. Something that made me fairly quiver in the shadow of your immense gonads. You actually slowed down until you were even with me (cursing at me all the while) and spit on the hood of my car. At first, I could not believe that you actually did this! Were you raised by wolves? No wait, that's an insult to wolves, allow me to rephrase. Were you raised by Jerry Springer guests? Do you actually kiss your mother with that mouth? Although I'm sure you (mistakenly) believe that you know all there is to know about everything, and I'm sure you are still basking in the glow of your self righteous glory (How dare I be in that parking lot while you were trying to speed through the middle of it!), let me pass along a little piece of advice to you.

It is probably NOT wise to spit on cars pulling through an employee parking lot. Professors and instructors (those who teach the classes that I'm sure you rarely attend) park in those lots. While I'm sure it will come as a shock, those are the people who often drive through and park in employee lots. Perhaps you looked through my windshield and decided that I did not resemble any of the people who teach those classes you sleep through. If that's the case, I salute your powers of perception (and stupidity). However, I will submit to you that you are awfully lucky that you are not in any of my classes. Had you been, we would have a serious problem and the remainder of the semester would not be looking good for you.

In closing, I wish you well in all of your future pursuits. I'm sure that you'll enjoy relating this story to some co-ed at an upcoming party as you try to feel her up while plying her with strong drink and distracting her with tales of your bravery against evil (but law abiding) instructors like myself. For her sake, I hope that she is not fooled by your pretty words. Clearly, your mama did not teach you anything about respecting others, so I'm sure that co-ed is better off in the long run without your inebriated gropings and the inevitable attempts at a "real relationship" that are sure to follow. If you want to have good relationships with anybody, I'd suggest you take a moment and consider common courtesy. It will serve you far better in the long run than anything of the things that you have likely avoided learning so far.

An Instructor in Need of a Car Wash

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Fuddy-Duddy Post + a Quick Response!

I will admit to being and old fuddy-duddy in the academic wars. I taught my first college-level course in 1962.

I have read with some interest the endless caterwauling on this site about students and their entitlement. What students are entitled to is my best, my best as a professor, my best as a writer, and my best as a mentor. They aren't entitled to the kind of treatment they apparently get from their parents, friends, maids, and handservants, however.

In the 25 years I've been at my current post, I've watched the administration turn over and over in attempts to keep students happy. Not once in those years can I imagine a similar maneuver to please those of us who teach.

Long tenured and soon to retire, I don't give a tinker's dam what students think they need or want. I'm going to trust a lifetime in this discipline to guide me.

Those of who you are all tied up in knots about student evaluations and your own likability, might find comfort in another field. Why it matters so much to so many of you (via the reports I read on this blog) is perplexing. The colleagues of mine who also are of a certain age certainly don't worry about it, not one whit.

I do my job well. I still have a love for the field. I instruct and guide and those in the room who care and who work, learn. If it's old fashioned, then so be it.


I'm a third year professor at a large state school in the South, and I want to say that Prof. Fuddy-Duddy is my new hero.

I have struggled with my profession ever since grad school, and his post today has had a freeing effect on me. I'm going to trust myself, my knowledge, my 20 years of college, and my experience in the classroom. I've jumped through the necessary hoops for a PhD in my field from a good school, and - although I've been cowed into not admitting this in the past - I know what I'm doing!

Prof. Fuddy-Duddy's simple and elegant explanation is the fuel that's going to keep me going in a job that I've questioned since the beginning. His note about being tied up by "likability" concerns cut me deep. I've been so worried about my students approving of me, liking me, that I've catered to their concerns, the concerns and needs of 18 year olds who simply don't have the background I have in the study of History.

I have their needs in mind. I want them to succeed. I want them to learn and be better students and citizens, and I've been prepared for this job. I am going to do it the way I think it needs to be done starting today. No fear, that's how I feel. Prof. Fuddy-Duddy has taught me today, just like I'm sure he's taught thousands of students in his long career.

If you could, please send a shout-out to him for me.

Our "Go-To" Student Arrives Just in Time To Save Our Sanity, And To Make a Request To Meet Him Halfway.

Okay, I get it. It sucks hard to lecture every day to a class of largely unmotivated, uninterested students, who probably haven't done their readings at all and almost certainly haven't retained much if they have. I understand that's why you pause for painfully long intervals, waiting for someone to finally chip in and contribute something. And exactly because I understand, I'm usually there to throw you a lifeline. Partly I do it for myself, because I'd rather steer the conversation towards something (I find) interesting. Partly I do it for you, because I'm sure the silence is more painful from up front than it is from my row in the class. Yeah, you sure as hell know me. I'm your go-to student.

Now, let's get something straight. There are students who have a lot to say and very little to contribute. They make your day suck and they don't make mine any better either. But trust me when I say I know the difference between a go-to student and a never-shuts-up-even-though-he-has-nothing-to-say student. I know I'm not the only go-to student around. Once in a rare while there are a couple of us in a class. Then we can share duties, look less like over-eager spaniels, and you can really relax for a change. I'm sure there are many classes with no go-to students. I don't know what those feel like, because I've obviously never been in one, but I imagine they drag like a sack full of hammers.

So now that I've identified myself, let me make my request. Meet me halfway, okay? Enough with the bitching and moaning about how all of your students are uninspired and don't hang on your every word. Did someone once tell you that life is like a box of chocolates? They were lying. All chocolates are good. Just some are better than others. Life isn't like that and in fact you have to eat a lot of shit along with the chocolate. Your great achievements in scholarship, and your PhD, don't insulate you from this basic reality of life. Maybe you hoped they would, but then you learned otherwise. Now you're bitter and you spend your time on Rate Your Students feeling all sorry for yourself. Well, get over it.

Meet me halfway, that's all I ask. I'll do my bit to interject some life into the classroom when you pause hopefully for discussion, and you do your bit by doing your damn job. Come prepared, with a reasonably positive (or failing that, at least professional) demeanor. Don't half-ass your way through things just because you wanted the chocolate orange crème and somehow ended up with a cashew nut instead. The students who aren't paying attention to you anyway may not notice, when you stop trying, but I do. The very people you count on most, to relieve the tedium of your most boring lectures, are the few who notice when you figure it doesn't matter anymore.

And by the way. Yes, I know other students think I'm lame for participating in your class, and for giving a fuck about what you teach. And yet I still do. Unless you live all alone in a hole underground, you surely understand that whether it's fair or unfair, reasonable or otherwise, it sucks for me to know the large majority of my fellow students are going to scorn me for my contributions, sooner than appreciate them. So pony up in return. It's the least you can do.