Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Our Series on Proffie Fear Continues, And In This One, Paula from Passaic Worries For Her Fella.

My deepest fear as a proffie has nothing to do with me. I'm also married to a proffie and my biggest fears are with him.

The self-inflated, "never say I'm less than amazing," narcissism of the contemporary undergrad extends from their papers to their poon. I've seen a crop of little girls in my husband's office flashing him their panties, begging for a grade, sweating their plagiarism charges.

He tells me about awkward situations in classes and office hours and I find myself longing to put my hands around their little necks and choke their very lives out of them. Or at least make them brown out a little. They have no respect for any institution, any authority, any boundaries or lines that don't suit their momentary lust for something. And, my would I love to remind them that might, when applied to things that cannot think above their gonads, does make right.

I love my husband, I trust my husband, but I hold my breath during his office hours, terrified to knock or push open the door the full way, fearing that I'll find some grade-grubbing 18 year old whose IQ qualifies her only to be the bouncer at a strip joint, doing... something. I can't even gauge the full range of what these students will do for a grade. But I can assess how it makes me feel and violence is definitely on the table. So, I fear the oversexed or oversexualized undergraduate girl willing to do anything to anyone for a "better" grade. But I fear more my reaction to her.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Trudy From Texarkana Invites Us Inside Her Brain on Exam Day. (Oooh, It's Messy Up In Here!)

I sure hope Sam doesn’t get his phone out again today, after I told them no cell phones during lecture. I hate to confront them about things like that. I get a knot in the pit of stomach every time. I guess I am just not tough enough to keep control. They cooperate most of the time, but I never know what a day holds . . .

I’m giving a test in my next class . I hope I didn’t leave my locked keys in the office with it. I trust that I wrote the test ok . . . what if it is too easy and they all make As! That won’t work . . . if they all fail, I can curve grades up, but what do I do when I know they did too well on the test for it to be realistic?

Attendance is up today . . . the day I have to lecture on that topic I struggled with all the way through undergrad. Bob is here . . . gunning for me already, I can tell by his smirk. Just because someone is a good student doesn’t mean I like them. I like some of the bad students, too . . . Why are they laughing every time I turn my back today? Why do Jim and Fred keep grinning at me during class? Is my hair messed up? Is there lint stuck on my seat? I can’t do anything about it -- I’m in the middle of a lecture! Oh please Don – don’t ask me that question! I DON’T KNOW! I should know, yes . . . but today I just can’t remember and can’t seem to get it thought through. I don’t have any business teaching if I can’t answer question!

Where are my keys! The test is in four minutes and I can’t get in my office for my keys! The secretary is gone to lunch, the chair is at a meeting, no one within four minutes of me can get me in! Oh good – here they are. Where are the tests! Did I leave them at home! Oh, here they are . . . in my hand, all along.

I hope I made enough copies of the test, the stack looks too small. Oh well, I guess I’ll find out in a minute. Oh great, Pete and Pam and copying from each other again. I hate to start that whole “academic dishonesty” mess going, so maybe I’ll just stand near them during the test. Not that it is going to help their grades any to cheat – when neither of them knows the material. Two empty heads ARE NOT better than one! Oh great, 10 minutes into the test and half of the class if finished. This is not a good sign . . . I’ll have to toughen up the test next time . . . wait! This is the LAST EXAM!

Jen from Jonesboro Just Says No To Grading.

My biggest fear is that they (students, colleagues, my department chair) will learn I never grade anything. Well almost nothing, I do grade exams, but not much else. Sometimes I read papers if I make them write one, which is not often.

Here is how I figure my system works. I teach around 250 students a semester, 4 classes, usually 2 preps but sometimes 3. So I figure, just showing up for class and knowing 20 kids names I am doing pretty good.

But my colleagues all bitch and moan about grading! I keep my mouth shut because, WTF do I care if they waste their time grading. I think grading just means you want them to see the world the way you do and most people don’t like it when students see the world differently. I am here to tell you students see the world totally differently than we do.

So I like to focus my energy on what I bring into the class. I spend a lot of time on prep – even for classes I have taught for years; new stuff, new topics, new ideas, new technology. I figure if the students know I am on top of my game, they will think I am grading everything. I also figure that they are either going to sink or swim with or without me.

I hope that I can motivate students to do their best, whatever that best is. For some it may be a C and others an A. All learning is self driven, so if I have add to their motivation by making class interesting, they will learn.

All the extra work I give has one purpose, for them to be prepared for class. They think they are doing all these cool projects and I am getting them into the text book and notes long before the night of the exam. I figure that way, all assignments that are not exams are given full points and those assignments serve as the curve for the class. All idiots love a curve, so I give them one and they just don’t know it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"So, Who Wants To Be Department Head? Wait, Not So Fast. Where Are You Going?" Mike from Monroe Is Morose.

I’m afraid that I am going to rot in my current position as a “department head” at a CC. I love to teach and I love what I teach, but the resentment I have for the current administration and for the majority of students I come across is palpable.

I have found that the mentality in my workplace reminds me too much of high school, and I’m not talking about the students here. No, amongst the administration and the faculty there are the same sort of cliques that I came across those many years ago. The only difference is that in high school, at least, I felt like my hard work was rewarded (to a degree) whereas in my current position it seems like it is more who you know, rather than what you know or what you are capable of.

Then there are the students. I’m not that old and I constantly find myself wondering at what point did the majority of students turn into these demanding, whining, lazy individuals who think it is ok to do whatever the hell they want in the classroom or act anyway they want to towards the instructor. It’s not just the millennials, either, these behaviors span the generations. Of course there are the students who make it all worth while, but they are getting fewer and farther between as each term passes.

I keep telling myself that as long as I can hang on for about five more years, until the house is paid of and until I am vested with the state then I can quit and go back and get my PhD. Nothing would please me more than to walk in and tell the big boss to shove it up his ass and tell him how fucked up the hiring practices and salary practices are at the institution where I used to love to work. Unfortunately, these days, I find myself wondering if that is such a good idea. I’m thankful to have a job, and it is a pretty good job at that, but I cannot deny the fact that I am miserable. My greatest fear is that I will remain in a job that makes me miserable the majority of the time because of the lack of other options out there.

The Bitchy Bear from Boston on Office Rannygazoo!

My uni requires at least 3 office hours a week per class. You teach two classes, you're meant to have six hours. So I do. I carefully arrange my schedule so that I have writing days and meeting days/class/ office hour days; I stagger the office hours so that I don't preclude students with TTh or MWF classes being able to come.

And I never have anybody show up. I know: my classes aren't hard enough. But when I do have difficult assignments or a midterm coming, I just get peppered with emails that say "Can u xpln Wlter Benjamin 2 me? Cuz I dnt get it." When I respond with "Benjamin was a complex thinker. It's best we talk in person. Why not stop by my office Monday?" I get either no response or "Ok thx" in return, and on Monday, I will be in my office, with moss growing all over me, and nobody showing up to talk about Walter Benjamin or anything else.

Alternatively, the answer will be "I cnt cum on Monday, gt clss." Me: "How about Thursday's office hours?" Them: "Nocndo. I need appt." Then my assistant will go through 70 emails trying to schedule this person, between his apparently 4,000 classes a week, his 1,400 hours of work, his volleyball game, and his bunion-prevention exercises, and I will show up, on one of my normal, at-home writing days no less, during the only 30 minutes he has available in the next 72 years....only to have moss grow on me again while nobody shows up.

If my dean is reading this, you should know that I put those hours to extremely good use and the high score I have on Breakquest is entirely coincidental.

The only thing that seems to vitiate the nobody-showing-up rule is if **I** don't show up or even step out for minute to get my mail or a cup of coffee. Then we seem to enter a parallel office-hour universe where simply hordes of people show up just to see me, and I'm not there. If I have to be gone and miss office hours, I will announce it two weeks ahead of time, again a week ahead of time, and post it on Blackboard. Inevitably, like the sun rising in the east, I will receive email after email saying: "I needed help and you weren't theerrrrrrre. I waited and waited and waited." Then, of course, the same comment goes on my evaluation along with a emphatically blackened spot under "poor" for "This instructor was available for questions outside of class."

My office hours only ever have a rush during one time: when I catch some little shithead cheating and it's time for him to tell me his life story as a misunderstood genius whose parents didn't potty train him right/grandma died/abusive piano teacher killed his desire to learn, or at the end of the semester when it's time to badger and grub. Someday I will tell you the story about the student who, impatient at having to wait while another student grubbed, stood in my door and snapped his fingers for five solid minutes to let us know we were displeasing him.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Len from Las Cruces on His Worst Fear. (He Wins the Free Mug, and We Hope He Fills It With Something that Will Help.)

The "winner" of the RYS Mug Contest is someone who's not appeared on the page before, Len from Las Cruces. We went into this endeavour with high hopes, and the RYS readership didn't let us down. We received 147 entries, and the three current moderators split the entries up, sharing with the others their top 5. At that point, however, Len's ended up being an easy pick.

One of the things that makes RYS moderatorship so difficult (and we're not including the wild animals that live just outside the compound fence), is hearing these stories. But we hope that in some way sharing these things, these fears, these struggles, we can all recognize the problems in the profession, and one day - oh, we know it's crazy - fix them.


I can't think of many things within the profession that don't cripple me with fear. So your query is not some fresh-as-a-baby concept upon which I'm stumbling for the first time.

Instead, it's driven and pummeled me throughout my career, grad school to 10 years in.

But the thing that scares me the most, the thing that keeps me up at night in my cups rather than snoring beside Lady Len, is that I've wasted my entire life on a profession, a calling, and a career that isn't worth a drop of my energy or blood.

Is it too strong to say that I simply don't think college works?

I'm one of those humanities proffies who seem to fill RYS's pages, always confused and heartbroken over those students who can't read, write, or think. And of course the same proffies who seem to take a licking on the page whenever they pop their fair skinned domes into target range. ("Humanities? Don't you know we're swimming in ducats over here in the Biz School / Chem Department?")

I fear that my romantic notion (really "Romantic," in that sense) of being a college professor was fueled by all the same silly novels and films that get mentioned on the page. I thought I'd be doing something, making a difference, helping young minds grow rapturous and fat on the vine. But it's all bullshit, as anyone can tell you. I fear that what I thought would be my life's work is no more gallant or noble or useful than if I'd just decided to tattoo people or style hair for a living.

What good comes of it? What good comes for the 18 out of 20 students who sorrowfully spend 16 weeks with me each term? Those 18 kill my spirit, make me want to set myself (or them) on fire. And they fight me from day one to day last. They don't want to be in college, and have 999 reasons for it that I can't even begin to defeat or answer.

Those 18 come in dumb, go out dumb, too. And they've been sold a bill of goods by their parents, the culture, the media, their high school counselors, etc. The way college has devolved is into a sort of grade 13/14 mess of bullshit remediation, caretaking, and babysitting. We don't challenge them because - my god - the customer in them won't stand for it. And after 10 years of fighting this - modestly, I'm no hero - I have fallen into the groove dug for me by my colleagues.

I fear that most of the students I see are not helped one bit by my part in their college "experience." I buy into the bullshit like they do. They must go to college. Someone must teach them.

And so I fear I do nothing for 18 out of 20 students every term. They do nothing for me. It's a sweet deal. It's a wash. Money has changed hands. Sometimes degrees are printed and framed, and it was all just a financial exercise.

Oh, the other 2 in each class. Well, they're in college for the right reasons, on their own, because they want to find out where it takes them. They buy their ticket just the same, but they make use of it. They talk and engage, and in those moments when it's me and them, I'm doing what I thought I would spend my life doing.

But I fear that the ratio is not enough. If it were not for those 2, I'd be looking for consulting work, or a nice shiny revolver to eat. (Don't tell, Mrs. Len, because she's still proud her husband is a teacher.)

Is there anything worse to think? Is there anything more dispiriting than this?

I fear it's all been for nothing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Scranton Suzanne Offers Advice to Nila. A Response For Those Suffering With a Male Student Egomaniac.

I don't know what your field is, but I urge you to, among other things, take a look at some of the social psychology research on the intersections of race, gender, appearance, etc and college professing. It's well documented that (tall) apparently white, apparently hetero men speaking unaccented English embody many students' image of 'college professor.' It's who they imagine when they're thinking about the role/occupation. Such characters are much more easily accorded respect and authority and the studies show, have to actively do things to lose students' respect and to lose authority. Others - the short, the female, the "of color," the international, those with accented English (but not Anglo-accented English) - start from a one-down position, where we must work to earn authority and respect. We are not seen to embody it automatically just by virtue of who we are. Looking at some of the research on this (see particularly an article by Gabe or Gabriel Smith about faculty of color and syllabi) might give you insights and may encourage you to know you are NOT alone.

So what can we do? First, I always teach in professional dress, which appears to me to be best exemplified by a blazer, slacks, a shoe with a heel, minimal jewelry. I wear makeup because I look a little younger without it. I've found very comfortable shoes that have (non-stiletto) heels - height conveys authority. Slacks convey masculinity in a sense. Costuming is vital.

Second, my syllabus is groaning under its own weight - 8+ pages and growing every year. I've found different ways to convey the idea that I mean business, from Day One. (My students now complete a syllabus contract to attest that they have read and understand everything in the syllabus.) Some of what's in the syllabus: I don't discuss grades on papers, tests, etc until the student has had the grade for at least 24 hrs and I don't discuss them by email, only in person in office hours (e.g., my turf, both of us sitting down). I am direct in the language and have grown terser and terser, eg, "6 absences? You will be withdrawn from the course." It is easier to begin with some seriousness and an all-business attitude and migrate to something more jocular or loose later in the term.

Third, I read teaching and pedagogy guides, books, and websites with frequency; I bone up during breaks and in the summer. They give me techniques and tools for clarity, order, logic, assessment, etc that have become the backbone of my teaching. I have seen that the more order, logic, and organization I have employed, the more student complaints of all sorts have diminished, and the more this kind of sexist (and racist) posturing has decreased. The work on dealing with difficult students has helped me gain insights into their posturing and conduct as well; though they aren't bringing much more than knee-jerk behaviors supported by a stratified culture, I can at least bring an analysis to the situation (and it helps).

Another thing is that, depending on your subject and the other students in the course, chances are that other students see the Egomaniac for what he is. Employ their help in effect. Egomaniac goes on tangent in class discussion and attempts to puff up his insignificant chest? Flip his comment or question to other students. Open it up to the other students. If a student rolls his eyes when EgoBoy hijacks the class, say, 'I just saw a reaction - you had a look on your face - please comment,' and Eye Roller will take some of EgoBoy's energy out of the room by disagreeing.

I have begun to teach critical thinking in such a way that whenever I have a tool like this, I can always go back to critical thinking and say, "What's your evidence for that claim?" Or "where in the reading is the evidence in support of the claim you just made?" Or "That sounds like your point of view." And then I ask the class, "Why is that his point of view and not an evidence-based argument?" Then they help out - because opinions are blah blah, or evidence enables us to.... This goes back to the whole 'logical, ordered, presenting ideas bigger than mine' approach I referenced above.

I have to be honest and say that I rarely (any longer) get the sort of student you describe, mainly because he is not at all drawn to the subjects I teach, so I am a little out of practice in dealing with the Male Student Egomaniac. But I used to get him and his cousins all the time, when I was younger and felt less of my own authority (nothing like earning tenure). They whipped out everything on me: standing while in my office so that he towered over me, clearly a dominance move, complete with pounding on my desk; threatening me with reports to the dean, the chair, the president of the college; email whines and rants; nasty course evals about me being a "feminazi" (highly original); making sexual comments about me to other students, covertly, during class, as a way to demean me and try to put me in my place, and on and on.

The other thing you should do, if you haven't already, is find a faculty mentor (dept or not) whom you can trust. You need to know that someone in power has your back and that they understand the context in which students evaluate, perceive, and judge us. Profs teaching sensitive or controversial courses (or required courses that are seen as drudgery) need to know that context will be factored into upper-level reviews of their work as they progress toward tenure. If I am a Black woman teaching courses on race where half my students are gen ed requirement-fillers, then chances are that I will have negativity based on my students' racism and sexism. It can be hard to parse out sometimes but I know that someone with more power than I have does have my back and will contextualize my student evals based on knowledge of these unfortunate structural and cultural dynamics.

Newest Syndrome To Afflict Some: Lawn Mower Moms.

I have heard horror stories of helicopter mom's from coworkers in the academic field, from mom's who call professors requesting extensions on assignments to flat out demanding that their little darling get better grades. Very rarely do I come across anything that even shocks me anymore, I before today I would have even ventured to say I was unflappable. However after meeting with Career Services today I have to say that even my jaded self is shocked.

Apparently helicopter moms have brought it one step further and have become lawn mower moms, taking out everything in their path. They are now contacting the potential employers of their little darlings to ask about pay and benefits for jobs their children have interviewed for. These are large companies, such as GM, or corporate banks, that they are contacting without a moment’s hesitation. Even more baffling is the fact that many of these companies are sending out pay and benefit information to the parents of the potential employees they are interviewing! Do they even realize what they are setting themselves up for?

Has the world gone mad? I work in the professional field as well as teach, if a potential employees mother EVER called me and asked what benefit package I was prepared to offer little Timmy I would promptly tell her, “None, we do not hire fetuses incapable of living independently from their mommies here.” I would then cross them off the list! Furthermore if MY mother ever called my potential boss I cannot even form words to describe what I would do, other than perhaps tell said potential boss that she is off her medication and to please ignore her ranting. Are these mothers going to call HR if little Timmy doesn’t get his raise and demand his performance review be sent to her so she can review it? Is she going to go to work with Timmy to make sure he “settles in” alright and no one is mean to him by setting boundaries and expectations?

What the hell is going on? I feel like I am taking crazy pills!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where We Make Sure Some Grad Kids - One Named BOOBIE - Get Their Share of the Smackdown!

It is the time of year in my broad shouldered state when the snow starts to melt and the thesis students began to come apart in delightful ways. After years of competing for advisors, fellowships, and recognition, this year's lumbering pack is beginning to stumble. Of course it is now the time for grad student smackdowns:

  • Oooooh! A whole summer in Paris, all expenses paid, to market a new beverage in 20-something expat bars IS OBVIOUSLY the to-die-for culmination of your lifetime of education. Yes, of course you may take a leave of absence, and when you return, yes you may submit your Paris journal, in place of the required research thesis, for a degree. But I get to pick the degree, and it is looking like Master of Delusion. C'est la vie.

  • Welcome back Dizzy! I know it was rude of me to leave your scheduled thesis defense for the airport, just four hours after you were a no-show. Yes, I did hear that you entered the building exactly when all the examiners were also leaving. No, I didn't get your 22 e-mails while I was on the big big airplane, or in the big city far far away. Really. It is because we crossed the international date line and your e-mails couldn't go back in time and reach me there yet. No no, I don't think the external examiners will want to fly back for a "do-over." Yes, yes, you are certainly still in graduate school. The captain has turned off the seatbelt sign. Please get comfortable for a very long flight.

  • No, THANK YOU! Meathead, for failing to give a clear answer for any of the questions the examiners asked at your thesis defense. Yes, it is rigorous that you did not come to any meetings, respond to any emails, or even live in the same city for the last semester, because you wanted to try to do a thesis "on your own." No, I don't think the external examiner meant it when he asked "how did he ever get into graduate school?" He is not familiar with our cash-based graduate admissions process. Yes, I'm sure he was impressed when you mindlessly read off unrelated citations, like a tone-poem, including one from another students' thesis in place of the expected thesis statement. No, I don't know why people giggle when you tell them your presentation went well. Yes, you too are certainly still in graduate school. No, I will not be approving your thesis proposal, but you may have some lovely cookies for your efforts. And please do drink the complimentary Kool-Aid.

  • That was a gutsy move Boobie, appearing completely immobile for two years and then lightning-fast submitting your horrific incomplete and incoherent first draft directly to the grad school, and then trying to schedule a thesis defense without informing your advisor. Did you think I wouldn't be notified of this, or even be invited to the defense? Fortunately when they called me to confirm, I got to try out all the convoluted obscenities you have muttered under your breath before me. They hung up on me, so I think I pronounced them correctly. Oh, you want to know what to do now? Repeat many times after me: "Do you want fries with that ma'am?"

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nila From New Orleans Needs Our Help. On the "MSE" Archetype.

Every year, in every class, I come across an archetype: The Male Student Egomaniac. The MSE has the following characteristics:

  • smugness
  • overconfident body language
  • verbal diarrhea
  • inability to curb opinions
  • inability to parse relevant facts
  • desire to upstage authority figure (me)
  • desire to prove intelligence
  • tendency to reduce discussion to trivial pursuit game
  • reactionary response to attempt to curb tangential discussion
  • overly willing to argue inconsequential points or factoids

As someone new to teaching, a woman, a minority and being short-ish, I feel like I’m under attack. I have not yet developed an adequate approach to this kind of individual. I am getting very sick of having to deal with these types. Initially, I treated them with kindness and indulgence.

Then I realized that kindness is mistaken for weakness and indulgence is taken for permission. So, now I have taken to cutting off the individual and simply taking the bad evaluation for the sake of my peace of mind and class discipline.

It would be most wonderful to know how others have dealt with such a personality.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Oh Sid." A Student Seeks Insipiration.

Do I really have to read Brothers Grim? How important is it for the midterm? I don't know. I just can't seem to force myself to even open it. I read most of everything else -- Werther was a struggle, and at times painful and torturous -- but I am happy I forced myself to finish it because at times I was ready to throw it out the window.

It's kinda like working out: before you dread it and try to think of every excuse to get out of it, once you're finished you're glad you did it. It's like when I forced myself to sit through Gone with the Wind; I barely made it through, but when it finally...ended I was like, ok, it's done, I don't have to ever see it again, but I am glad I watch it.

I can't seem to find a reason to read Brothers Grimm other than the fact that because I didn't read it, it's now going to be on every question of the midterm (because it seems like thats how things work out).

I don't blame you for making me read this; I dont think you are personally out to get me. Instead, I blame Hollywood for making me sit through that horrific movie that made me re-think the artistry in cinema. I was actually ready to swear off movies in general. Similar to how a bad relationship can turn you gay, this is what this movie did to me. I also blame my primary school education for dumming down these stories and presenting them in a such a ridiculous manner that I feel they are forever tarnished.

How can I read Journey to the Center of the Earth, (which I am sure is an amazing book) after watching Brendan Frasier frolic like the talentless hack he is through the most uninventive, 3D digitalized joke of cinematography around? It makes the latest Indiana Jones look like Schindlers' List; Brendan Frasier and who ever else contributed to this poor excuse for cinema -- please apologize to Jules Verne and the thousands of people who will now never read her book.

Ok, sorry I am getting off topic. The point for writing this, other than the fact that I have drank way too much coffee and my brain needs a break from reading Whitman (whose religion I have offically converted to), is that I need inspiration to help me open the cover of Brothers Grimm; cause I do honestly fear -- literally fear, the boredom it is going to cause. However, if there is only a of couple questions on the midterm that deal with Brothers Grimm, then I am ready to cut my losses and leave it stranded in a coffee shop for some unlucky patron; or send it to Terry Gilliam (who directed Brothers Grimm) in case he wants to make a sequel.

Come on man, you directed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas... so, I am sure you love nothing better than reading and responding to lengthy emails about absolutely nothing on your weekends (I plead you to Inspire me). As I persumably dismiss whatever insults my soul (tacky movies) so as my very flesh will be a great poem.

Sid the Student

What We're Called. What it Means.

Dr. Dickhead -- the one who went to school for umpteen years to get those two fucking syllables before his name -- is/could be one of the professors I used to TA for. What he thinks is "generally liked by students" and receiving "high evaluations" are smoke screens to disguise that everyone thinks he is a giant, constipated asshole. People talk all kinds of shit about him behind his back, from my fellow TAs to the freshmen survey to my own advisor, and stunts like the one he is pulling with his name just underscore his douchebaggery -- he's outright delusional to think that he's being "friendly" and should count up the number of students who registered for his class this semester. He wouldn't even need fingers and toes; his own nuts could work, assuming he has a pair.

By the way, his "generous office hours" are void of students, which he neglects to mention, and he should be lucky to be addressed as anything at all resembling his given name, considering he's about to be known as Dr. I-Am-Never-Asked-To-Be-On-Anyone's-Committee-And-People-Aren't-Participating-In-Any-Extracurricular-Activities-I-Am-A-Part-Of-In-Order-To-Avoid-My-Dickheadedness. Similar to the tree falling in the forest ... can you really be a professor if nobody can stand to be around you long enough to call you anything at all?


Dear Herr Professor Dr. Corcoran, Ph.D.,

I'm glad you enjoy being called "Dr."--so do I. It is nice (sort of) when people over whom we have power show deference (or at least pretend) after we have demanded it. Ya know what's even nicer? When students (or anyone, for that matter) choose to show respect, not because of demands or degrees, but because they deem us respectable (a likely result of us treating them with respect). Calling out "Yeah, Studebaker?" doesn't show much respect. You don't have to lose face if students do not always show respect--just keep acting as if you (and they) are worthy of it. Because you are--and so are they.

But *demanding* respect is undignified. If you can't get it the hard way, then you can't get it at all. Imagine if the Dean demanded to be called "Dean Anus" rather than by his first name ("Tight", presumably)? No one (but for ol' Anus himself) would be fooled. The Dean should earn the respect of the faculty--either that, or just shut his mouth. The faculty should do the same with their students. Yes, even snowflakes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In the Ongoing Fight Against Cheating, One Prof Turns Hattie Hideous For 50 Minutes. Shame.

I gave an exam last week, and as usual, wrote my standard rule on the board: "All hats off or backwards." There are 150 students in the class, and my TA wasn't there to help me proctor - I wanted to see everyone's shining little face. So as I'm circling the class like a vulture, peering down aisles at backpacks, checking for phones, answering the stray question here and there, I pass a girl with her cap still facing forwards. Let's call her, what else, Hattie.

I tap her on the shoulder and pantomime turning her cap around. "Really!? You mean girls too??" Hattie says, horrified.

"Yes, I mean everybody" I reply.

"But I'll look stupid!" she says, pleading with me to let it go. I look around at the entire room bent over their little elbow desks, bubbling determinedly.

"No one will see you today. Turn your hat around or take it off." (Shit, I think to myself, even I wore plaid pants today, knowing nobody would be looking at me for more than a couple minutes before the test, while they desperately ran through their notes for one last minute.)

Hattie explains, "I wouldn't have worn a hat today if I'd known your rule applied to girls!"

"Really, no one is going to see you. Turn your hat around or take it off."

Finally, with a lot of melodramatic sighs, eye-rolls, and martyred shame, she sort of pushed her hat up about half way, turned it to the side so it scrunched up her hair in a weird way, and then held it there with one hand, askew, the whole rest of the exam, casting baleful glances at me periodically.

Up at the front of the room again, I appraised her subsequently way more "homeless trucker" style, when instead she could have taken it off and looked fine, or even turned backwards it might have looked sort of cute and tom-boyish, and I thought to myself, well, yes, now you do look stupid. Good show.

Todd from Trenton Wonders Why Some Teeter on the Edge of the Academy.

The Fall semester after my Dad had a heart attack, I found myself a bit overwhelmed …and unemployed. I had run through my program’s allotted 3-year funding promise (which ignored the fact that few graduated before year 6), so I needed to find something to pay the bills while I tried to continue with my research and exam prep. By fortune’s favor, an e-mail appeared on the departmental listserv requesting an adjunct instructor at Cross-Town U. CTU was a tech-heavy school, but the class was actually in my exact specialty of study. I was perfect for it! So I applied.

After being contacted by the faculty scheduler, we arranged an appointment for my interview. The building was hot as an oven, and when I made an offhand comment about the hot day, I apparently offended my interviewer. Oops. During the course of the interview, I was informed this meeting was simply a formality, that I already had the job, and that I just needed to make the class fun for the students; I could even let them out early if I wanted! Yes, this was at a “respectable” university that many of you have heard of. I smiled, nodded, and then resolved to teach the course seriously, fully expecting my students to do the same. Don’t laugh.

The first day of class went well, but a student approached me with a problem at the end. See, he was finishing his senior project and he needed to skip class the last 4 weeks of the 11-week quarter to finish it. I was stunned, but since I didn’t know the campus culture (other than to “make class fun!”) I told him I’d have to think about it. I eventually told him he’d have to come to every, single 9 a.m. class session for the entire 11 weeks (except for the allowable absences, which amounted to 15% of the term). He was grumpy, but did it.

Several of the students made the semester hell. One student not only performed poorly, but plagiarized on a paper; I reported him to the higher-ups and he proceeded to stalk me for 3 months. Another student claimed her father died, then handed in a plagiarized paper; it killed me to have to turn her in, but I decided not to fail her, a decision I now regret. Another student stole definitions from online for a paper instead of following the instructions and writing them himself. Other students disappeared, never to return. But, despite these problems, there were a bunch of engaged, involved, motivated students (including one dislocated after Katrina) who seemed to appreciate the rigor. Even Mr. Senior Project wrote me a few e-mails thanking me for making him take the course seriously; surprise, surprise, he actually learned something!

But, I wonder, what would have happened if I had dumbed stuff down? I’d still be employed there, for one; CTU made MAJOR use of adjunct labor, with almost 80% of the courses in that department taught by adjuncts. My reports of plagiarism and student malfeasance did not go over well. Apparently, I’m a bit of a troublemaker…despite the A-students thanking me for opening their eyes to stuff they weren’t taught in their hard science courses. But the pressure to “make class fun!” and grade easily was always there.

I also wonder if something similar happened to the OSU TA who had the meltdown. Was she under pressure from some faculty and students to lighten their load? If you read the comments to the linked article, you can see a strand of “Chem is a stupid class” comments from students. How many semesters of that sort of attitude might it take for any of us to break? For me, coupled with other problems, it was 2 years and I‘d had enough.

I miss teaching. I miss engaging the students who are capable of being taught, who WANT to learn. I miss seeing that light-bulb moment when they get it, like the young Fashion Design major who totally got that complicated sociological phenomenon and revealed it, hesitantly, to the rest of the class with the best example I had ever heard. How many of us are 3 crazy students away from unemployment?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Well, If You ARE Going to Use Your Proffie's Research, At Least Cite That Shit!

You ask, "Do professors like it when you use them as a reference or should I avoid it?"

Just don't do what one of my students did last year -- he plagiarized a paper of mine. And when I say "plagiarized," I mean "inserted several consecutive sentences from a paper of mine, complete with citations to its references, right in the middle of the term paper he handed in to me, after I had repeatedly lectured them on the evils of plagiarism and given them handouts explaining the subject completely." It was one of the most spectacular achievements I've ever seen at Euphoric State (and that was the semester I had another student whose plagiarism was made evident by the fact that her text included a citation of a paper written in 1954, published in a Soviet journal, in Russian. . .)

Aside from that. . . I would think the danger of using your professor's work as a reference in something he's going to grade has little to do with ego-boosting. It's the fact that the prof knows his own work better than anyone else's, and may be exquisitely sensitive to any sign that you're not interpreting his work in the way that he meant it. You might misunderstand his work. Or you might understand it fine, but not know the subtle hermeneutical nuances of meaning that exist more in the prof's mind than in the words on the page. What you get out of the paper might not be what the prof put into it, or thought he was putting into it. So be careful -- but I see no reason to cite, or not to cite, your prof's work just because his ego might be stroked.

Dr. Corcoran from Corpus Christi on Another Variation of the Name Game. (Personally, We're Just Glad Not to Be Called 'Dickhead.')

Somehow, some of my students think it's cool to call me by my last name only. It started about two years ago. I took aside the student who seemed to be the instigator, and told her to pass the word that I prefer to be addressed as "Dr. Corcoran."

It stopped for awhile, but has picked up again. Yesterday, while preparing for a major assignment, a student called out, "Hey, Corcoran!" I walked over to where she was seated, calling out while I walked, "Yeah, Studebaker?"

"My name is Sally," she said.

"Well, my name is Dr. Corcoran," I replied.

"Yeah," she said, with a sneer. "Oh," she added, when she saw the hard look I gave her.

I am generally liked by my students, and get high evaluations. I am friendly and keep generous office hours. But I don't pal around with them, and keep a professional distance from them. I probably didn't work fast enough to nip this latest example of disrespect in the bud, but after yesterday's incident, I've had it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

There Are No Small Roles.

Scene: A small, windowless room. Two tables, placed end-to-end, dominate the room, surrounding by two rings of chairs, one set under the tables, the other against the wall. A feeling of enclosed oppression fills the space.

Three figures enter. The gray-haired Monsieur Bombastic Asshole [henceforth MBA] leads Mademoiselle Lazy Ass [henceforth MLA] and Moi Aussi [henceforth MA] into the room. MBA and MLA sit on one long side of the tables facing MA; Mademoiselle Jackass [henceforth MJ] does not appear on stage. The initials of every instructor mentioned match the degrees we have.

MBA: I want you to know, MA, that we’re all teachers in this room. We do not intend to criticize your teaching, but rather to adjudicate these grade grievances from disgruntled students. We’ve already met with another colleague, MJ, but we need to meet with you to finalize everything.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Trish from Titusville Is Tapped Out.

My career in academia has bankrupted me.

After 4 years of graduate school, I had some serious student loan debt, but the future still looked bright. I found a great job working as an instructor in a collegial, supportive department at a university whose students I adore, in a part of the country I love, and was regularly handed upper-division courses to teach as part of my 4/4.

Sure, I earned so little that my student loans were in economic hardship deferral from day one, but this was an inventment in my future!

Sure, I lived in such an expensive part of the country that I was forced to live in cramped apartments with ancient appliances and keep drumming life out of my now-14-year-old everything’s-wrong-with-it-and-it-don’t-look-nice-neither car, but investment, friend, investment!

Sure, even given the deferral and the cheap living I still couldn’t quite live on what I earned, and I went a few thousand dollars deeper into credit card debt with each year that passed, but as soon as that t-t job (hopefully in a cheaper part of the country!) came through, I’d pay it all off and start building equity somewhere!

Investment, I say!

So I spent three years getting experience teaching and publishing before picking just the most perfect year to go out and look for a job in academia: 08-09, the year of hell. Barely any jobs in my field were on offer; of those I applied to, half were canceled before the interview stage. But then, at the last minute, I received a call: come to the MLA! Is it worth going to MLA for just one interview? I decided in the end it must be, and in a way it was: I booked my last-minute travel plans, bought interview clothes, went, did great, got called for a flyback, and, after dancing the dance of Snoopy happiness, checked my finances. I’m used to being broke, but I’d never been maxed out before. Maxed out. All my credit cards (4 of them) maxed out at about what I earn in a year. Actually a little more than what I earn in a year.

Suddenly I realize I’ve bet the house: if I get the job, I’ll be fine. But if I don’t get the job, I’m bankrupt. I can’t afford to pay my bills. And if I’m back on the job market next year, I have no more credit for plane tickets and hotels – I’ll have to start saving for that now. Suddenly all this “investing” I’ve been doing looks like nothing more than an increasingly deep hole I’ve been digging for myself. Again, I’m doing great work: I’m publishing admirably and teaching great classes, well – I even got invited to sit on a MFA student’s thesis committee, which is unprecedented for a mere instructor! But none of that seems to matter right now, as I find my eyes lingering on the roadside billboards of local bankruptcy attorneys.

I finally got the call: I didn’t get the job. From a professional standpoint I fully understand, and I’m honored to have even been in the running, especially given how competitive things were this year. But now that the dust has settled, one thing has become incredibly clear: my career has bankrupted me. And that's affected me.

Lately I’m having trouble connecting with my students. I feel like my classes are a joke. I haven’t been able to write. I’m demoralized. I’m degraded. I do good work in the classroom and valuable work in my field, but I feel like that doesn’t matter. I’m a broke-ass about-to-go-bankrupt nobody who’s just punching in and collecting a meager paycheck, grateful for my health benefits but scared of losing them. I need to break out of this funk if I’m going to make it, and I will, dammit. I think. But the economy still stinks and next year doesn’t look any better.

Anyone thinking about teaching in the humanities, beware.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Just a Little Old School-Styled Smack.

J: Yes I dropped you for not taking the exam, and no, I don't find the fact that you need the class to keep your insurance a compelling reason to let you back in.

C: Yes, I am treating you fairly. My "late PAPERS are accepted for half credit" policy only applies to PAPERS. Exams are not PAPERS.

T: So you lost your basketball scholarship at upstate U and are now coming down to slum with us, and that's why I should let you into my full late-start class? Do you really think I want a known failure in my class and I would go out of my way to let one in. I mean, normally I can't do anything about it, but in this case I do. Kick rocks.

J: Remember at the beginning of the semester you came to my office and begged, literally begged, to be let into my classes which had already started and were full. I got you into another section of lecture, and my lab section, you were so happy and grateful you almost cried! Remember how I spent hours upon hours with you helping you with the material, trying to boost your confidence, smoothing over your fears? Remember how I went WAY out of my way to help you at every turn? Thanks for dropping without even a word. I enjoy being slapped in the face. Thanks. But unlike you, I CAN learn, and so I won't be making this mistake again.

A, A and M: Why are you still here? The three of you often snicker and pass notes while I lecture, which explains why you have all consistently earned the lowest scores on every assignment. This is high school sweeties, you will fail this class and the fact that you've been here every day won't get you that B.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More on Grad Student Poverty From Richmond Ruby.

Ah, grad student poverty. One of my favorite topics.

When I was a member of my school's grad student government, we tried a passive-aggressive tactic to impress upon the Deans the inadequacy of graduate stipends. At the time--and this was just a couple years ago--the "University-Stated Minimum" was $12,000/year, which was just $100/month too high for grad students to qualify for food stamps and welfare.

However, the term "Minimum" was misleading. It merely meant "the minimum that any NEW grad student could be paid." Existing grad students were allowed to retain the unraised stipends they started out with, some as low as $8000/year. These students did qualify for food stamps and welfare.

I should point out that this was a fairly prestigious, extremely wealthy private research university--the kind that's wealthy as a mofo when it's convenient to be wealthy ("Billion-dollar construction project? Sure!") and poor when it's convenient to be poor ("But we haven't the funds to pay a living wage! Sorry!").

So a grad student government posse approached a dean and said, "Could you help show us how to get on welfare? A lot of grad students qualify." We hoped the dean would be outraged that grad students at this fine institution were being paid so poorly (when our University President was making $1.6 million/year, the highest salary of any University President in the country--oops, hope I didn't destroy my anonymity). Instead, the dean brightened and said, "Sure! We can set up a website with links to information about welfare and food stamps. No problem!"

I was fortunate enough to be in the sciences, making enough to barely live on. I don't know how the Anthro grad students lived on $8000/year, but I do know why they took a decade to graduate. Gotta get a part-time job or two. Either that, or live in a box.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Who's To Blame; Who Suffers? Toni From Twin Falls Sends Us A Story To Ponder.

I taught at an open-enrollment university in the South for 3 years. In my last year there, I had a deaf student, one who arrived in U.S. History 101 the first day with the standard form from Disabled Student Services saying she needed a sign-language translator and extra time for assignments and exams -- no problem.

Well, actually, big problem. Because she needed so much extra time for assignments and kept giving me excuses for turning them in even later than her allotted extra-time, I never actually got an assignment from her until a day or so before their first ESSAY exam. Oh boy -- I could not believe my eyes. She was practically illiterate! I am not exaggerating when I say that she handed in a short writing assignment with sentences like "Man colonist tree England ship America." It was utterly incomprehensible.

I have had deaf (and blind) students in class before who were perfectly capable of putting together a coherent thought.

I bled all over her assignment and wrote in my comments that there would be no way for her to pass the essay exams and I did not know what to do (make a whole different objective test just for her? that seemed unfair to the other students) but that she should probably drop the course. The next thing I know I get hauled into my chair's office who tells me that her father has complained and threatened to file an ADA complaint against me.

My chair said she had been an excellent student in high school and had done well in her other intro classes at our institution (someone at the university gave her an A for English 101!) I then produced the assignment in question and my Chair practically fell backwards in his chair when he saw it. I said, "Clearly this kid has more going on than deafness." Then he says, "Well, according to her father she does have some slight learning disabilities."

SLIGHT? "Well, I was not informed, and, as you can see -- she's illiterate. This kid's been patted on the head and socially promoted for 13 years -- but not by me. How can I pass her? How can she possibly take and pass an essay test?" My chair sympathized, intervened with the father and all went by the board. The kid dropped and I never heard anymore about it.

But, I wondered -- who would do this to someone? She has no hope of making it on her own in the outside world if she can't even put a coherent sentence together.

The Ballad of Smoky Joe.

Smoky Joe was a thorn in my side since the first day I met him.

It was the last day of the ADD period for the school where I was teaching. (I never noticed until now the irony of that word in that context until I capitalized it.) I was hired to teach two of the three sections for the class I liked to call Remedial Composition for Communication majors. See, the program I taught for knew their undergrads somehow graduated high school and got through freshman comp without being able to write effectively, so they paid me a pittance to teach 51 of their best and brightest (NOT!) about thesis statements, the basic tenets of argumentation, rules of punctuation, and general library research and citation styles. This course was necessary so the well-heeled professionals-cum-adjuncts teaching such things as Copywriting and Fundamentals of Journalism wouldn’t have to waste their precious time on the basics. The course was essentially a weeder designed to get rid of the talentless hacks who are drawn to Comm departments like moths to a flame. I had strict orders to “Fight Grade Inflation!” so designed the entire course so that minimal effort and talent earned a C. If a student got a D or F, they needed to take it again; few were happy when this eventuality happened.

Smoky Joe “need[-ed] this class this semester!” --or so he said when he knocked on the door mid-class on that last day to add the course to his roster. A student had just dropped, so I couldn’t lie and say there were no spots. But, I did direct him on up the chain, hoping someone in charge would send him packing. (Yeah, like that was ever going to happen.)

Guess who showed up next class? He was on time, asked for a syllabus, and I told him to get notes. First sign he was trouble: He borrowed a classmate’s notebook AND KEPT IT THE ENTIRE CLASS SO HE COULD COPY NOTES WHILE CLASS WAS GOING ON. I made a mental note and moved on.

A week later I did the whole “break out into small groups” thing (to appease the participatory pedagogy crowd) and guess who refused to interact with his group? Uh-huh. I didn’t see him speak a word to any of them or even look at the group project they were supposed to be working on. As I was wandering around the room, encouraging all the little cherubs to engage the project (which the vast majority of them did), I found Smoky on the lab computer checking his e-mail. I got fed up. I reminded him he had a group project to participate in, that the group work was important for him to be able to do the first big writing assignment due soon, and that I was starting to regret allowing him into the course late (cuz, really, aren’t the vast majority of late adds just a nuisance?). He rolled his eyes, logged out, and then proceeded to do nothing with his group again. At least he was offline.

His behavior got worse as the semester went on. He was constantly late for class. I often caught him napping. He was often using the lab computers for something other than classwork. He often arrived to class without his homework printed. For one class, he arrived 15 minutes late, somehow convinced a classmate to loan him her computer because he couldn’t log onto his, then spellchecked a paper that had been due at the start of class while she stood WAITING for him to finish…all while the rest of the class completed a short in-class piece of writing due by the end of class. I have no idea why she let him get away with it!

Just before Spring Break he informed me he’d be out an extra week because he was going on a diving cruise to the Bahamas! Except, well, we had a paper due the week after Spring Break. He assured me he’d be back in time. Guess who went AWOL not only the class before Spring Break, the entire week after Spring Break, and then 2 days the week after that? “I got sick,” he claimed. No e-mail. No doctor’s note. No paper until 7 days after it was due. And it was AWFUL. (But so were most of the others too. Never, EVER give a paper assignment due after Spring Break. The little flowers need at least 2 weeks to recover.)

But he was going to make it all up by doing an excellent final paper! You see, he had revealed to me that his father was a teacher (he may have even said “English teacher“), who apparently wasn’t happy with his grades that semester. So Smoky Joe was gonna pull his act together by the end! He drafted his paper early, and it was actually pretty good. I gave detailed feedback for improvement and he had plenty of time to make changes. He wanted a pre-grade. (Cuz, you know, if it was C-worthy, he probably wouldn’t have done a thing to it.) I refused to grade it until I had everyone else’s too. He was disappointed, but made some (but of course not all) of the suggested changes. (I put the thought right out of my mind at the time, but is anyone else thinking Daddy helped him…or wrote the whole damn thing for him?)

The real kicker for me though happened during course evaluation day. I teach at one of those “You can’t be in the room or else we’ll kill your kitten!” sorts of schools, who see these customer surveys as sacrosanct epiphanies from Heaven that accurately reflect my pedagogical worthiness. As I was out wandering the halls, using the little professor’s room, and taking a drink from the rusty water fountain, who should I spy outside the door taking his good old time smoking a cigarette? Smoky Joe! (Thus his nickname). Well, golly, that explained why he was always reeking of cigarettes when he finally wandered into class late. Instead of getting to class on time, he sat outside on a bench for 15 minutes having a nice, long, nic fit. He didn’t even hurry after he saw me spot him. Oh, but he was in a hot hurry to fill out a course eval! He wasted another 15 minutes of class time doing that (since I wasn’t allowed back in the room to despoil the little snowflakes’ chances of defaming me anonymously). Gotta love the fact that his evaluation of the course and my teaching counted the same as someone who had been there twice as much as he had been that semester

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pickin' on Sarah.

"What it all comes down to is that public school policy is made by parents: parents on the school board, parents who complain to the superintendent, etc. [...] So back the fuck off, academia. We deal with many of the same problems as you do."

And therein lies the problem, Sarah. Public high school teachers don't deal with the problems. You put your collective tails between your legs, point your collective fingers towards the parents, and say "whoops, not our fault!"

It's very easy to point to parents and blame the faults of the education system upon them.

Yet what about other stakeholders associated with the school systems? What about the integrity of the school system itself? What about the integrity of the community who will have to deal with these mouth breathers once you socially promote them across that stage, where they'll grab a diploma, then walk off to a life of mediocrity? There are only so many burger places that need people to flip beef patties and process baskets of fries... Where do we put the rest?

Public school teachers are among the most pampered in the American educational caste. Though still low by society's standards, public school wages top those in higher education. Benefit packages are more comprehensive and stable. The social prestige and public appreciation dwarfs anything given to us in higher education.

Have you done your taxes yet, Sarah? Those "educator" deductions on your 1040? We can't take them, though many of us spend just as much money as you do buying things out of our own pockets to assist our teaching. Ever have to shell out money for a DVD aimed at the academic crowd? It's not Best Buy pricing, Sarah. Though we spend most of our careers fixing the broken students that you socially promote through elementary, middle, and high school--effectively making undergraduate schooling "13th grade," we're not K-12 teachers. We don't count in the public eye. Last Saturday, in my home state, every major city had protest rallies about the reductions in the state's public school education budget. The media came out and lapped it up like mother's milk, throwing out images of communities rallying behind the teachers, and series of interviews wherein community stakeholders gushed about the poor, hardworking, K-12 teachers. When is the last time you saw similar protests when higher education took similar cuts? The media would go on about how those "lazy" professors and researchers could use some belt tightening. Good! Let's take that money and put it into our K-12 schools, where it "needs" to go! Let's face it, Sarah, public school teachers are their own best martyrs, and they now how to play the role well.

Public school teachers love their martyrdom. They wrap themselves up in it like a tattered, urine soaked, child's favorite blanket. "Oh, don't mind me. I'm doing this for the kids!" as an adoring public and media cheer you on as heroes. You get to be the ones that the kids adore because you cut them breaks. You give them that fifty percent of the credit for doing nothing. You get to show them compassion by promoting the seventeen year old with the fifth grade reading skill set to a senior year in high school. You tell them that with dreams and fairydust, they can do whatever they want--and use films about that one "special" teacher who succeeds as a means of inspiring them. We, the ones in higher education, then have to be the hardasses. We have to be (gasp) mean. We have to tell them that there are no breaks in the real world and workplace. We have to tell them that doing no work reaps no points for an assignment, the same way that doing no work for an employer will bring no money. We have to tell that (now) eighteen year old with the fifth grade reading level that he or she has two semesters of remedial courses to learn to perform at a college level, or he or she progress no further in college. We have to tell some students that no amount of dreams and fairydust will make some of their career hopes come to life--sometimes, Hollywood is just that, a fabrication.

You're the cherished ones. You kid-glove children and adolescents through the education system, then passively blame the parents when you're called out on your own failures to prepare them for post-secondary education as adults. "It's not my fault! You don't understand!"

Now I see where my little snowflakes get it from--learned behavior from their elementary, middle, and high school teachers. You model learned helplessness and victim mentality for them.

Grow a pair, Sarah.

Go back and find those ideals that you had when you started teaching. They're probably hidden back in that dusty storage cabinet in the back of your classroom. You know the one--the cabinet that has all of the curriculum material that you've been storing since you started teaching, only to bring it out once each year, for the same four week unit you've been teaching since you started working? Go find those ideals, reflect on them, and re-embrace them. Go find that fight, that drive to change the world by shaping our young people, and reignite it! I honestly hope that you realized the challenge of this job when you began to pursue education as a career--even if you're an alternative certification teacher who came into the game after college, someone who may have been laid off from their primary career and thought that teaching was an easy plan-b...then stayed around for five, ten, or fifteen years because it was safer than the corporate world. If you honestly thought that it was just going to be scenes from _Stand and Deliver,_ where the kids all listen, they are all motivated, they all do their work, and they all adoringly crowd around you at the end of the day, you came in destined to fail. If you honestly thought that you'd encounter no resistance (much less garnering enduring support) from parents, just because you were that figurehead--the teacher--you came in destined to fail. If you honestly thought that the job was just thirty six weeks of thirty five hour work weeks, plus a week at the beginning and the end to prepare and pack up your classroom, you came in destined to fail.

Teachers and administrators are the guardians of quality in our public education systems. They are the front lines who repel blatant attempts to soften curriculum. They are the referees who moderate and inject reason (you know, all that educational research on students and curriculum that we use to fuel and justify our craft?) into unreasonable parental requests. They are the ones who model high standards that arm our students with the skills they need to succeed after they graduate. I spent two years teaching in the public school system (a charter school in an affluent county), trying to change things, and both my peers and administrators were so afraid of the parents, that the kids had a blank check to do with as they wished. "Give me this, or I'm going to have mom and dad complain to the superintendent--our family friend. And if I still don't get what I want, I'll transfer out and take my $12K of seed money to my zone school!" Yet in spite of that, I dug in. I said no. And a majority of the time, I won because I knew how to play the county rules and regulations right back at them. I wasn't popular--with my peers, administrators, some district employees, and a few of the lazier kids--but I was respected for holding to my beliefs and ethics as a teacher. And when my seniors graduated, then went to college, some even came back to thank me for not kid gloving them, and actually holding them to standards, as they watched their friends wash out that first semester.

You can say no, Sarah. Someone has to do it.

And if you can't do it, step the fuck off and let a new generation of teachers and administrators--ones who will stand up to the parents--get in to those classrooms and bring some standards to our students that might prepare them for more than just transmuting oxygen into carbon dioxide, filling out the same worksheets that you've been cranking out of that textbook publisher's CD-ROM (that you've secretly coveted for the last ten years), and bubbling in practice test after practice test for the state exams. As the US continues to slip further down the global educational ladder, we need teachers and administrators who will stand up to bulling parents in the private sector and on school boards, not drop their trousers, bend over, and happily growl "thank you, may I have another?" as these parents weaken and water down our public school policies and curriculum.

Because every time you say "I can't help it; it's the parents' fault!" all you're doing is teaching our primary and secondary students the very learned helplessness and victim mindsets that they carry into our college classrooms.

"You can't polish a turd. You can't make chicken soup out of chicken shit." I call bullshit, Sarah. There would be no turds to polish and no chicken shit to turn into soup if public school teachers would stop dropping their shit in the first place.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Grad School Bait & Switch.

Had someone told me of what was really involved in being a grad student and what actually awaited me once I finished my degree, I may well have considered a different direction in my career. I bought into the Hollywood image of advanced studies at university was portrayed as and found out very quickly that much of it was complete balderdash. I believe the term is "bait and switch."

Unfortunately, the system won't permit anyone inside it from speaking the truth. It's main emphasis is on money-harvesting and maintaining steady revenue. During the open house sessions at the place I used to teach at, we would receive visits from prospective students, often with parents or spouses. I urged them to consider all their options, even if it meant enrolling at another institution as I wanted them to make a decision about their studies which was best for them. I sometimes had students in my courses who didn't want to be there and weren't interested in what they were studying as they really wanted to do something else. I wouldn't have been doing anybody any favors if I convinced them to enroll at the place where I was if that really wasn't where their talents or ambitions lay.

I received a few dirty looks from my colleagues for what I did. The idea was to get people to sign up and to sort things out afterwards, preferably after they paid their tuition.

After I left that school, and before I quit teaching altogether, I did interview with a few other colleges. In some of the sessions, I was asked about this very issue: what would I do to convince someone to attend the establishment in question. When I answered that I wanted to have students in my courses who wanted to be there (implying that anyone who didn't should study a different area or go somewhere else for their education), I knew that I was saying something that the interviewers didn't want to hear.

So sign 'em up, folks--just keep the money rolling in!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The PhD Is An Exercise in Masochism? Why Do You Think We Love it So Much? Barry from Bismark on Grad School.

I don't know what advice to give students considering grad studies. I landed a visiting faculty position before finishing my PhD, although that means that I have the triple threat of teaching a 12-hour load, making last-minute changes to my thesis, and preparing for my defense. My adviser had told me that there was no chance that I would get an academic job ever, but I did. She is still astounded. Even if I didn't land an academic job, salaries for PhDs in my field range from $150K-$250 in private industry. That is certainly more money than one can hope to earn in the field without one, unless one starts his own business and it turns out to be a Microsoft or a Google.

A friend of mine from when I was getting my masters degree asked me whether she should go to graduate school about a year ago. I didn't know what to tell her. A masters degree can certainly give one a leg up professionally, but I was making six figures a year without one before I went back to grad school. Getting a PhD is an exercise in masochism and there really are not the opportunities for new PhDs in most fields to justify the six years of servitude. I do not think that I could in good conscience urge someone to get a PhD unless I was sure that he or she was really devoted to the field and wanted to do research in a subspecialty. PhD programs are all about heartbreak, from trying to get a paper published to trying to get a job. I have done well in the latter respect, and I managed to get papers published after pigheadedly sending them off to conference after conference and revising time after time. Some very bright grad students don't do so well in either regard. Some really bright grad students don't graduate at all. There are many qualities other than intelligence or potential for research that one must have to succeed in grad school.

I would advise students in my field to get a masters degree simply because degree inflation is making their bachelor of science degrees worth less and less. But as far as getting a PhD. I don't know. Even if you get an academic job, that is still a hard life. You can land at a teaching college like I did and have to prepare and deliver twelve hours of lecture each and every week, or you can land at a more research-oriented school and have to submit five or six papers to competitive, prestigious conferences every year just to get the two or three published that you will need to keep your job and get tenure. Either way, it is a hard life that leaves little room for anything else.

Five I Hate.

Kelly Keener - An extremely hard worker, contributor to debates. But here is the thing; she only focuses on what will earn recognition. She desperately wants to succeed, but apparently has no genuine interest in the content. She wants to be a prof.

Fashionista Frank - I wish I had a photo. It's the 6th class of the semester. This is the first time he has graced us with his presence. He is wearing normal clothing, with the exception of a dirty, frayed, florescent green bungee-cord as a belt.

Biggins From Buttfuck - A big star from a small town. He is very upset that he does not have special privileges. Classes don't fit into his busy schedule.

Curly Caitie - She likes her iPod. She sat near the front row and watched a movie on it during class. Afterwards, she accosted me to to say she had not done any of the readings because she could not afford the book. Clearly I should find her a copy and give her my own notes so she could catch up. iPod = sign of wealth. So she tried a new tact: "There is too much reading... It's impossible." The reading is about 20 pages a week. The book is in the library, and the students were informed they could buy it soft cover for under 30 dollars from Amazon.

Twitchy Tom - He does not want to be here, and he makes that abundantly obvious. One can see the pain generated in his face when he has sat relatively still for more than ten minutes. This rarely happens though, usually, he arrives (late) and stays five minutes, and then wanders away, leaving his stuff in class. He comes back about 40 minutes later. He expects full attendance credit no doubt. It's a participation grade, not a grade for simply arriving.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is It Still Copying If We Use Different Pens? The Ballad of Missy and Maude.

I assign a number of out of class assignments, mainly questions that would make the little snowflakes melt if they were under the time constraint of an exam. Each semester I start by introducing these assignments and talking about the difference between collaboration and copying. My syllabus has a detailed discussion of academic honesty and specific examples of “cheating” (plus the consequences for such decisions). I even give them a pass on the first assignment and point out answers that are a little too similar between students, with a warning on their papers and a general warning to the class. All of this is to no avail as the second assignment always seems to bring out Maude and Missy.

Maude and Missy are best friends, who study together all of the time. I grade one of their papers and there is some weird turn of phrase that catches my attention. Somewhere down the pile I find that same phrase in the other’s paper. I take the time and put the papers down next to each other, highlighting the identities in the papers. In the end, the papers are probably more than eighty percent identical (some answers are 100%). I hand back the papers with a zero score (as outlined in the syllabus) and a note to see me.

The students always tell me how they worked together and that is why their answers are similar. I ask why the answers are not only similar, but identical (down to the spelling mistakes in some incidents), and they shuffle their feet about how they both came up with the answer. The conversation usually goes on for a few minutes and from the differences in protests I can figure out who most likely did the work, but both are guilty of cheating. In the end I ask them to “look on this as a learning experience, and move on.” They leave upset, but get over it, usually not repeating the mistake.

This semester the twist to my tale is that Maude (this semester’s likely copier) really wants to be a journalist.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Seventh Grade Schoolteacher Sarah Shares.

As a public school teacher, I started reading RYS about a year ago because you do something that I love to do as well: complain about and rip into incompetent students. I’ve sniggered at your lovely snowflakes who can’t form complete sentences and who blatantly and shamelessly lie to you. While my problem students are a bit different (seeing as they are 12-14), I feel your pain. However, my blood boils when your site or others blame public school teachers for all of your woes. Now, I can’t speak for all of us, but I can honestly say that I do the absolute best that I can with what I’m given.

Don’t blame the public schools for society’s problems. Society at large is so obsessed with the preservation of self esteem that schools aren’t able to do what they need to do. I am not allowed to give a kid below a 50 on a report card, no matter how abysmal the grade actually is. Who do you think wanted this policy? Parents of stupid kids and superintendents who are afraid of parents. God forbid their babies feel inferior to kids who can do well. I have to attend endless “special education” meetings to try to help kids with special needs succeed. For some of these kids, there is actually something abnormal going on and these meetings are a good thing. Other kids are just so lazy or stupid that it’s not worth the time. Parents just can’t come to grips with the burger flipper they have produced because then THEIR self esteem would be damaged, so we label their kid as “learning disabled” and then I’m not allowed to fail them, period. They’ll pass through the system because “it’s not their fault” that they suck at life and will end up with a high school diploma.

What it all comes down to is that public school policy is made by parents: parents on the school board, parents who complain to the superintendent, etc. Parents have their baby’s emotional well-being in mind more than their academic prowess. Do you think teachers like giving out 10th place ribbons? Hell no! But if only the top two students in the class get a reward, the other students will feel bad. This is forbidden. So we roll our eyes, make the damn 10th place ribbon, and grab a margarita after school ... But in a neighboring town, not our town, because it would be shameful for our students should stumble upon us acting like real people!

Two sayings come to mind: “you can’t polish a turd” and “you can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit.” The same kids who drool on your desks once drooled on mine. I was obligated to give modifications and attend meetings to help them succeed. I emailed with their parents and held lots of tutoring sessions before, during, and after school. Their parents didn’t give a rat’s ass. There is only so much a public school teacher can do. Bad students are a result of their family and community more than the school system they went through.

So back the fuck off, academia. We deal with many of the same problems as you do.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Motor City Mitch Wonders Why Students Can't Just Hand Him a Freaking Paper in Person. (He Likes to Keep the Email Inbox Clear For Chain Letters.)

Receiving student papers in my email inbox, without warning, is my teaching pet peeve. The attachments don't open, I have to truck up to my networked printer three floors above my office, students skip class because they've turned their papers in electronically. The list of grievances goes on.

My syllabus very clearly says, "DO NOT EMAIL ME YOUR ASSIGNMENTS." In fact, I think I'm pretty nice about it. The actual policy is, "I will not accept any e-mailed assignments unless you have made prior arrangements with me. Repeat: I will not give you credit for e-mailed assignments unless I've given you explicit permission to send the assignment." In addition, at the start of each semester (and periodically throughout), I say in class, "DO NOT EMAIL ME YOUR ASSIGNMENTS." And yet rarely a day goes by when I don't receive some sort of homework in my inbox.

Don't get me wrong -- if a true emergency crops up, I will accept your emailed paper. I had a student whose mother died this week. I did not bitch when she sent me her paper without making advanced arrangements. But the kid who has emailed every assignment for the past two weeks, despite my reminders not to (and my not turning his work back when I hand back papers), is not so lucky. "The computer lab doesn't recognize my flash drive" is not an excuse. E-mail it to yourself, son! If my college email account can open your attachment on a college computer, I bet your college email account can open the attachment on a college computer too. Let's call this what it is: Lazy. I'm sorry you don't have a printer, and I'm sorry that you have to skip my class to leave campus early so you can spend the weekend at home with your girlfriend who is still in high school, and I'm sorry it's inconvenient for you that our class meets in the basement and the computer lab is on the third floor. But guess what: None of these things are my problem!

I think my students are under the mistaken impression that the college is made of money and all the professors have printers in their offices. They stare incredulously when they come in for conferences empty-handed and can't print drafts they've emailed themselves, or saved on their little allotment of the campus drive, or transported on their flash drives. (Well, they CAN print, but then they have to walk up three floors to retrieve their document from the networked printer my computer is hooked up to -- which is just as much work as if they'd printed the damn thing in the lab in the first place.) "Wow," they say. "You got it rough. You gotta go way up there every time you print? That suuuuuuucks!"

But do they remember this conversation a few days later? No. No, they do not. Their revised papers (a term I use lightly) still show up in my inbox because they were too lazy to walk up three floors to the computer lab to print before class. Funny how three floors is such a burden to them, but somehow it's not to me...

I have a colleague who only grades the first page of any assignments that aren't stapled. I need to think of an equivalent policy for the emailed assignments, because giving 0s obviously isn't having an impact -- probably because they forget they ever turned anything in, so they don't notice when they don't get anything back.