Friday, November 6, 2009

Dr. Mindbender Goes to the Granola House For Help.

The recent “Teach Your Teachers Well” article was close to the mark, but it doesn’t go far enough. We need to have a Soviet-style purge of the nation’s Education Departments and bring in profs who care about the mechanics of teaching. As evidence, I offer up some long-repressed memories about an ill-advised foray I once took into the Granola House (a.k.a. the Education Department, as it’s full of nuts and flakes) at my grad school, Grandiose Mental State U.

I was working on a project but couldn’t find any published research about my topic (a longitudinal study of left-handed Petroleum Engineering profs and the grades they assign to redheaded students), so I started thinking about alternative sources of information. Suddenly, the answer came to me. “Wait a minute… The project I’m working on is an education project…there’s the education building…horse’s mouth, here I come!” So, I ambled across campus, found the Ed Building, and started wandering the halls, looking for open doors and knowledge about how grading works.

The first open door I found contained a friendly, thirty-ish, bearded fellow, and he invited me into his little sanctum. I sat down, said that I was working on a literature review, and the prof immediately stopped me. “Oh, here’s a book that will help you,” he said, as he shuffled through a bookshelf and passed me a Moron’s Guide to Literature Reviews. Um….no. I don’t need that kind of help. I’ve written many a lit review. I need subject matter help. Do you know of any research regarding left-handed engineering profs’ grading tendencies? No? Okay…do you know of anyone in your department who might have a research interest in how teachers grade student work? No? Do you know of any longitudinal studies…. Oh. You don’t know what that word means. Um… Have you ever heard of any research on grading? At all? Not the slightest clue? Okay…I’ll just ask around, then. Thanks.

So I wandered on.

The next open door contained a super-nice, thirty-ish woman. She, too, invited me into her office, and we sat down for a chat. The prof seemed intrigued that someone from another discipline had actually come looking for help, but when I explained my project and asked if she’d heard of any research on lefty Petroleum Engineering profs and redheaded students or anything even vaguely like that, or on grading at all, her face fell. She just plain looked lost. Grades? Like, wow, man…she’d never seen or even heard of any research about how teachers assign grades. And a study over time? Wow...that’s like, mindblowing. Okay, then…that’s cool… I’ll keep looking around. Thanks for your time.

Again, I wandered on.

The next three open doors formed a cluster, and when I stuck my head into one, all three offices’ wooden-jewelry-wearing, peasant-skirt-clad inhabitants swarmed out to feast upon the blood of the lost traveler. “Hi, do any of you know anything about left-handed profs’ tendencies to give grades…” I couldn’t even finish before the shrieking started. “Grades? Grades?!? Nooooooobody gives grades anymore! Authentic assessment is what you ought to be looking at! Authentic assessment! Authentic assessment!” The trio squawked and flapped away about how wonderful authentic assessment is, how bad grades are, what I should really be doing with my project (that did not have nor could even conceivably have anything whatsoever do with authentic assessment), and so on, while I sat, socially trapped and dying inside. I tried to act polite — I really did — but ten minutes and three barely-stifled shrieking fits later, I fled.

I’m sure that smart, reasonable people who know about what actually goes on in a classroom do exist in Education Departments…but I sure didn’t find them. And if nobody in an Ed Department can tell me anything about one of an educator’s most common actions —assigning grades —then something’s gone seriously wrong.