Tuesday, October 19, 2010

No Sizzle in this Sausage.

Do you know this phrase? This is what I heard today in a small breakfast place my hubby and I go to once a week or so.

An old timer who is always there in the mornings got his plate of food from Maris (the waitress), and he dug in. When he took a bite of one of the links, he said, "Dammit, there's no sizzle in this sausage!"

And all it made me think about were my own students.

They don't come to the table with any spark. They've got no sizzle, no life. They come in like they're being herded into a slaughterhouse. Their heads hang down. They mumble when they talk. Their eyes are dark or vacant - or sometimes - closed.

I feel as though I'm teaching in a crypt, not a classroom. I sometimes just want to bring a starter's pistol into the room to at least get their blood pressure up with a quick blast of something. Maybe an air horn is less likely to get me canned.

But I ate my breakfast and instead of just enjoying my honey and my huevos, instead I thought about my classes for the day. No sizzle.

So what do I do? What do we do? I know we've got lots of complaints. But what's next if I want to DO something about this?


  1. See now, Darla, you've confused me. I'm supposed to want to FIX this stuff, too, not just bitch about it?

    I don't know if I'm ready for that step. I'm a bit of a complainer - and I know I'm not alone.

    But today in class, for example, instead of handing back papers that expressed my displeasure of a certain type of error my students almost all made, I re-set, re-assigned the task, and made them do it and fix that error RIGHT IN CLASS. "We can't go on," I said. "We can't go on until this gets fixed. And we're going to sit here until everyone does it."

    It blew what I had scheduled for today, but it was something I didn't want to let slide.

  2. I'm lazy. I am. So I'm just going to tell you what I do, even though I'm in random social science that everyone assumes is fluff / crazy anyway.

    1. Play music before class. Often I play music VIDEOS from various parts of the world. They seem to like this and I've noticed that when I do it, there's more participation in discussion even when the discussion has nothing to do with the video (although I do try and link it...sometimes I'm just like "Yeah, this is Angelique Kidjou singing 'Gimme Shelter' and that's my favorite Stones song and she's awesome.)

    2. Surveys. "What's your favorite song right now? What TV shows do you watch? etc" This is blatant pandering. But, then I know where to draw at least one example per class from.

    3. Ask them about themselves (since they love to talk about themselves)...how many of you have ever X? Or, treat them as experts..."I saw people doing Y today, what is that about?"

    4. In-class writing. You see you are losing their attention. You have them write for three minutes about topic X. Then you have them talk about what they wrote. This is amazingly effective.

    5. Fake debates...people / groups are assigned positions and must defend them. This works better in small classes but they enjoy the theatrics.

    Sorry that I can't generalize these more, but that's what I do. I think I lifted these mostly from that Bean book, "Engaging Ideas."

    Also, sometimes? Sometimes you get a bunch of duds who would sit there mouthbreathing even if you gently nudged them with electric cattle prods from time to time.

    1. So you arrive early and play music videos, or do you play them while taking attendance? I'm thinking *I* could use a little music to perk me up between classes, but the little buggers will just keep talking, esp. since I like classical music. They'll hear it as wallpaper.

      Oo, but turning it down and starting class would be a way to signal that they should shut up and put away their phones, at least.

  3. Shit, I wish I was in Black Dog's class.

    Oh, wait, is that a real class, or do you just go to the cafeteria and sit down next to some freshmen?

    There's no way you could explain magnets, is there?

  4. Enough with the fuckin' magnets!

    Seriously, when I was at Northeastern Ghetto Tech I had this class in one of their giant amphitheatre classrooms and I would sit at the top because it had a real table and not one of those crappy folding chair/tables. I don't know if it was because of the brilliance of the instructor or the imposing setting, but NOBODY WOULD ANSWER QUESTIONS. So I was forced to occasionally speak up because I HATE pregnant pauses and dead air in an academic setting - the whole thing resembled somebody in a third story apartment talking to the dustman in the street. And the little spuds LOATHED me for talking.

  5. I dissuade people from speaking up and SAVING the class when a pregnant pause is uncomfortable. That's the whole POINT of a pregnant pause.

    The tension tends to draw some people out who might otherwise wait for the instructor (or Strelnikov, I guess) to ease things by saying something.

    If Strelnikov volunteered to end the discomfort too often, I'd just say, "Let's let someone else have a chance to day."

    Giving all the students a chance to take part is what I'm after, and I couldn't care less about a student who hate's dead air in an academic setting. Like, so what?

  6. I'm with Darla on the pregnant pauses. (Hey humanities profs, where does that locution come from?)

    I like the silence, the aching silence. When my super keener students try to fill that in, I just wave them off. I want the quiet students to squirm. They are NOT going to learn or develop in my class without trying out these ideas out loud in discussion. So, I wait them out.

    I've NEVER had it not work. In 15 years I've always seen quiet students eventually wander into the fray, and their abilities and comprehension were better for it.

  7. I, too, Fab, have been worrying about the "what do we do next" notion that Darla brings up.

    Of course it's fun to vent, but to what end? Can we do any good? Should we?


  8. My understanding is that nobody's quite sure how magnets WORK, but we know a lot about their PROPERTIES (ie, what you can do with magnetic fields or what magnetic fields are like.) We know how to make magnets but people are still researching this at the sub-atomic level. What we know fo' sho', though, is that them bitch-ass electrons is all up in motion and shit.

    (I showed part of The Wire today, and for those of you who haven't seen D'angelo Barksdale use crack dealing to explain chess, I highly recommend it--episode 2 and 3, season 1.)

    I appreciate the venting because it makes me feel like I am not crazy, and I appreciate the perspective of folks who've been in the game (but not the crack game) for longer than I have and who I can talk to without fear of being 'outed' as an instructor who 'can't control' her class.

  9. @ Darla
    He NEVER switched off....at points I thought they were less pregnant pauses, more rhetorical questions without the verbal cues, but then, he moved fast. It was a weird department; I took the Dept. Chief's class and she was the driftiest speaker I've ever run across, getting lost in metaphors and descriptions.

  10. Magnets again. BlackDog is right about the magnets. If you must know about magnets, see here for a relatively painless introduction:

    A Student's Guide to Maxwell's Equations, by Daniel Fleisch.

    If you must know where Maxwell's equations come from, see here:

    An Introduction to the Standard Model of Particle Physics, by W. N. Cottingham and D. A. Greenwood.

    This will be fairly painful, however. This is because, to make a very long story short, we don't understand why the Standard Model of Particle Physics, also called SU(3), works. Ultimately, it's only a description of what we see: we don't know why it's true.

    Maybe string theory can go beyond this, but there still isn't any experimental verification that string theory is true. If you want to know about string theory, see here:

    The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene,

    A First Course in String Theory, by Barton Zweibach.

    Brian Greene's book isn't painful, but it's so watered down it sometimes doesn't make sense: his enthusiasm for the subject can cause the illusion that it still does make sense, however. Barton Zweibach's book is painful as hell, but it's the best that's available.

    Richard Feynman liked to say that one didn't really understand a subject if one couldn't teach a first-year undergraduate class on it. His work on the weak nuclear force that causes radioactivity, for which he deserved a second Nobel prize, was inspired when he tried to prepare a freshman lecture on the weak force, and he found he couldn't do it.

    Enough with the magnets already. The subject only came up as the product of a disordered mind. I find that if my students don't sizzle, don't give any of them an A, and give many of them the grades of C or lower that they deserve. That will get them sizzling real quick, if they can sizzle at all. I'm sorry to have to point out that some classes simply will not sizzle, no matter what you do, because they cannot. Let the grades reflect it, then, and hope for better in the future.

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  12. P.S. I am told that my enthusiasm for my subject can get students sizzling, if they're capable of sizzling at all. Specifically, I've been told more than once that my enthusiasm for my subject "can make students care." It's also been remarked, more than once, that precisely this enthusiasm can cause onlookers to wonder about my sanity. You pays your money, and you takes your chance.

  13. I await suggestions from Jim or Tim on this front.


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