Saturday, May 26, 2012

Since When Are We Supposed to Be Equal?

With our nifty new student evaluation system, we now get our results just two days after grades are due.  Since it's all online and strictly voluntary, we are, in essence, operating our own version of The Site That Shall Not Be Named. Only those who really loved or hated their professors feel compelled to respond.

This is our fourth go-round with this system, and one comment I keep getting (usually one per section) that sticks in my craw is some variation on the following:

"She expected us to be perfect and never gave us leeway on anything. But then it was OK if she did whatever she wanted."

This really pisses me off. Other than the term my brother died, I have never turned back a paper late, meaning past the stated grading parameters within the syllabus. I really don't think that a max of 10 days is unreasonable (and that's 10 real days, not business days).  There have been times when I've said I'd have them done earlier and then not been able to do so, but I've always provided an explanation, and that explanation has always been directly related to the other parts of my job at Large Urban Community College.  If, for example, I'd blocked off an afternoon for grading but hear my dean wants an emergency meeting with my department, I have to go to that. If I get selected to present at a conference and funds come through, I'll be doing that.  I am about to the point where I'm going to quit telling them anything about when I'll turn papers back. It bites me in the butt every time.

I also tell my students they have an emergency out clause they can use one time per term.  Again, it's on the syllabus, that thing they never can read.  I tell them I decide whether it's an emergency.  "Got called into work at the last minute," "Kid got sick," or "Grandpa died" are all good examples of an emergency. "I forgot," "I had another paper due," or "I don't have Internet access" (my college has a technology policy that requires online students to have it unless there's a massive city power outage) are not. I don't see it as being all that different from a job.

The most insidious part of this to me, however, is the assumption that somehow their role as student and my role as professor are equal. I've already been a college student, not just once but three times with three degrees. The last time I checked, I was the one assigning grades and setting policies for the class. The management of the class is my job. As an employee of the Urban Community College System, I have rights and responsibilities that students do not.  I do what I can to reduce barriers between us so I'm approachable, but that doesn't mean they are my peers. I can, for example, take sick or personal days. As long as I ensure my work gets done and my classes are covered, it's none of the students' business.  My college system says that if I have service duties which pop up at the same time as scheduled office time, I don't have to make up my office hour. I always do anyway. What does that get me? "She was always moving her office hour" (as if they were going to show up!).

I can just imagine what these people are going to be like as employees.  "Why does the boss get four weeks of vacation and I only get two? Why does he have a corner office and I have a cubicle? We both work the same number of hours. I should be making the same as she does!"


  1. Oh yes, I hear you my sibling-in-hell. I teach Business students here in Far Flung Colony. They think they are my customers. The nicer I am, the more they demand. Last week I had enough. They wouldnt stop harrassing me about various MCQ on their tests- demanding to know for multiple questions why their preferred asinine option wasnt correct (though they accepted the option I had posted as the answer was indeed correct). I got nowhere while explaining they had to prove their chosen answer was right for me to give them an additional mark, it wasnt my job to prove it was wrong. But they wouldnt stop. So I told them I was so stressed that I was sorry but I wouldnt be able to grade the essay parts of their test this weekend after all and I wasnt sure when I'd be able to do it. And deleted the answers to the MCQ that had been up on blackboard at their request. And you know what, they suddenly finally realised I had the power instead of them. DAMN. I wish I had figured this out years ago. TAKE YOUR POWER BACK!!!!

  2. Why, why, why are you making your students these kinds of promises in the first place, EnglishDoc? Does your school require some kind of self-imposed and publicized grading deadline, or is this something you do out of the goodness of your dear, beleaguered heart?

    Cultivate some mystery with regard to feedback. Papers will come back whenever they come back, and not a minute sooner. Tell them as much when they ask. As long as a vague sense of timeliness is respected (i.e. performance feedback isn't all coming in a flood at the end of the term), you're doing your job. Calling attention to arbitrary time constraints that you set for yourself -- even laying them out in your syllabus! -- just announces to your students that your turnaround time is one more thing they should feel free to judge you on. And students should never feel like they're in a position to judge how their profs use their time.

    I admit that I've been lucky in this regard. In my experience, at least, students here do not exhibit the kind of magical thinking by which dozens of papers can be graded and returned within mere hours of their submission. (Exams are a different story, but their tone is always curious rather than judgmental; either way, turnaround time never figures into their evaluations.) This tacit acceptance of the teacher as authority figure is, no doubt, a byproduct of the hierarchical society that has produced them, and an unforeseen plus of working at Across the Seas U.

    My policy, since I use online submission and grading, is to grade papers in the order that they were submitted. So their feedback is posted piecemeal, a few each day as I work through the list. If a student complains that their feedback hasn't been posted yet, I remind them that I go in the order of submission, and next time they can submit early if they want to be among the first to find out their grade. My hope is that this underscores for them the amount of work it actually takes to get through a big pile of papers -- it is not a project for a 24- or 48-hour grading bonanza, but a task that requires time over several days in order to be done fairly.

  3. "it is not a project for a 24- or 48-hour grading bonanza, but a task that requires time over several days in order to be done fairly."

    I have a colleague who prides herself on the bonanzas with fast return -- and I just don't roll that way. I've found that marathon sessions lead to increased frustration with a deleterious effect on the tone of my feedback.

    Back to the original post: I'm taken aback by students claiming, on the one hand, to be delicate blossoms who can't withstand the stress of presentations or constructive feedback but are quite happy to lash out at others (me, their classmates). Last year, I cancelled an early morning class after spending the wee hours in the ER with my Aged P (Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations.). In the ER waiting room, I sent an email via smartphone to the departmental secretary asking her to inform the students. In the fog of fatigue and anxiety, I didn't realize that the secretary would only receive the email twenty minutes after the class was scheduled to start.

    At the next class, I apologized for the cancellation and late notice, explaining the various circumstances. A number of students approached me to express their concern -- and to let me know that they had deduced that something unusual was occurring, since I am always in the classroom before lecture begins.

    In evaluations, I was barbecued for by several students who were seriously miffed that they had to wait 20 minutes for confirmation of cancellation.

  4. I miss the old days, when they were basically terrified of us. The 70s has a lot to answer for.

  5. EnglishDoc, you know that I feel your pain. Often.

    First, stop telling them when you'll be returning essays, unless you have to by some sort of bizarre edict of your administration. Tell them that every time they ask for their essays, you'll knock off even more points. (Okay, so that may not be fair.) Just stop telling them when they'll get them back. If they ask, tell them that they'll be the first to know when they'll get them in, when they receive them.

    Second, yes, it's unbelievably galling that they assume that we're equals in the classroom. I don't care if I get flamed for that by some of the touchier-feelier types here. Our students are not our peers. What particularly troubles me is when I have to have a sub for my classes--professional development, conferencing, illness because I teach in a Petri dish--and students gripe about it. Often after such an event, attendance drops for a class or two. "Well, you weren't here!" they protest.

    They also don't seem to understand that while there is one of each of them, there are many of them collectively and just one of each of us grading.

    Where I work, we also get incredible resentment from administrative staff about our salaries/schedules. When I hear someone on the staff complain about these alleged discrepancies, I tell them the same thing I tell my students: Go to college for as long as I did, earn the degrees I did, and work in the field for as long as I have--and then you can have the alleged perquisites that I receive.

    I echo Red. Take back your power!

  6. Our job description requires that we return graded items "in a timely manner." We are evaluated on that criterion by both students and chairs. Since I realized students have no idea what that phrase means, I started giving them parameters hoping it would end the unceasing questions of "Have you finished grading X yet?" I even started telling them that every time someone asked me that, it would cause that person's assignment to be graded last. I still get 1-2 each term who ask me, but they only do it once because I do enforce the penalty. I do think, however, that I will stop giving them my own imposed deadlines as they seem to cause me nothing but further misery.

    1. We have this same mandate: "in a timely manner." I make them do the math: 48 of them at 20 minutes a paper, all graded AFTER hours... how long do you think that's going to take? Hmm? They seem less upset about it then. But it takes some contextualizing for them (and a reminder that, indeed, I am not them). So sorry for your angst.

    2. As much as I agree with everyone else here--that we don't owe our students an explanation for how we budget our time--it occurs to me that you might tell the students that you get as much time to grade them as they get to write them. And then hand out paper prompts 3+ weeks in advance of the due date.

    3. They get their paper prompts in my syllabus at the beginning of the quarter. I like how this would play out. :o) I'm actually really good about handing back papers (over a weekend, if it's turned in at the end of the week, or by the end of that week, if I'm foolish enough to have the due date be a Monday. But I still get complaints from students that I'm not grading fast enough. This means... well, telling them their letter grade will drop by 1 letter grade every time they ask me when they're getting their papers back before a week has passed.

  7. I feel your pain, and agree with others that it's best to avoid being specific about targets for finishing, while reminding students just how many of them there are (and how many sections you teach).

    The other area where misperceived equality come into play is students' tendency to treat all graded assignments/activities as equal. So I may, for instance, put all my effort into grading a set of proposals for a larger project as quickly as possible (which can mean 10 days to 2 weeks, a delay I allow for in planning the course calendar), only to have some students complain that I haven't "fixed" the icon indicating that their last two (or, okay, five or six) low-stakes homework assignments, on which they received feedback from their peers and me in the course of class discussion, need to be graded. This, of course, is the fault of LMSs (and innumeracy).

  8. The student's comment is subjective, thus gets round filed.

  9. Yeah, once I had to look a student in the eye (when she claimed that my grading was unfair) and say: "I have a Ph.D. You don't."

    You would think that would shut someone up, but instead she began to chant in a sing-songy voice, "I have a Ph.D. and you don't! I have a Ph.D. and you don't!" and finished with "Stuck-up little bitch!"

    I called her advisor and told him that she was never to darken the door of my office again.

    1. I agree that your student reacted in a completely inappropriate way. If I'd had a pepper spray in my hand, I'd have needed to fight hard to have resisted the temptation to use it.

      However, evoking one's Ph.D. is an argument from authority. I teach in my introductory science classes that arguments from authority carry little weight in science. My favorite example, which I give, is Einstein's miracle year: in 1905, he wrote four papers worthy of a Nobel Prize, while he was working as a patent clerk. Nevertheless, the editor of the journal noted, he didn't know who this Einstein fellow was, but it was clear that the world had changed. There aren't really any authorities in science: or rather, while there may be experts, who have read and thought extensively, the only real authority is nature.

      I therefore always try my best to reason with my students. My stint in the U.S. Navy convinced me that people follow orders more readily and better if you explain to them why what you want them to do is essential.

      All too often, of course, students won't listen to reason. Considering how "elitism" (something I never did explain successfully to my Mom, a member of the Greatest Generation) has come under fire in American society since the 1960s, evoking one's Ph.D. may backfire. If you're having an argument with a student about something for which the student has no scientific backing but doesn't care, such as why the student got a well-deserved F, and the student will not listen to reason and you have no choice but to evoke an argument from authority, one I use that rarely fails is:


      They will rarely argue with the syllabus. It helps to have constructed one's syllabus appropriately first, of course. Mine is 16 pages long, and counting.

    2. I should give some context. This student was questioning, in a shouting voice, why when she had raised 3 children I was qualified to fail her paper.

      "I have a Ph.D." was short for "I have 10 years' worth of education on the topic of the paper and 15 years of experience grading papers in general." That is expertise, not authority.

    3. I was once in the same situation. After 10 minutes of attempted reasoning with and increasing shoutiness by the student, the appeal to authority "I'm the teacher and you're not") was used JUST to shut her up.

      Logic doesn't work on the irrational. But it does make them reveal how nuts they are.

  10. I learned some time ago not to provide explanations... it more or less opens the door for arguments. Yes I state my grading criteria on the syllabus. And I review material I expect students to utilize in their projects. I do not discuss, I state. And sure, I'll give reasons - generally providing a historical basis for these conventions.

    In one of my classes just after I presented one such convention, a student raised his hand and said, I don't believe you. I said, OK - let's do a quick search via Google, and there were about 4 million hits explaining the same point I had just made in class. (I had anticipated this was prepared). This student did not question me again for the remainder of the semester.

    I see colleagues struggle with this sort of thing. All I can say is that if students see an opening, they'll take it. So don't give them an opening.

    And no matter what you do, students will complain that you didn't do it. I often put in 10-12 hour days (coming in early and staying after class), but students claim I am inaccessible. They complain they don't get feedback. I review early projects with each student individually, and at several points there are class presentations and discussions. One student claimed I was 20 minutes late to every class (in reality, I was 3 minutes late to one class). What would they have me do (because of course my very existence revolves around them)?

    Stand firm.

    1. And no matter what you do, students will complain that you didn't do it. I often put in 10-12 hour days (coming in early and staying after class), but students claim I am inaccessible. They complain they don't get feedback. I review early projects with each student individually, and at several points there are class presentations and discussions. One student claimed I was 20 minutes late to every class (in reality, I was 3 minutes late to one class).

      This has been my experience too. It really doesn't matter what you do--it's never enough. And the ones who hate you will lie about your professionalism anyway. Most of our flakes are dumb when it comes to evaluations, but a few are savvy enough to know how to get your chair's attention.

      A few semesters ago, I had a student who often wanted to see me after class. On no fewer than three occasions, I stayed after with him for 30-40 minutes, helping him with his papers and all else. I even had to walk home afterwards in the dark. His evaluation of me? "Doesn't show enough concern for students. Was inaccessible."

      The same semester, I got an evaluation from another flake who claimed I "never responded to email." I checked my email account to find that she had emailed me once during the semester--and I had emailed her back within two hours.

      And then there was the student who claimed I "never gave written feedback on papers--just gave a grade." That one got me an email from my course director, who apparently was too dense to notice that an overwhelming majority of my other evaluations commented on how thorough I was with feedback.

      Our students frequently distort the truth. The shadier ones just lie.

  11. To answer your question, "Since when are we supposed to be equal":

    Since the 1960s, when everyone was encouraged to "Question authority." That might have been appropriate for an ill-conceived war, but it can be real hell with education, which isn't all fun and games.

    The 1960s was also when we were sold anonymous, student evaluation of teaching, which since then has fueled inappropriate, consumerist attitudes now rampant among our students. The rationale was that since they could be drafted, they were adults.

    In loco parentis was also abolished in the '60s. Now, students can run amok, and if we so much as say anything untoward about it, we get penalized. So, are we all happy now?

  12. RE: Grading and "timeliness"--

    The one thing I do with regard to grading is tell them that I will not collect a major assignment unless I have handed back the previous major assignment at least one class period before the next is due.

    This keeps me from having piles of folders everywhere, and it keeps me working steadily on the grading. It also seems to have worked (so far) to keep the majority of them from bugging me about when they're going to get their papers back (though there were a few more 'flakes this semester who asked the next class period). My assignments are spread out so that I have at least two weeks (14 full days, not business days) between major assignments. Usually, they hand one in, and I'm handing out the assignment for the next project the same day.

    I am a chronic procrastinator, though, so there *have* been occasions where I have had to push back due dates because I'm not done grading, but it's usually only once a semester. And I get a rep for being "fair" because I don't collect stuff until they've had a chance to see (and hopefully apply) the feedback from the previous assignment.


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