Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Six Years Ago on RYS. Meet the Old Complaint, Same as the Current Complaint.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

We Hear It All The Time - Why Do Many of Us Feel Forced to Teach to the Lowest Common Denominators?

I have been sitting at home all weekend, trying not to hate the shitty students and trying to bolster my self-esteem and willingness to do the job by working hard to focus on the good ones. I have fall syllabi to write. As I think about how I need to modify the basic course syllabus I have employed for the last 3 years, it just kills me that all of my modifications are centered on how to deal with the lazy shits who don't need to be in college.

How to dock them points for not coming to my class, even though I'm philosophically opposed to such point-docking. How to make my syllabus SCREAM of my intent to fail plagiarists. How to set up traps for the lazy, the uninspired, the fresh-air-stealers. How to ensure, through multiple and diverse grading opportunities, that all of the Fs and Ds and Cs and Bs will be unassailable grades, able to withstand grade appeals managed by the even the most molly-coddling administrators...

It's so exhausting.


  1. The clean, unambiguous nature of mathematics can be a big help. My students tend not to argue with numbers, which seemingly have an authority all their own. Also, my students are grossly incompetent with numbers, not only the general-ed non-majors, but also disturbingly often the engineers.

    Even in assignments that defy precise quantification, such as essays, one can become surprisingly precise with a three-point scale like this:

    3/3 = essentially perfect, with the entire assignment containing no more than 5 errors of composition, spelling, or grammar and no errors in logic;

    2/3 = containing significant errors, with 3-5 errors in composition, spelling, or grammar per page or at least one error in logic;

    1/3 = not written, thought of, or researched at college level, with 6 or more errors in composition, spelling, or grammar per page, multiple logic errors, or showing inadequate research

    0/3 = assignment turned in at any time after the first five minutes of the class during which it was due.

    A four-point scale, or in other words, A, B, C, D, and F, allows too much ambiguity for the sleazier students. It also allows too much familiarity, since they've been getting these grades all their lives, so they think they know what these grades mean.

    I spent my first two years teaching as an Accursed Visiting Assitant Professor and then the next four years on the tenure-track working for department chairs who caved in to all student complaints, and took at face value anything that students wrote in their anonymous evaluations of me, no matter how ridiculous. I did my best to uphold standards, and was very nearly denied tenure for it: it was only my research program that saved me, and on the decision of the provost alone.

    Even though we've gotten competent management in the 8 years since then (including a stint with me as department chair), I don't think I've ever completely gotten over it. At least I've become better at ignoring the fresh-air-stealers and concentrating on the good students who want to learn.

    And of course, because every time a student does something stupid that someone with common sense wouldn't do, such as use cell phones in class or write on the wrong side of a Scantron form, I list a rule in the syllabus explicitly prohibiting it. I know that a comprehensive list is a logical impossibility (I have no rule banning coming to class naked, for example) but administrators do take the syllabus seriously. It's now 17 pages long, and counting.

    1. Only seventeen pages? That's old school. My syllabus is now a paperless 5-dvd interactive multimedia presentation that lasts for seven hours (not including the two intermissions). The students are required to say "I understand" at 68 different points during the presentation when the cowboy hologram rides up to them and asks them questions such as, "Do you understand that you will fail this class if you miss a deadline?" Accommodations are available for disabled students who are unable to speak due to social phobia, equinophobia, or technophobia. The dean loves it, but he balked at paying to keep three EMTs on hand for the possible cases of nausea and dizziness; he finally agreed to provide two EMTs, but only if I would fingerprint all the students and have them sign a pre-syllabus-presentation informed-consent form. It's all good now, but I'd still like to add a 2-minute conclusion featuring Cal wearing a black suit and singing the Rawhide theme.

    2. You forgot the flaming sparklers and the poodles jumping through hoops, Bubba.

      I do quiz my students about the syllabus on two of the subsequent homework assignments, but nowhere on my 17-page syllabus do I elicit a response from them. If I were to require one, half of my students would screw it up. I just have this statement at the end:

      A student's being registered in, and not dropping, [my class] means that the student accepts all the terms in this syllabus.

      Fifteen years and 4000 students in, and so far no one has challenged it.

  2. I'm sorry, but I have a problem with the graphic. It's really good. This cannot stand.

    1. Indeed. Cal must be having a stroke.

  3. I've been teaching 10 years now, the first 6 as an adjunct, then 3 as a visiting, and then the last year I landed a lecturer position that isn't tenure track, but it is quasi-permanent. Luckily, I've had more or less supportive administrators who value my teaching. But even with that, my syllabus is ridiculously long, and like Froderick, every time something comes up in a class or a student does something so mind-bogglingly stupid that I would have never thought could happen, it goes into the syllabus. And then I make the students sign a statement attached to the last page stating that they have read and understand the syllabus and return it to me by the end of the first week, for a grade (5% on the final exam--and this is also in the syllabus). Since I mostly teach physics to pre-meds, they really care about any and all points and they all sign the form and return it, usually without actually reading the syllabus. But I don't care if they read it or not, because now anytime one of them tries to get away with anything, I can point to the syllabus and their signed paper with a smile and cover my ass.

  4. Every time you stop up a loophole you create two more on each side. Remember the story of the three wishes? The genie tries to screw you so you put all these conditions, but that never works. What you need to do is keep it vague and positive--wish to be "healthy" or "lucky" or "wise".

    I do several things. I have a form that spells out what is expected in general, positive language, and they must initial each section and mark a box that says they read it, they will do all these things, if they stay in the course, which they sign. I also have a quiz over the syllabus that is worth as much as any other, but they have to take it over and over until they pass it.

    It's all about creating the paper trail. You catch a student cheating, confront them with it (with another professor as a witness, natch). They say they weren't aware. You show them the form they signed and initialed that said they read and understood the policy. They look like an idiot to your witness. Since I started it the others in my department who care about standards--two, i think--are doing the same.

  5. I second the good Doctor on not doing fine-grained grading. I have a two point scale--basically right (2), small mistake (1), wrong (0). Who decides what's small? I do, and there is no appeals process.

    1. Oh, I have an appeals process. Here it is:

      Prof. Frankenstien will be happy to fix any errors that occur in the grading. If after any errors are fixed, students still want to contest their grades, the students are required to do it in writing. This written request must be typed and must be a minimum of half a single-spaced page of 12-point type for exam or Final Exam questions, and a minimum of one single-spaced page of 12-point type for the overall grade. It is to be submitted one time, either to Prof. Frankenstien during his office hours, or to his mailbox in [his department office].

      Never once has a student even attempted this, among about 4000 students over 15 years. I guess it requires too much left-brained activity, or is buried too deeply in the 17-page syllabus.

  6. It might be good to end the syllabus with the following statement: For any situation not expressly dealt with in the foregoing, if you have any questions about whether or not something is allowed, the answer is "NO!"

    Show up. Pay attention. Do the assignments. Do them correctly and you will pass. The professor is the one who decides if it's correct. Not you, your roommate, significant other, Mommy, Daddy, Department Head, Department Chair, Provost, or Dean. You are not a customer, you are a student. If you go to a buffet and don't eat it's your own fault if you die of starvation.

    1. This is darn good advice, even if it was meant as a joke. It reveals something bad about what the academy has come to, when it's not easy to tell jokes from the real thing. (I know, the real thing is a joke.)