Monday, October 28, 2013

In which Bella gives an update on her SUCKY English Composition class.......

So, this class.  THIS class. Most of them really do suck.  Some of them don't.  I have this theory about critical mass.  That you need a slight majority of students who DON'T suck to tip the scales, or you are fucked.  I don't know if I am right.  But in this case, I definitely don't have that majority.  Out of 24 young hopefuls at the beginning of the semester, I am down to eleven.  Eleven.  They are doing that thing that students do, taking note of all the missing faces.  Making comments that imply that the reason for the shrinking size of the class is that I suck. Today, one of the remaining faces, actually a pretty nice guy, said "Wow, we have gotten to be a very small class!"  A few of the asshat students looked at each other knowingly, smirking and nodding.  I don't know what I ought to have said.  I said "Well, that is not so uncommon, at this point in the semester."  Which elicited a round of  knowing smirks and sideways smiles.  You know what?  FUCK THEM.

My husband told me I should have said something that implied that they had made the cut.  Yay for them.  But not all of the eleven had.  Some of them are definitely going to fail.  Augh.  Does anyone think I LIKE failing students?  Does anyone think I ENJOY the fact that so many of them cannot do the things I ask of them?  This is an epic fail of a class. And I feel shitty about it.

I won't go into what I have begged them to do:  (come to see me during office hours, use our free e-tutoring service, send me a draft of their essays via email for a full evaluation and comments, even over the weekend).  No, what they want are things like extra credit work in the form of taking part in a service project for another discipline.  Sorry, that is not writing, and it is not for me.  You know, your professor for this course.  What they want is ANYTHING that will get them out of writing something, or reading something and showing they understood it.

Our dean came to see me about a student from this class who complained about me.  He wanted me to consider that there had been a personality conflict.....to assign him to another class with an asshat prof who passes everyone.  That is what the student was claiming and asking for.  I categorically denied the charge.  I categorically refused to allow a transfer.  I insisted on a joint meeting where the student offered evidence, even in the form of related incidents from his own stupid mouth, that I had treated him unfairly.  The Dean told me that I was a strong personality, and the student less strong, and how could I think that a poor student would be able to confront me like that?

I am lucky.  I have to count my lucky stars.  Somehow, under duress, I have ended up being Chair of this department.  I have tenure. This Dean, he's stuck with me.  He had to take my no for an answer.

But still, I feel sad about all the losses.  I feel sad about all the bad feelings.  I know if I went on the site that must not be named right now, I'd get an eyeful of abuse. 

Screw that.  That site and the people who maintain it can burn in hell.  I estimate that out of my 24 hopefuls at the beginning of the semester, I will have maybe 5 who pass.  I have had MUCH higher success rates in the past.....but this is one of those semesters.  It's good, for me to experience it.  I was getting a little cocky, I was.

23 comments:

  1. Be strong. It is a mierable job sometimes but one of our basic duties is to identify and separate those who cannot/will not/refuse to learn the basic knowledge that we share with the rest of our students. Relish the fact that you have some independence in these scenarios. The good semesters will return.

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  2. I'm with you, Bella. I know how you feel, I've been in this position many times. It's not what we do, it's what they don't do. (And then they call it "unreasonable expectations": coming to class, reading the textbook, doing the homework).

    It's been made clear to me that if my "success rates" are not in line with others teaching the same course every time , tenure won't save me, and neither will research success or speaking invitations. So if I know what they are, I do adjust grades (adminiflakes prefer that to actually running an honest operation). So here is a problem: does the "success rate" computation include the students who drop the class? That's something I have no control over, they just disappear. Making this case is an ongoing battle. If I lose it, I'm toast.

    Also, "that site" affects enrollment in my classes. That's not necessarily a bad thing--I'd rather all the losers who trust those comments stay away--unless lower enrollments start to count against me--another ongoing battle.

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  3. You are not alone! I'm betting a lot of us on here are those who adhere to standards that we see others flouting (and flaunting that fact). There is nothing so frustrating as doing your damnedest and then being blamed for someone else's flaws. Not cool at all on the part of your dean. My chair has done this before, though (moved students out of my section into the Easy A's section, and those students always gloat about it; it's so demoralizing).

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  4. I feel your misery, though I have no power to do anything about it. But I'm wondering if there's any way I can use these kids against themselves. I already give a quiz on the plagiarism policy that the kids must pass with 100% before I'll consent to record grades on ANY other assignment, just as a CYA (I can always point to it as evidence that they knew the policy - and have had to). But could the same idea be extended to some sort of "effort pledge," maybe? Something that says, like, "I understand that by remaining enrolled in this class I am agreeing to come to class regularly, do the reading assignments, and turn in assignments on time"? In other words, something that can be brandished at a Dean by those of us who have no tenure, a shield against "I'm being treated unfairly?"

    Nah, it'd never work. Makes too much sense.

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    1. I have a statement similar to that attached to my syllabus, stating that they have read the syllabus and agree to abide by all class policies, including assignments and due dates. I make them sign that attachment and hand it back in to me by the end of the second week, for 5% of their final exam grade.

      That signed page has saved my ass multiple times when precious snowflakes decide they are too good for the rules apply to them. I don't have tenure, I don't have hope of every having tenure, but I do insist on some standards. And luckily, my department chairs have been relatively reasonable and have backed me up with it comes down to it.

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    2. ks? I've always wondered. What do we call you? Kay-Ess? Is that right?

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  5. I do have a thingie on my syllabus that says that continued enrollment in the class indicates consent to abide by its policies. But I have tenure.

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  6. I have a similar statement on my syllabi. I also have them do a weekly self assessment where they record their attendance, whether or not they did the reading, homework, and study time. Forces them to put their slacker ness in their own handwriting, and gives me ammunition when they question their grades.

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  7. It's been a while since I had the "my class shrunk; is it me?" conversation with a newbie at my institution (mostly, I think, because we're hiring fewer people to teach core classes, since low enrollments mean TT professors are teaching some of those classes), but I used to have it regularly, and I was vastly relieved as a new professor myself to learn how common shrinking classes are. All of the hullabaloo about retention (which I'm all for, but we need to be careful how we achieve it; there are obvious-to-us-but-perhaps-not-to-adminstrators pitfalls) suggests that the problem is by no means limited to my institution, or yours, Bella. I do think comp classes are particularly prone to the disappearing-student problem, because students have to actually produce something: they can't attend occasionally, take exams while praying a lot, and thing they're "taking" the class. Then again, I have the occasional student who attends semi-regularly but never writes anything. Those puzzle me even more.

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    1. Also, hurrah for tenure; it does have its uses. I'd venture to say that the "success rates" (or whatever we're calling them in these days) in classes taught by tenured faculty probably offer a more realistic picture of what's actually going on than in those taught by non-TT faculty worried about student evals. Of course, that doesn't take into account the TT faculty who have figured out that the easiest way to reduce the amount of work required to teach a class is to give grades so high no student will complain.

      And finally, yes, it's hard to figure out what to say, if anything, given the limits of FERPA (and common decency). If the suggestion that the waning numbers were my fault got too clear, I might be tempted to make some allusion to an unusual number of students this semester having difficulties, and FERPA preventing me from being specific.

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    2. Or just say something along the lines of "yes, it's a harder class than people think, and many people end up needing to take it more than once before they pass." That would cover both the disappear-ees and the present-but-failing reasonably well.

      At least at my school, students are quite willing to accept that some classes (mostly in engineering, health sciences, and related basic sciences) are hard, and have high fail rates. It seems to be much harder to persuade them that the same could/should be true for writing courses. I think we need to cultivate a tougher image (with the students, and probably also with the administrators, who seem to share the idea that English should be easy, or at least passable).

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    3. "It seems to be much harder to persuade them that the same could/should be true for writing courses."

      I have this same sense, and I have a theory that it's because they view any and all humanities writing to fall under the general "high school English literature class" umbrella. For them, writing in the humanities is all about personal feelings, opinions and observations, which cannot be assessed fairly or rationally (according to them). They literally don't understand that their writing can be assessed objectively by a composition instructor (whom they call their "English teacher"), because writing is just English, and they're good at English, so they can't be getting Cs in composition.

      Maybe a tougher image would help, but I think it's a systemic problem related to how and when writing is taught in K-12 schools. Writing across the curriculum movements don't appear to be helping, because writing pedagogy is still driven primarily by the English department and everyone knows it. I don't know the answer, but shit sucks, yo.

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    4. Ha, Lucy! My teenage daughter would say "It sucks to suck, Mom!"

      I think you have a great point about the way high school English classes make them think their personal feelings are what pass for serious essays.

      I have so many students tell me they are "good at English" and have been all their lives.....so this class of mine, this bad grade they are getting, it's obviously a mistake!

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    5. Well it's all "opinions," right? According to one student whose work I read today, even researchers who conducted extensive interviews and reported the results from those are just expressing an opinion about the subject (not, apparently, describing and analyzing the range of opinions expressed by their subjects). Aargh.

      Yes, indeed, they need to be writing much more rigorous essays, much sooner (and not only in English classes. I think one original idea in the Common Core standards was to distribute the teaching of serious reading, at least, over a variety of subjects, but that seems to have devolved into English teachers being asked to make room for the reading of various kinds of nonfiction documents by cutting down on the amount of traditional literature they teach, which is not at all the same thing. Really, it's everybody's responsibility to teach basic skills. We do our best, but we can't carry the whole burden of teaching students to read and write.)

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  8. Yes.This sucks. And you have no control over whether or not they do the work. And your Dean sounds like a complete assclown. Jesus. You have my empathy.

    My pass rate (usually) is 70% of the students I start the semester with. Sometimes it's worse. Sometimes it's better. By this point in a class of 24 I'm usually down to 21 or 20. This semester, they're all sticking it out, even though 7 of them have no hope of passing at this point. AUGH.

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  9. As a student who had to go through the grievance process, I will say that it WAS incredibly intimidating to do. Especially because the grievance process in question requires us to talk to our teacher first.

    The course in question was an online course with a syllabus that very clearly outlined the requirements for an A in participation. They were to attend every class and contribute at least one meaningful comment or question every class. I had gone to great pains to meet these requirements, including jotting down questions before classes. Then at the end of the course, I got a quacking eighty! I'm a reasonable person, so I went through the class recordings to make sure I didn't miss a day and that the instructor responded positively to my contributions. That checked out. Still willing to give my instructor the benefit of the doubt, I chalked it up to an honest mistake. She'd gotten me confused with someone else; understandable in an online course. I emailed her expressing my concerns politely and she responded along the lines of "Well, I'll give you an eighty five and if you think you deserve higher than that, you'll have to file a grievance appeal."

    So I did. I showed the panel the recordings as well as the syllabus and they unanimously found in my favor. They raised the grade and put my course on hold so that if the teacher made changes, someone in SA would be notified. After they announced their decision I approached my teacher, hand literally outstretched, to assure her that I didn't think she behaved maliciously and that what had happened combination of miscommunication and misunderstanding. She told me point blank that I should never sign up for one of her courses again and stormed off.

    Intimidation happens. I was on the receiving end. Regardless of whether or not that was her intention, I felt intimidated even though, in this instance, I felt completely in the right.

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    1. There is no doubt about it that for most people, challenging someone's authority is at least a bit intimidating. It sounds like your professor did not handle the situation well at all. The world is full of people who will not handle things like that well.

      Still, the best case scenario is for the student and the professor to come to an understanding. If that cannot happen, then there should be more formal meetings where both the student and the professor can present their evidence and arguments. It is a process put in place to protect professors from unfair challenges to their grades, which is by far, numerically, the more common situation.

      I'll tell you, though, Conan. Where I live, if you went to the Deans and told them what that professor said, she'd be in all kinds of trouble. We are very student centered here at Inner City Community College.

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    2. I'm sure her behavior could get her into trouble where I go, given that her little snipe at the end was unprofessional and downright unkind, but I don't want to give her a reason to go around to her contacts in my industry and talk crap about me. In my field, professors can do great damage to you outside of school through the contacts they have.

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    3. But.....you.....are......CONAN.

      Take out your sword, pray to Krom, and slay the imbeciles!!

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    4. If it's spelled out on the syllabus, any teacher with any sense is going to abide by that (even if whatever was written was a mistake; next semester is the time to make adjustments if necessary. Of course if one has managed to say contradictory things in different places in the syllabus -- it happens -- then there's a problem. The couple of time I've inadvertently done that, I usually ran two grade calculations, and gave each student the higher grade). I'm glad you challenged it, and I'm glad the appeal board supported you. And I'm sorry your reconciliatory gesture was met with such ill manners.

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  10. I've often wondered if men also get hit with the "your personality is too strong" complaint. Maybe for them it's coded as "arrogance." The "too strong personality" complaint always really irks me; it implies that someone (a woman) should have a weaker personality and "tone it down" (i.e. be "pleasant" and "accommodating"). Or just get with the program and smile more.

    I used to get hit with it occasionally in the non-academic work force. I was once told on a performance review that I was the sort of person who didn't suffer fools gladly. This was meant as criticism. I responded with, "I didn't know that I worked with fools. And I didn't know that I was supposed to suffer them gladly." That didn't go over well either.

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