Tuesday, January 7, 2014

If It's Tuesday, I Must Be Baffled About My Colleagues...

Let's say I teach Writing 2 in the Spring, and that about 75% of my students come to me after passing Writing 1 with one of my colleagues.

We have a fairly stringent set of outcomes that students are to meet in Writing 1, and invariably my curiosity gets to me. I have a low stakes writing assignment I offer on the first day that subtly (oh, probably not) tests students about these outcomes.

Generally it's a sad day, like it was today when I ran it on the first of my Writing 2 classes. After reading through a set of 25 assignments, I find that only 10 of my students really know some of these chief outcomes; some just skipped parts of the assignment asking them to do fairly normal things like in-text citations, etc.

I can't even say 10 of them wrote anything that would qualify as a real thesis statement.

I know I can't teach every Writing 1 student, and perhaps my own students are running willy-nilly into other Writing 2 instructors having forgotten 16 weeks of work.

But, I am baffled, nonetheless, and that is, after all, my thing.


  1. Hiram, my brother! I am so right there with you. We sit around every break and hammer out these outcomes that must be met. And it's always my colleague who peacocks the highest standards who seems to require the lowest standard of work in actual practice.

    When a student from his class comes to me, I just prepare to start from scratch with that student.

  2. I *slightly* suspect the 'flakes are merely flaking out. If they show they "can't" do certain things their logic dictates they may not be expected to actually do them. If you go through the trouble of "re-teaching" it they "win" because that's one less new thing they have to learn.

    I'll admit to pulling a stunt similar to this with classmates in elementary school and junior high with substitute teachers to get out of doing assignments for that day.

    1. Yeah, Bill Cosby made a big deal on his TV show in 1969-71 about how he did that when he was a kid. I tried it in 1974, when I was in Algebra II class in 10th grade. The substitute teacher, who was a student teacher from the local university, pointed out that by doing this, "you are only hurting yourselves." This appealed to my sense of reason, so I cut it out, and we proceeded to learn lots of algebra.

      I have tried this several times with modern students, since I started teaching, in 1998. It always falls flat. I hate it.

    2. I tried that with my students, too and failed miserably as well.

      They could get away with that smart-alecky behaviour because they were convinced they were invincible. Not only did my institution have the policy that having one's application accepted was sufficient for graduation (and it rarely turned anyone down), the students felt could always go over my head to a departmental superior to get their way, which they often did.

  3. If Sawyer is correct and they are slow-playing, you might tell them that since they have passed Writing 1, you take it as given they have mastered that material and will be assessed accordingly. Don't even review and drill them like a wildcatter.

  4. I had to deal with that several times.

    I often taught courses which had pre-requesites and I assumed that my students had mastered the previous material. That was a big mistake on my part. A lot of times, I had to either re-teach material that those students should have learned earlier or teach for the first time what they should have been taught by my colleagues.

    I remember butting heads with a senior colleague over that very issue when I was a rookie. His reaction was to shrug his shoulders with a "so what?" attitude. He had permanent status and was quite secure in his position. Why should he care what happened?

    Unfortunately, it didn't help that the institution emphasized high pass rates. That explained the unwritten policy that one shouldn't worry so much about teaching all of the course material. Instead, one should teach much less but teach it well. If it conveniences a subsequent instructor, too bad for them.

  5. I share your bafflement, Hiram, but I'm even more baffled when my own freshman writing students demonstrate proficiency in all the required outcomes but then a year or two later register for one of my literature classes and show no signs of ever having written a thesis or cited a source. How could all the skills they mastered in my course simply evaporate over a few semesters?

    1. This happens to me!!! It's like they revert to high school when suddenly tasked with writing an essay rather than relying on what they learned IN MY CLASS two years ago.

  6. I stopped chiding colleagues that they were passing incompetent students the very first time I taught a course the VERY SEMESTER AFTER I had taught the prerequisite course, and a horrifyingly large fraction of the students I had passed - even some with B's and A's - had obviously had their brains suctioned out during the semester break: not only were they not competent, they SWORE I had never even MENTIONED several important topics I had emphasized the previous semester.

    1. I've had this experience as well.
      The prereq course taught the students the hamster alphabet.
      I would get them, and start spelling words in hamster and making sentences, and they would exclaim, "But we've never seen those letters before!"

      Then I took over a section of the prereq course.
      The following semester, when they claimed they'd never seen those letters before, I told them, that, yes they had, as I clearly remembered drawing them on the board...

  7. There are several ways to handle this, Hiram. One way was tried by a naive little booby I know who'd recently been hired as an assistant professor. He was disturbed by the innumeracy of the students in his introductory physics class, so he wrote a letter to the math department, asking that they do a better job. They filed it in the circular file, and that was that.

    To be fair, I can see for myself that our math department does the best job they possibly can. The real problem is that modern students will claim that they've never seen anything from any prerequisite course, no matter what.

    So, I've gotten into the habit of reminding them. I teach the third-semester, calculus-based physics class for engineers and physical science majors. The title of the course is "Light and Modern Physics." It's lots of fun, covering optics, relativity, and some very basic quantum mechanics (enough for engineers who want to design digital electronics, or for chemists who want to predict what will happen if they mix two chemicals together).

    The course starts with Maxwell's equations. Maxwell's equations are only four equations, but they provide a complete description of electricity, magnetism, and light.

    My students will have seen Maxwell's equations, but introduced one at a time, spread out throughout the semester, during the second-semester prerequisite course that is about electricity and magnetism. They will not have seen Maxwell's equations presented together as Maxwell's equations, nor will my students have used Maxwell's equations to show that light is closely related to electricity and magnetism, which is what I want to do next.

    So, on the first day of class, I write Maxwell's equations on the board, along with their names and the chapters in the book in which they were covered. As I say to the students, "You should have seen this before, but if it seems new or unfamiliar to you, you should look it up in Chapter X!" The excuse "I sold the old textbook" won't work, since the book we use is the last few chapters of the one used in the previous course. (Yes, it is a big, thick, expensive tome, but they need to buy it only during one semester.)

    I also mention that Maxwell's equations provide a complete description of electricity, magnetism, and light---together with a knowledge of vector calculus. My students are required to have taken a prerequisite course on vector calculus, before being allowed to register in my course. Interestingly, none of my students claim they've never seen vector calculus, since no one could forget that.

    Nevertheless, nearly all of them will claim to have forgotten it, so I show them a simple example (a line integral for the current in a loop of wire in Faraday's law). I also tell them that if this seems new or unfamiliar, they should look at the textbook for their vector calculus course. If they sold it, they should look at the Schaum's outline on Mathematics for Physics Students, which is available as a recommended text for my course, and costs less than $20.


    1. (continued)

      Throughout the semester, I keep telling my students, over and over, "I'm going to need you to remember this from previous courses," and then name the course, preferably also with the chapter in the textbook, and maybe also with a simple example, if there's time. It works pretty well, maybe not to get them to remember what was covered in their prerequisite courses at expert level, but at least to stop sniveling about it.

      In fact, while discussing prerequisites, I often use a variation of the "How dare you give me a B, since I paid my tuition" argument, unfortunately used so often by students. The variation is: "You paid tuition to learn this material, so you really ought to know it!"

      When we get to atomic physics, I show that one can understand how the orbits of electrons in atoms work in a remarkably exact analogy to how the orbits of the planets in the Solar System work, except that the planets orbit the Sun because of gravitational force, whereas electrons orbit the nucleus because of electric forces. To do this, I show both derivations, for gravity and for atoms, side by side, line by line, on the board.

      This helps a whole lot, since some of my students genuinely will not have had gravity explained to them before. Scandalously, one of my junior colleagues skips it when teaching the first-semester, introductory physics course. I know, how the hell does one skip gravity in a course largely about Newton's laws of motion? By being an incompetent little fool, of course: it does happen. The next time I am roped into serving as department Chair, I am going to do something about this, I promise.

      During that stint I served as Chair of the physics department, I got a rule into the university catalog that in order for any students to be allowed to register in any physics courses, all prerequisites had to be passed with a grade of C or higher. Oh, how the engineering students, and in fact the engineering school itself, kicked, screamed, and howled about that! I still chortle about it whenever it comes up, every semester. When university administrators grouse, I point out that they will be driving over bridges designed, built, and maintained by our engineering graduates. That holds the little bastards.

      I teach quite a lot of Writing 1, too, in my general-ed, intro-astronomy course for non-majors. I may not teach it as expertly as you do, but I know for certain it's an improvement over what they have. Many first-year students take my general-ed astronomy course, anyway, so many of them may not have even taken Writing 1: tt's not a prerequisite for my course, after all. It helps enormously that I give them several smaller writing assignments, leading up to the research paper due at the end. These include an assignment to describe, in 1-3 sentences that a 9-year-old could understand, why the sky is blue (simply burbling "Rayleigh scattering" won't work since even Murray Gell-Mann couldn 't understand Rayleigh scattering when he was 9), and another assignment to explain in 1-3 sentences how we know that Earth is round, how we know atoms exist, etc.

      In the general-ed astronomy course, I also teach a fair amount of Latin, Greek, and mythology whenever introducing constellations. I also teach a fair amount of ancient and modern history, particularly when telling the stories of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. Many of my students act as if they've never heard of Aristotle or Ancient Rome, WWI, or even WWII: it wouldn't surprise me if they haven't. They're not on the TV channels my students watch, you know.

    2. I have a variation on some of what you mention.

      In one of the last courses I ever taught, a group of students whined that I was penalizing them for algebra errors. First of all, it wasn't an algebra course and, according to them, they had already been "tested" on it. By that latter comment, they meant that they had already taken an algebra course, passed it, and, thereby didn't have to worry about it any more.

      Students always whined about whether what they were being taught could be applied to something practical. I answered that my course was one example of where the algebra they supposedly learned earlier was useful and necessary and I had the right to penalize them on their mathematical method.

      Of course that didn't satisfy them but they did get a proper answer from me.

  8. Something that genuinely pisses me off about prerequisites is how none of my physics majors can program computers at all, even though every one of them take the introduction to computer programming course taught by the computer science department, and passes this course with a C or higher. For once, I am inclined to believe their universal claim that the course is badly taught, because my best student ever who previously could program took it. He said it was really a course on algorithm design, and that they did little to no actual programming. Maybe this is related to how socially maladjusted IT people are famous for being? Coming from a physics proffie, THAT's saying something.

    So, I plan to start a new course, on Computational Physics. I'm sure I can get away with it, since (a) we have run this course, but only once and a dozen years ago, (b) it's mainly about physics, and how computers can be used in it: the first example is ballistic motion, this time not neglecting air drag, and (c) it'll be in Java, which no course by the computer science department uses.

    1. As an undergrad, I took a course in FORTRAN programming, which was required for all the students in our faculty. It was run by my alma mater's computing science department and I didn't learn much from it. I don't remember the instructor as being all that good.

      I later had an option to fill in my senior year and I signed up for a numerical analysis course, also run by the uni's computing science department. I wish I hadn't because, once again, I didn't learn much, though much of that might have been my fault. Even so, the prof was lousy and couldn't teach his way out of a paper bag (he was one of the worst I ever had as a student) and the textbook was absolutely dreadful.

      Later, after I started grad studies, I did a lot of numerical modelling. I learned more about that and actual programming than I did while I worked on my B. Sc. It also helped that I found some proper books on both subjects.

  9. I, too, lean toward attributing this phenomenon as much to student as to proffie flakiness. The idea that the acquisition of knowledge/skills is cumulative seems to be foreign to a significant number of students these days (and others are, yes, simply resistant to doing anything that takes effort, even if they've done it -- or at least tried to do it -- before, at least long enough to discover that, even once they've "learned" it, it still takes time/effort).

  10. Students believe that our standards are individual professorial whims. "Does this paper have to have a thesis statement?" students ask me, to which I have been known to reply "What else would it have instead? A line-drawing of a puppy?"

  11. Over and over and over, as I am covering concepts in both Writing 1 and 2, I tell my students that these are portable skills--skills that they can and should continue to use in all of their other courses--outlining, clear thesis, supporting their points, citing their sources--but as others have pointed out, when they take my lit courses a few semesters later, they seem to have forgotten much of it. I am hard-pressed not to write on their essays "Do you remember NOTHING I taught you in Writing 2?!" I know for a fact that I am teaching this stuff, and that anyone who passes my course with a C can demonstrate the outcomes, but once they leave, it's anyone's guess.

    1. I often reminded students that they took certain material in previous courses (e. g., solving quadratic equations or basic trigonometry) and that they should know it if they passed them. Did they? Not a chance. Their excuse was they "forgot" it all, even though they may have just finished those very courses less than a month earlier.

      Unfortunately, I couldn't get away with telling them to review that material on their own time. I often got into trouble if I did. They'd simply go over my head and complain to my superiors, whining that I was being such a meanie for not accommodating their laziness.

  12. I hold them responsible for going to the Writing Lab to learn the info they were supposed to have learned, and suddenly, presto, most of them "remember" how to do things they didn't remember to do on the placement exercise.