Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Big Thirsty: What Did You Fuck Up This Semester?

Listen, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I do try to make my class better every semester.

This semester I tried to kick back "incorrect" or poorly formed essays to all students all semester long without grades. Resubmits. I was tired of putting Cs and Ds and Fs on early papers when it was clear that the students simply didn't fucking pay attention to the assignment or the guidelines.

It was my pleasure. I wanted better papers, and I was sick of slogging through clearly failing papers when I could see how simply a better layer of understanding would take them to a passing grade.

And it didn't work. Students dragged their feet, didn't meet me for remediation, didn't go to the writing labs, didn't turn much of the stuff back in, taking zeroes along the way instead of putting in a couple of one hour revision sessions.

I kept bringing it up, lightly at first. "Hey, get those resubmits in! They're zeroes if you don't finish them." And then later, "Hey, we're on the third essay now and about 6 of you still haven't turned in the first essay resubmits."

At the end of my grading I sat looking at a sad scattering of zeroes on my grade sheet. Some of those zeroes (instead of say a C or a D) took those students' grades to Ds and Fs. (I will also admit I notched a couple of the better writers up to passing in these cases, especially when I had a preponderance of evidence from other essays that they would thrive at the next level.

Fuck me. I won't do it like that again, maybe a modification.

But for today's Big Thirsty, because I see there isn't one yet:

Q: What Did You Fuck Up This Semester & How Are You Going to Fix it?


  1. I wouldn't go so far to call this a fuck-up on your part, as you attempted to "meet them where they are". You showed up at the designated rendezvous coordinates and they didn't. Therefore, I would say that they were the ones who fucked-up.

  2. That's why I make "revise and resubmit" totally optional at the end of the semester--because I have 3 sections of comp and I have health problems which mean that I don't have energy to keep hounding them for resubmits.

    I agree with EMH and Proffie Galore--this is NOT your fuckup. It's theirs. You made it clear that if they didn't do the resubmits, they'd get zeroes. Not much more you could have done.

  3. To what degree do you think this is (a) apathy, (b) heads-in-the-sand, or (c) innumeracy?

    1. Or maybe 40%, 45%, and eleventeen.
      Or maybe 40%, 45%, and pi. Mmmm, pie!

  4. Are you saying you fucked up by offering all of the extra help to help them with their potential rewrites, or about offering a rewrite opportunity at all? Or am I being nitpicky? You were kind and doing what educators are supposed to do. They didn't take the opportunity. Their loss. And this right here is why I've stopped doing a whole lot of extra for students who don't give a shit. I go out of my way for those who show a desire to improve and learn, but those who don't, I just ignore.

  5. Since no one will make you feel better by copping to a fuck-up - let me tell you mine. But it's dreadful. I'm embarrassed just thinking about it. It's bad - like Michael Scott rapping about being in jail bad painful "I know you meant well but holy shit I can't look at you because I'm so embarrassed for you" bad.

    I have never had a class this weak before. Ever. They are a standout bad-in-math class. It's like reinventing the wheel every single day. But they are so nice and they legitimately try so hard. They actually come to class. They turn in all of their labs on time (mostly because I do everything in my power to not let them leave the room without turning them in - I tell them 'I've already been paid to the end of the lab period, and you're scheduled until then anyway, so you might as well stay and work on your labs so I can help you...'). I still have 22/23 students left. WTF? I don't get that kind of retention from students who aren't in way over their heads. I can't figure out why none of them have given up. But they don't - and they're really nice people.

    So when I handed back the second test (from which I scrapped 3 perfectly legitimate questions in order to try to make it better - but it was still a disaster) and most of them failed I.... get ready to feel sick and maybe try to pretend you never knew me....

    I cried. I fucking cried. I don't know what the hell happened but I felt like I was kicking puppies in the face. It was so painfully awkward and horrible I tried to just look at the board for two minutes thinking of something to do say or write that would erase it from their memories but nothing came to mind. When I did finally try to start to teach, I started to cry again, silently, but they could see my shoulders going up and down.

    The final is in less than a week and it will be like storming the beach in Normandy, except they won't win. They will just run into it knowing death is a probability and there's nothing left to do but remember them kindly.

    This will be the best intersession break ever in my entire life. I'm going to sleep all day and watch cartoons and color and make forts with my kids until I shake the feeling of being a Disney villain and then I'll spruce up my syllabi for the spring and get back to it.

    Maybe I should see a hypnotist and ask him to hypnotize me to hate my students. This job might be easier if I fucking hated them all.

    1. Wombat, your only failing is that you're a compassionate human being. It sounds like your administration is placing unprepared students into courses and letting you deal with it. Has this by any chance coincided with a push to stop placing students into remedial courses?

    2. I agree with Frankie--it sounds like you had an entire class of students wrongly placed. I'm sorry. And it's a mark of how compassionate you are--that you still care this much after doing this job for the gods know how long--that you can feel this way. I'd give you a hug, if you'd accept it.

    3. This is truly one of the most heartbreaking comments I've ever seen, WotC. You are blessed blessed blessed to have that kind of heart. Hang in there. Don't change.

    4. Seconding (fifthing?) the comments above. This sounds like a particularly hard combination: badly unprepared but/and nice students who are actually trying. I can understand the tears. It also sounds like you might need to begin thinking about what you'll say (or write, given the time of year) to them when they *do* flunk the course en masse. In a better higher ed universe, I'd envision you writing them an encouraging email that points out how hard they tried, and how far they came, and expressing your confidence that their work ethic will stand them in good stead (eventually; in some endeavor -- but maybe you'd better not say that). In the actual world of higher ed, you probably need something a bit less encouraging and a bit more firm, since it's possible for even nice students who aren't used to failure to become a bit less nice in the face of it. A proactive conversation with your chair about the class might also not be a bad idea.

      But no, it's not a fuck-up on your part. Just meeting someone who really, really wants them to succeed, but will still them when they aren't, is probably a new, and potentially life-changing, experience for some of them. Even that little message about using the the lab period well (just stay and try a while, even if it's hard; don't put it off and then never do it) is a useful lesson in itself, and might eventually sink in (at least if it's repeated enough times by enough people in their lives -- which if, of course, the rub).

    5. oops -- 2nd sentence, 2nd clause in para. 2 should read: "but will still *tell* them when they aren't"

    6. I have to say that this is a real anomaly. We've gotten much better about our developmental program. It used to be optional, but now we really hold the line. There is one college level course BEYOND the developmental sequence as a prerequisite and we no longer make any exceptions.

      I guess there could be a weak link between our developmental program and this class in that now that we make no exceptions, we have literally 6 times as many students in the courses. We've had to hire lots of inexperienced teachers to cover the courses. The one optimistic point about the new crew of instructors is that most of them are unemployed freshly minted certified teachers who will never get jobs in high schools, because where I am, there aren't any. So they know more about teaching than they do about math, whereas most of our professors know more about math than about teaching.

      So the bottom line is - I can't figure out how this group of 23 students wound up in the same class, but they're breaking my heart.

  6. I made no particularly egregious fuck-ups this semester, at least that I can recall. I'm sure that there were myriad small ones, but nothing that stands out.

    One of the things I was thinking about doing next semester is precisely what Hiram talks about in his post. I spend ages correcting my students' writing, from small errors of spelling and punctuation to bigger issues of sentence construction and argumentation. And they ignore every single suggestion.

    By the end of the semester, I was still getting the same errors from the same people. A student who couldn't tell the difference between "their" and "there" in Week 2 had made no effort, by Week 15, to learn the distinction. A student who wrote entirely in sentence fragments in Week 2 was still doing the same thing in his final paper.

    When I sit down with some of these students, they often understand the problems in their writing. If I point to a sentence, and ask a student to tell me what's wrong with it, the student can often identify the errors. This leads me to conclude that they just don't care enough to try, especially if there are no immediate consequences. Maybe the only way to fix this apathy is to just return them ungraded, and make clear that their lack of attention to detail will cost them, both in terms of valuable time, and valuable grades.

    I agree with the others, Hiram, who said that this isn't your fault. If I decide to wade into the same waters as you next semester, I'll let you know if I feel like a fuck-up at the end.

  7. I don't usually dream about my students. But I did have a dream last night that I lost my temper with one of them.

    You must understand, this is the sweetest girl in the world. She's like a puppy. A stupid but really affectionate and ingratiating puppy. A puppy who piddles all over the house again and again; who won't go potty when you take her outside but squats the moment you're back inside the house.

    I've been doing my best to patiently explain things to her -- at least she comes for help! -- but to no avail. In my dream, she (once again) said something that's the equivalent of "conservation of momentum is a political movement trying to save the planet." (No, really, she's that disconnected.) And I yelled at her.

    It was cathartic. But I was ashamed when I woke up.

    1. I had a similar nightmare last night. I dreamed that I was doing a review session for Calculus and when I would go to write stuff on the board, it was like I couldn't write! And then when I had to peak in the solutions manual, the particular section I was looking for kept jumping all over the book! So, I had the students come to the board to work the problems. I lost it when one of the problems said to approximate the square root of 10 to five decimal places and the student decided to do it using that other square root algorithm. He insisted that THAT was Newton's Method and I came unglued, waking up yelling at people.

  8. I'm firmly in the camp that doesn't see the OP as an example of a fuck-up. It's an example of Le Chatelier's Principle in which the perturbation yielded a new steady-state not significantly different from the initial condition.

    My dilemma is this: too many choices. I've fucked-up, sometimes in public, sometimes not. I've fixed some fuck-ups, others were mooted by time. Any specific examples I could give would out me like that lawyer in the outhouse in "Jurassic Park": first the walls come off and I'm left on the commode with my pants at my ankles while I lose the chyme of meals not yet even eaten, then something really bad happens.

  9. I really enjoyed these comments.

    I guess I feel like I fucked up because in my desire to help, I just made the chore even harder for students - who might have just benefited from the shock of an early F. I feel maybe I let them off the hook with the rewrites, and maybe I should known better how colossally lazy they are.

    I love reading others' stories about this, and of course they're heartbreaking, too.

  10. My screwup for the semester (well, one of them): I make pretty extensive use of our LMS's plagiarism-detection software (a turnitin knockoff), for both draft/preliminary and major assignments, and always let the students see the results (because I mean it to be a learning tool, as a well as a disincentive to cheating). However, I don't always check the results in detail myself (because I'm too busy with other things -- frankly, giving students the impression that I'm watching a number of smaller assignments much more closely than I actually am is a major part of my strategy for surviving a 4/4 writing-intensive teaching load; they need to write more than I can read in any but the most cursory fashion -- and because the numerical results aren't all that meaningful without taking a close look at each individual report. But I should have known to take a close look at this one, since the number was very high.) So it wasn't until one of my students asked "what's going on here?" and showed me the final plagiarism report on her newly-turned-in final paper that I realized that she had some pretty long passages that belonged in quotation marks, and weren't (an honest mistake/problem with her writing process, not an attempt to deceive, I'm pretty certain, but still a fatal flaw in the paper). I told her I'd take a closer look after class and email her, then did, apologizing for not catching the problem sooner, but saying that it absolutely had to be fixed, and offering a conference. Fortunately she (a mature/returning) student was cooperative, and, after a brief email exchange that included minor grumbling on her part -- "couldn't I just take the grade you gave me in conference?" [before I noticed the problem] -- followed by a sympathetic and mildly apologetic message from me about my duty not to let her pass if she couldn't show she'd mastered citation, for her sake as well as the university's/the taxpayers'), we agreed on the conference (and on considering the final version she'd handed in another draft). We met, and she's making progress, and, although the final version will probably now be quotation-heavy, I think it will be passing (and even if it isn't, I'm pretty certain I won't have to turn it over the honor council).

    So, disaster (or at least major hassle, for both of us) averted. However, I can't help thinking about how this would have played out with a student who was more inclined to challenge my authority. They do take an online tutorial and test on plagiarism early in the semester, and sign (post to the LMS, actually) the resulting certificate, which says they understand what plagiarism is and take full responsibility for making sure it's not present in their work. So I've got that in my favor. Still, I think I need to step up my actual surveillance of their results a bit next semester, and, as a CYA gesture should all of the above fail, I need to add the warning that students are responsible for checking their own results, asking me any necessary questions, and fixing any problems, whether or not I also call attention to those problems, in appropriate places in the syllabus and assignment prompt.

  11. Well I feel better. I hope Hiram feels better. And I totally love the LeChatelier's Principle analogy. If you drop 2 labs, they fail to turn in 3, if you drop 3... If you give a quiz every week and drop 3 grades, you gave too much work. If you give 3 giant exams, you didn't give enough. If you give them one class period to do re-writes, it's not enough time; if you give them a week, it was too long and they "forgot".

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  16. I'm actually a new blog reader here - and the second part might shock most of you - that I'm a college student attending at a community college. I've been reading some of the posts here at college misery out of curiosity.... and I find this website to be a combination of: 1) amusement 2) to gain sympathy for the professors.

    I want to provide a perspective that might go for an awesome twist to the pool of comments made by the professors here - here's my fuck-up as a college student this semester (and past semesters), for not trying hard enough and putting off my studies and work:

    Oh yes, and by the way, I'm actually one of those students that most of you professors would hate to have - I'm the sincere, half-assed, try hard student that turns in some sort of work and tried to go to class everyday.... yet still end up failing your class.

    Well, anyway, to sum up my overall experience there,I've met one or two ehh teachers there... but mainly I've met a handful of passionate and knowledgeable professors that I knew really wanted to help me to doing well for their classes. Unfortunately for some of them, they had to have me as their student, and I ended up failing their class.I just didn't do my part as the student of giving the effort in passing their class.

    For my english classes for example, I struggle to turn in papers on time, and I learned that it was due to the correlating three factors going hand in hand: 1) lack of time management 2) procrastination 3) insecurities and anxieties to complete the assignment.
    Before I figured why I wasn't able to complete my papers on time, which took many, many repetitive english courses and my time in college to figure out..... I simply made excuses... and just ended up giving up half-way throughout the semester because I Was so overwhelmed with my own insecurities as a college student, drowning myself with partially perfectionism for every assignment and test in class, lacked motivation, and didn't know how to manage my time and commitment well enough to pass the class.

    Although none of my past professors will be able to see this personally (or maybe they will, but not acknowledge my identity as one of their students).... and humuliating myself to the professors here with my communication in writing that clearly lacks form in style, probably cringing and silently critique my every written sentence, I just want to put it out there that students like me probably do recognize your efforts in wanting us to do well for your class....and it's unforunate for you guys to have to deal with such students like me... but in the end, we just gotta figure it out for ourselves in wanting to do well for your class, by reaching out to you guys and ask for help when we need it the most, and pass your class! I encourage the professors here, especially Wombat, to continue to have such soft and compassionate hearts for the students and wanting to succeed their role as an educator. Your compassion for the students at most times, will be acknowledged and respected :)

    ........Ah, I just found out that I'm a "snowflake". HAH! Makes sense.

    (Side note:
    Its safe to assume that this website is still a great haven for the professors to write what they want.The college students in my area here rarely talk about this website and isn't as popular compared to RMP for most college students. And even if they do, I'm just one of the rare few that read and actually post something on behalf as a student. )


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