Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Two Part Big Thirsty From Albert the Adjunct. Welcome to the Bungle.

I taught math at a local private college as an adjunct professor for the first time last semester. Everyone in my class passed with a majority of A's. I didn't grade on a curve. My class was difficult. I was pleased that everyone was successful and felt I had a successful first semester.

Then reality set in when I read my student evaluations. Most of them were very critical of me. And most of the criticisms were dishonest. But these evaluations were consistent with one another. It was almost as if they had all ganged up together on me, saying the same thing.

I have some questions for those who have more experience in college teaching than me:

Q) I graduated college when none of these students had been born yet. Is my career as an adjunct professor dependent on the anonymous evaluations of these students? If so, why would anyone want to have such a career? How can a teacher do his job properly if he is concerned about what his students will say?

Q2) I noticed that hardly any of the students knew how to write a composition when I gave them a writing assignment. And these were juniors and seniors. I learned how to write a composition in high school. What happened?


  1. (A1) This was discussed at length in the 1996 book "Generation X Goes to College," by Peter Sacks. Your career as an adjunct professor very well may depend on the anonymous evaluation of your students, depending on the weight your department Chair and Dean give to them. During my first year of teaching, I had a Chair who would call me into his office, read each evaluation to me, yell at me for every bad one and ignore every good one.

    Given how vicious and dishonest many of them are, why anyone would want to have such a career is a very good question indeed. Recall the scene in Dirty Harry, when the woman asks him why he still does it, and he says, "I don't know. I honestly don't know."

    I do it because I get to be an astronomer, which is even cooler than being a cowboy. Of course, it's become a lot easier since I got tenure. Even so, there are still days when I wonder whether I've won the booby prize.

    Teachers can’t properly do their jobs if they are concerned about what their students will say. As Peter Sacks observed in "Generation X Goes to College," the word “corrupt” is not too strong of a word to describe what college teaching in the U.S.A. has come to.

    (A2) You gave a writing assignment to a math class? Consider yourself lucky they didn't revolt en masse to your department Chair and Dean.

    What happened? How about the abandonment of phonics, whole-language instruction, “invented” spelling, writing about “feelings,” educational television, peer instruction and peer critiquing of writing (also known as the blind leading the blind), group projects (also known as letting the smart kids do all the work), and of course self-esteem, in which every team goes home from a soccer match with a four-foot-high trophy. I might also mention the displacement of literacy by electronics, starting two generations ago with television, but now worse than ever because of text messaging. The real question is: What the blazes didn’t happen?

    1. Frod:

      Much of what you wrote sounds familiar to me. I went through much of the same nonsense while I was teaching.

      I'm sure that my last department head wasn't in the least bit concerned about whether my student evaluations were ever used to change or improve things in my courses.

      He was, however, greatly interested in using what the students wrote about me as evidence that I was a lousy instructor and, therefore, had to be sacked. I wasn't surprised at that as both he and the assistant head both had axes to grind against me and those anonymous comments only helped them in their campaigns.

      When I began teaching in 1989, I thought it would be a lot like when I was an undergrad. Instead, I found that my job involved a lot of cheap politics as well as idiotic ideologies and doctrines masquerading as educational policy. I felt a sense of relief when I finally quit over 13 years ago.

  2. What is the consistent thing they are all saying?

    In my experience, you get consistent results mainly when the students talk to each other a lot. That's usually a good thing in a class - it means they're working together - but it also means they create narratives that get amplified by confirmation bias. That doesn't mean that the narrative is necessarily wrong, just that they started to see it more and more, until it blots out their view of you.

  3. Blogger ate my comment; short recap:

    Q1, subquestion 1: it depends on your institution. The more additional criteria for evaluation are in place (e.g. class visits, evaluation of course materials, etc.), the less the evals are likely to count (though administrators can still fixate on them). The other factor is how easily you can be replaced; being in math may work in your favor there.

    Q1, subq 3: I think there's pretty good agreement here that overreliance on student evals degrades the quality of education.

    Q1, subq2: we all have to answer this question for ourselves, sometimes repeatedly, and we all have different answers (sometimes in the course of a single day). Answering this question is basically what CM is about. Keep reading/read the archives.

    Q2: they don't read. Also, they don't get enough practice writing. Those of us who teaching writing (K-16+) do our best, but direct instruction is no substitute for regular writing, and regular immersion in well-written texts of varying kinds.

  4. I'm going to delve into my decades-ago undergrad experience to answer question number two; please don't judge me by my answer.

    My undergrad self would've put as little effort as possible into a writing assignment for a math course because my thought process was, "This is a math class. You're a math professor, not an English professor. You likely don't know good writing from shine-ola and if you call me out on it I can 'play dumb' because this is a math course, not a writing course. In short, I can write but I save it for when it counts and I don't think this 'counts.'"
    Yes, I was an arrogant little fill-in-the-blank.

    I believe many of them are fully capable, but they've had their feigned helplessness reinforced so often it is their default setting when asked to do something they don't want to do.

  5. Q 1: I stopped reading my student evaluations when I got tenure. And during the time that I read them, not once was there any constructive criticism that was useful. I was fair. I wasn't fair. I showed favoritism. I didn't like male students. I was hard on female students. I taught irrelevant material. There were semesters where a particular student would campaign and get other students to echo his/her sentiments. I was available. I was not available. I wasn't funny. I was 20 minutes late to class every day (I had been 3 minutes late once that semester).

    BUT... What I did do was take one comment each year and write a "thoughtful response" to it and included that with my annual report, along with the evals (evals were a required part of our reports). So what I would suggest to you is to do something similar. Pick ONE thing and write some kind of response. This shows you take the evals seriously and consider what they say, at least in theory. "Thoughtful reflection" goes a long way towards mitigating negative evals.

  6. I randomly featured in a youtube video that went quasi-viral (I got to shake the hand of a quasi-famous actor) who was advertising his new show with a silly hashtag, and the students found it, and we had a laugh, and then two months later most of my evals just had the #blahblah on it.

    Otherwise I agree with the usual "he's too X," "he's not X enough" formula.

  7. Man, Albert, where to begin. It's a fucking mess, my brother. The comments above are all right.

    I have some pals in the adjunct world, and some I really like have just admitted: "It's more important to me to keep this job than it is to hold the line against grade inflation all on my own." So they offer moderately difficult classes with lots of extra credit offered - even though students STILL don't take advantage - and they keep their jobs.

    And, I teach writing, and you're right. They come out of high school dumb as posts, and they can't write anymore. I teach first year composition at about a 9th grade level. I tell you, though, and I tell my Dean and chair, if I get them for 30 weeks and get them through 101 and 102, they can get by in college. But it ain't easy, and many don't make it.

  8. From Albert:

    To answer Three Sigma's question as to what they were all saying, they essentially said my lectures were not so great. However, if this were true, then why didn't they see me during my office hours or email me so I could answer any questions they had? Hardly anyone ever did. Why did they hardly ever ask questions in class? And how did they get a majority of A's?

    My perception of my former students now is that they were intelligent kids who were simply not used to being pushed hard and that they were used to being entertained by professors. I pushed them hard without being entertaining. If the college doesn't like this, then I'll find something else to do.

    The reason I gave them a writing assignment was because this was a mathematical modeling class. It wasn't just the math I was teaching but also how to use the math to model real life situations.

    I still am bothered very much by the fact that I had put my heart into the class, trying to help the students learn the material, yet they treated me so unfairly behind my back.

    1. Modern students NEVER ask questions when they're confused. They stew, put it on the site that shall not be named, or they tell their pals, OR they'll tell their parents how you fucked them up with your stupid teaching.

      Your perception about them is probably right. They have come to us in the age of edutainment.

      You've put your heart into a game where a paper cutout of a heart is much more appropriate.

  9. Hiram Hannah, I am a modern student, from Generation X. But I can't remember ever being in a classroom in college or grad school where nobody asked questions. Of course, not everyone asked questions, but there were always a few who would.

    Yet in my classroom last semester, I rarely got questions about the subject matter that I was teaching.. I felt like I was lecturing to a wall. Is my experience common?

    1. It depends or that is the case in my experience. I was an adjunct at a private U and a community college. It was not an elite private U, so the students at both schools were comparable. Except, the community college had more nontraditional students. These nontraditional students will usually ask questions and speak up when they do not understand, then magically others will ask questions. It is because of this phenomena, that I have experienced, that I love community college teaching.

      This summer I had three (yes three) students by the end of the semester. I could NOT get them to talk in class AT ALL. It was so very frustrating! I want questions, but instead I plowed ahead and taught them an extra chapter. I have never (in 4 years) had time for that chapter!

    2. Albert, your experience is NOT uncommon. Students sometimes have questions, but don't ask them. It's been, in my experience, a result of how open they see the instructor.

    3. And of course they make great use of office hours to ask questions *rolls eyes*

  10. I'll tell you what happened. Circa the 1980s, a school of thought emerged in the business world that a good manager could be the manager of anything and didn't actually need to know the intricacies of the business or the products it delivered. This is of course bullshit, but the idea propagated into education nonetheless.

    We have since seen the rise of the class of educational leaders, and lawmakers who abet them, who have never been in a classroom except to stick gum under their desks and pencils in their noses. They have fucked up K-12, and you're expected to clean up their mess. But don't be too hard on the kiddies now, because our dear leaders love to sling terms around like "accountability" and "students satisfaction", sometimes in the same sentence.

    If you can survive in this environment, we need you to stay in it. Desperately.

    1. I know a very skilled elementary school teacher who just quit her job because she was sick of the rules she has to follow that were set by administrative people who have no teaching experience.

      It seems that the question is not whether I can survive this type of environment; the question is whether society can survive.

    2. A few days back, Jonathan Dresner remarked "But it's a long game."

      I retain some hope that if we can survive, the inevitable tides of society will change things somehow for the better. The alternative is for me to concede that Idiocracy is actually a documentary sent back from the future, and I don't want to live on this planet anymore.