Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Uggy in Utica Stands Up!

This is my fifth term teaching a general-ed astronomy class for non-STEM majors. I always give the same first assignment, which is designed to help students visualize the size and scale of the universe. We begin by watching the Powers of 10 video by the Eames brothers (if you haven't seen it, it's awesome, and only 10 minutes long). We then complete the first homework problem--a rough estimate of how many solar systems you would have to arrange side-by-side to reach a nearby star--together in class. The rest of the assignment is also based on Powers of 10.

Last week I received by far the most atrocious batch of assignments I've ever seen. After many years of students calculating that the nearby star is 1/1000th the distance to Neptune (who knew we orbited a binary star?) I didn't expect them to actually think about what the numbers meant. But chicken-scratching their "calculations" in the margins of the assignment sheet? Obviously a majority of the students spent less than 10 minutes on the assignment.

While I was grading, I thought about making the first assignment extra credit, or curving the scores upward, as I would have done in past semesters. But then something inside of me snapped. I got on the LMS and sent directions to every student who scored below a C- (the minimum grade for satisfying gen-ed requirements) to re-do the assignment at the physics help center. They have one week to bring their papers back, signed by the help center TA who tutored them.

After class, where I reiterated the requirement that students with less than a C- visit the help center, one boy came to me and said, "Professor, I didn't realize you were checking our assignments for accuracy. I thought you were just, you know, giving grades based on completion and effort." I refrained from saying that if I graded on effort, he'd have an F-. I just repeated the directions for visiting the help center.

Exhausted from preparing the dossier and less threatened by the need to get great evals, I finally acted like an educator instead of a customer-service agent. It felt good.


  1. The worst class I ever had was like that.

    Rather than assignments, I gave open-book quizzes consisting of one question. One reason was that it gave the students an idea of what sort of questions I'd be putting on my exam. Another was that it meant less work for me.

    I was serious when I gave it and I was going to count the results towards the final grade. Unfortunately, many of the kiddies thought I was joking and believed they could simply blow it off.

    They weren't pleased when they found out I meant business. It was a service course and they probably thought that they would breeze through it like it appeared they did in all the others they took. The result was that I had nothing but grief from them as well as the cream-puff department head who supported them.

  2. It does feel good to be an educator, as opposed to a baby-sitter, doesn't it?

    Uggy, esteemed comrade in arms, this math of which you speak---dividing two numbers, and understanding what it means---is quite beyond what 90% of my general-ed astronomy students can do. Seriously: fewer than 1 in 20 can work what in Algebra I we called a simple plug-in problem. Fewer than 1 in 100 can understand how multiplying 2x2x2 repeatedly gives you exponential growth, which is why I am on the verge of abandoning an exercise I made up about how radiometric dating shows us how old meteorites are. I suppose it serves them right, since not understanding exponential growth and how things in the real world don't expand to infinity will bite them when they reach the world of finance.

    The worst part is knowing, as Neil deGrasse Tyson observes:

    “The problem in society is not kids not knowing science. The problem is adults not knowing science. They outnumber kids 5 to 1, they wield power, they write legislation. When you have scientifically illiterate adults, you have undermined the very fabric of what makes a nation wealthy and strong.”

    1. That said, I am also tickled silly that Scott Walker and Rick Perry are now out of the race. As Mencken observed, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” It's nice to see an occasional counterexample of that.

    2. Another reason to like Uggy is that Uggy uses the word "awesome" for something that is indeed awesome. The Grand Canyon is awesome: your new bicycle is not, even if it cost $3000. Uggy also uses the word "boy" to mean a male student with the mind of a child.

  3. Here is an AWESOME post:

    1. "Union bosses, take note too. I'll cash my paycheck because I need to live, but I'm not here for the money, and I will gladly give up a raise if it means higher standards, better access to research materials, and money to fix the crumbling plaster on the walls. I am not a worker; I am a scholar."

      Certainly a great post, and one I may well have entirely agreed with in 2006. But there have been too many years where we're asked to give up raises, or given "merit raises" that have little to do with merit, and barely qualify as raises. So yes, I am a scholar, but I need to eat, to pay my bills, and to live beyond the classroom.

      So I will do what I can for my students. I will hold them to a standard of analysis and communication that they greatly dislike. But I won't do "more with less", and I won't pretend to be a high minded scholar while administrators and politicians use that as an excuse to de-fund the entire enterprise.

      Or maybe it's just been a long day.

    2. "I will gladly give up a raise if it means higher standards" I don't suppose that was an option on the Wisconsin tenure survey by any chance?

    3. While that manifesto still rings true for me in many ways, I agree that the "I will gladly give up a raise" line rings a bit differently after a(nother) decade of stagnant wages (or maybe it's just the decade in which we realized just how stagnant wages have been, and for how long, for all but the upper 5-10% of salaried workers).

      Also, as a commenter named Jessica points out in conversation following a relevant recent post (with relevant links in both text and comments) by historiann, today's tenured professors aren't necessarily making as much as their more senior (or recently-retired) colleagues made at the same stage in their careers (never mind adjusting for inflation, which admittedly has been low -- unless you count housing, or the need to send offspring to college).

      And then there are the 70% and counting of us who not only don't have tenure, but aren't eligible to earn tenure, and earn anywhere from significantly to ridiculously less, especially on a per-course basis, than our tenure-track colleagues, rendering us unable to make such a statement on multiple counts.

      I think I share some of the original poster's doubts about unions (great in theory, but as capable as any other human institution of becoming a self-perpetuating and self-interested bureaucracy), but at this point I'd be willing, given the opportunity (unlikely in my right-to-work state), to chance it. Better the bureaucracy in which I at least theoretically have a voice than the one in which I have none.

  4. Bravo! I have to admit that I do a good deal of full-credit-for-full-effort grading (on participation stuff only), and don't always examine the effort as closely as I should. It's a survival mechanism in a situation where I'm teaching too many students, and it's actually good for them to write considerably more than I can read/respond to with any care (I do, of course, respond with care even to the minimally-graded stuff at strategic moments during the semester/course of the project, and respond with carefully-thought-out grading and comments to drafts of major projects. But we're talking about homework/intermediate steps in a well-scaffolded larger project here.) I'd like to be able to reward excellent vs. satisfactory work, but I'm pretty sure that a few students would spend a lot of time demanding explanations of my calls on very low-point work, and dealing with that sort of exchange is simply not a good use of my time, especially in a class where students enter with very mixed levels of skill, comprehension, etc. Any available extra per-student time needs to be spent keeping those who are teetering perilously close to the edge of various cliffs on semi-solid ground.

    I am realizing, however, that I'm going to have to make a bit more use of the grade for "incomplete" posts (1/2 of full credit) on some of the online work I've been seeing. Posting "great topic and sources!" immediately under a comment where another group member has carefully explained why the topic is way too broad and some of the sources don't meet the assignment requirements just doesn't cut it, especially not in week 2.5 of the semester.

  5. I have to do more and more of this if I want anyone in the class to ever earn more than a B- grade. Sadly, only 1/4 of those who get the chance to redo the assignments (I always offer it for lower credit), end up taking me up on the chance to redo it. I hope yours were at least more dutiful.