Saturday, December 17, 2016


Some observations on the semester that is almost (finally; thank goodness) over, arranged by buzzword:

This hasn't been my best semester. I started it tired; I tried something new toward the beginning of the semester and waited too long to bail on the parts that weren't working and regroup; I was trying to teach 4 sections of the same class on 3 different schedules, which is surprisingly difficult, at least for my middle-aged brain, and requires disproportionate amounts of energy and attention to be directed toward simply keeping track of things, where things may = activities, assignments, schedules, deadlines, students, and/or myself. If lost, I could usually be found in my office or apartment, or, failing that, my car, or maybe church. I'm less sure of where a few of my students were, including (especially) during scheduled class meetings.

Oddly, despite my occasional confusion (and some students' more-than-occasional absences), retention has been better than usual. There were a few withdrawals, but only a few, and I actually received a final paper from all but one person in each section. I haven't graded all those papers yet (and I didn't see some of them in conference, despite repeated invitations, which is a bad sign), so some of them may be completely unresponsive to the assignment and/or plagiarized, but they exist, which is better than I can say many semesters when I feel that I did a much better job of reminding, explaining, etc., etc., especially for the fully-online students. So maybe, despite the usual advice, I should remind, explain, cajole, etc., etc. less? Or maybe Computer Science majors (who made up at least 50% of my students this semester) have qualities that allow them to succeed with less reminding, explaining, etc., etc. than average? Or maybe, as I all too often suspect, what I do or don't do has a lot less effect than I'd like it to?

Engagement throughout the semester may be the holy grail of pedagogy (and just as (un)attainable), but engagement seems to be pretty easy to achieve when final deadlines, and final grades, loom. All of a sudden people I haven't heard from all semester are reading assignments and comments carefully, asking substantive questions, and generally doing their best to produce satisfactory work (and, I hope, developing a few useful, transferrable skills in the process). This is good, and suggests that students do have the ability to engage with schoolwork when they believe the occasion requires it. However, I'm not sure I know how to produce (transfer?) this effect earlier in the semester (and I doubt all the gurus and edupreneurs crowding my inbox with engagement "solutions" do either).

Development/Application of Transferrable Skills:
"Since the beginning of history, researchers have sought to improve [technological thingie which is a decade old at best]" really doesn't make sense. I've also seen the claim that "throughout history, man has sought to create a self-driving car." Really? Do they even think about what these phrases mean? I guess I should be glad that they've internalized the concept of common rhetorical tropes, and are attempting to apply it, but thought and logic, not to mention the selection of effective/non-cliched tropes, are also desirable. 
I think I've mentioned this before, but engineers are surprisingly bad at simple mathematical tasks, like allocating a set number of participation points among the members of a group. Some try to sneak a few extra points by me (okay, worth a try, except that years of grading things using various point systems have kept my basic math skills, which were reasonably robust to start with, pretty spry), but others leave points on the table. Like Hiram (hi, Hiram! Are you out there somewhere? We miss you!), I'm baffled.

Also, like Amelia, I'll clearly do anything to avoid grading (and thus discovering just how bad some of those final papers are).



  1. Engagement: the best of them are engaged from the beginning. There aren't too many of those where I am. The ones who are fully engaged really stand out and give me hope. For most, they need the impending doom that we call the end of the semester (and the assigning of grades) to spur them into action.

    Transferable skills: I think regardless of the discipline, the ability to think is the best skill of all. It's also the hardest to acquire. Those of us that try to instill that meet with resistance from many. There are no shortcuts - they have to work for it. Some do and they're beacons in the night.

    Grading papers: yuck. I find that a lot of talented kids just wait until 3 am the day it's due, scratch a few thoughts down and hand in something completely superficial. Again, a few really get after it and do first rate work. They keep me going.

  2. My worst ever retention rate. 63% across my 3 sections. People bailing toward the end. I feel I overdo the reminders thus giving the students less incentive or need to listen carefully when I do speak. I want taught this way but they seem so needy and disengaged.


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