Friday, October 21, 2011

Penny's Friday vent

I just need to vent, because there's no one I can talk to right now:

I'm in my second year at an R1. Most of the people around me go into the classroom, teach, they get out, they get teaching awards. (Many have told me as much.)For me, it's so tough. I have to agonize over every fucking decision, and I get so many of them wrong. I allow only X as an excuse for an absence? But then what do I do when 10% of the class has an interview that can't e changed. I let them bring two reference cards into the midterm, and then I think, now I can't bring it down to one card for the final without lowering my scores.

And I spend so much of my time prepping and for what? The kids sit there and watch the clock. One even complained on my interim evaluation I gave them that the "exciting" activities I spent so much time and money prepping for "could have been covered in a few minutes in lecture." Yes, genius, of course it could have. But then you'd bitch about how haaaaaard all this stuff is to remember.

And the interim evaluations? They came out ok, but not great. I took out SuperHardTopic at the end that brought my evals down so much last year. And yet, I could still get screwed.

One issue that makes everything harder for me is my social awkwardness, which I've had since I was a child. I've consulted several doctors about it, and they claim I don't have Asperger's. They claim that people with Asperger's don't spend nearly as much time mulling over what other people think as I do. I guess I'm simply not that smart socially.

As far as consequences go: No, the school won't kick me out, at least not now. Our chair even told me that they only start looking at evals during the third year, but I'm guessing it's really the second. (Chair is often overly optimistic on these things.) Publication wise, I'm doing okay but I need to do better.

A caveat: I realize that I'm lucky: I'm doing well financially both from my salary and from other sources. I only need to teach during one term, so there are obviously many people who work far harder than I do. But I'm so frustrated. (Some will probably suggest that if I'm so unhappy, I should switch. In fact, I did work in the private sector, and since the office politics in my departments are very tame, I'm doing better here. I don't have some special talent that will make an employer put up with me, so I'm probably better off staying and making the best of it. I just wish I weren't saddled with so many problems.)


  1. Penny do not worry. Just be yourself and teach the way you enjoy learning and don't worry about your student evaluations. Your interest in the topic and discipline will shine through. You are at an R1, student evaluations are of no importance. Worry about other things, like publishing. Best of luck!

  2. Unfortunately, if they're low enough, they are--at least in my field. People don't want to hire a "bad teacher."

  3. Note from Gordo:

    Penny is not Penny from Prince George, a long time RYS/CM community member.

  4. Nope, definitely not Penny from Prince George. I'd be happy to change my name if you want.

  5. First: Students can smell fear. They're like bloodhounds that way. You say you have some problems, it seems, with anxiety and socialization. Are you under a doctor's care? There are medications that can help you. I know because I am on some of them. My problem is not social awkwardness but depression and occasional inexplicable freak-outs (thank you pristique and xanax). Also insomnia, especially on days when I've been teaching (thank you, ambien).

    Second: Students always watch the clock. Always. I had students yesterday in the midst of actively participating in class glance over at the clock on the wall.

    Third: Work on your scholarship. You are worrying about the wrong things right now. If you're at an R-1, they will only start really considering your teaching as a factor if you've given them reason to by failing to produce enough scholarship. Or if you've committed egregious pedagogical errors, which doesn't seem the case. Get your shit out there and publish, and publish well. Now.

    Fourth: There are ways to ease your teaching burdens--don't accept any excuses but let them drop grades.

    Fifth: Don't believe what anyone tells you about how little time they spend on their teaching and how great they are at it. They're usually full of shit. Ditto "teaching awards," which are usually popularity contests in one way or another.

    Basically, don't agonize over what one dumb student says on an interim evaluation (what is that anyway?). Publish, publish, publish. If you don't, all the teaching awards in the world won't break your fall at tenure time.

  6. @Penny...

    I'm sure it'll be okay...maybe add another element to your user name...

    And Stella's advice is - as always - terrific.


  7. Second Stella's advice. Also, if you're not already using a midterm eval that asks students to evaluate both how you are doing *and* how they are doing, make the switch.

    I'm also told that it helps to make a bit of a show of summarizing the results, and doing something to address their concerns (which can be as much show as substance). I have to admit that I haven't mastered this particular dance, but others here (F&T especially) describe it well. Maybe they'll happen along.

  8. A characteristic of good teaching is that good teachers make it look a whole lot easier than it is. You are by no means alone in having to struggle in your first years: nearly everyone does. Also, if you're at an R1, you're primarily evaluated by publishing (and bringing in external funding), so if your teaching is good -enough-, don't worry about it.

    Also, don't worry about being socially awkward. Have you hung out with a bunch of academics lately? They're all pretty awkward.

  9. Stellaaaa! What she said. And:

    1) The midterm evaluation: at midterms, ask them to write down what's working and what's not. If you can change the majority view of what's not, do so -- or explain to them your intent in doing it, and change something else. I am here to tell you that it brings up evals considerably, as they view you as more fair and approachable. Also, the "what's working" answers are often surprising and affirming. Sometimes I add "What are you doing to make the class work best for you?"

    2) You're hired. While people at an R1 usually won't hire a bad teacher if they can help it, they will promote one who is a good researcher.

    3) If the kiddies want more lecture, lecture more. It's the "safest" way to teach, in that you are not very vulnerable and many students eat it up. I detest lecturing but do much more of it than I used to, simply because that's the culture I now teach in.

    4) The first year of teaching is the absolute worst. I cried my way through it (at home, of course, not in the classroom). Fifteen years later I am, colleagues tell me, viewed as an "extraordinary" teacher. Really? Cuz I cried my way through my first year.

  10. Thanks, CMites.

    -It's actually my second year, and technically, my third time teaching. (I taught a short class as a grad student.)

    Frog, I tried doing mostly lecture last time, and I got slammed for it on the evaluations. I got other responses asking not to do straight lecture. Even the ones who think the activities are too long admit that they break up the otherwise "boring" class. I think they like the simpler activities though, not the fancy ones I've spent time on. It seems that some will never be happy.

    Cassandara, in fact, the evaluation included a matrix that incorporated everything you talked about. I also asked them how much of the reading they did before class, and some specific questions on aspects of the class. As I said, the results were decent but they typically get worse at the end, once we hit the hard part.

    -I will definitely do a "debrief" with a (selective) summary of the results.

    -Regarding my colleagues, they encourage me to "go in, teach, leave" as well. They tell me that since I'm a native English speaker, my ratings will naturally improve. In fact, given my deficiencies, I doubt they will unless I put in an enormous amount of effort.

    -It's nearly impossible to do research this term since I have a heavy load and have completely overhauled the class. I'm hoping to be able to do that next year though.

  11. You've gotten a bunch of great advice here, Penny. The informal midterm eval is especially effective, I've found, if I'm feeling a bit uncertain about how things are going.

    When I started teaching in my current CC position, the dean told me that no one has a handle on teaching until about their ninth year. I'm in year ten, and I think he was right.

    And as for the clock--tape a sign over it that says "It's time for YOU to be learning!" It works quite nicely.

    Hang in there, Penny. Teaching really does get easier, and even fun.

  12. Penny- the short class you taught as a grad student does not count. Believe me. If you are teaching a class you have not taught before, and especially if you only have to teach 1 term a year, this is your first year. You are a n00b. It gets better. Trust us on this.

    Everyone here is correct that being a good ENOUGH teacher is all you need to be. The reason you're worrying about it is,I think, because teaching is the thing that causes you the most anxiety - not because you're any worse at it than anyone else, but because iif you are a socially anxious person it is naturally scary. So you're focussing on it, because it's causing you pain.

    But here's the important point: the fact that it causes you pain does NOT mean that it's important. If you're at an R1, your research is important.

    As for your go in-teach-get out colleagues, they've been doing it for years, right? They've refined those courses to the point where they can do that. It takes awhile to get to that point.

    Just remember, pain does not = important fortenure.

  13. I don't usually comment...but after a ditto to what everyone else has suggested I'd recommend finding a mentor around there if possible (though I'd guess if you haven't gotten one after 2 years it might not materialize, but worth a shot!). A lot of what you write about and question can sometimes be sorted out by good advice from someone who has already been around the block.

    Also, for what it's worth, ASD's are the "hot" label now--that doesn't mean it's accurately applied. From the agony you're describing, you may want to seek out a good ("good" being the key) psychologist and look into other possibilities.

  14. MerelyAcademic,
    "...being a good ENOUGH teacher is all you need to be. "

    I'd be thrilled with "good enough," but the standards for that are quite high given others' performance.

    This is my second time teaching this course (and the third if one counts the short version long ago in grad school). So unfortunately, my issues can't all be excused away as noob problems. However, I'm better than I was last year, for sure, and I'm doing everything I can to improve.

    "So you're focussing on it, because it's causing you pain."

    I think you're absolutely right about this.


    I've seen some great psychologists and even have a Dx (though not directly related to this). There are very few professionals out there available to help adults with social skills deficits.

  15. To echo Merely, that first time in grad school doesn't count.

    You have to teach a course three times before you really have it down. You are partway through your second iteration. You are right on track.

  16. Yes to what everyone has said. Hang in there, Penny.

    You're pretty hard on yourself; that's what got you into and out of grad school, and into an R1 TT position. (Congratulations!)

    Three cheers for having such high standards. Someday you'll be an amazing classroom teacher. Maybe you already are.

    In the meantime, remember that fable about the man and his son and the donkey, and the criticism they got on their journey, and how you can't please all of the students (oops, people) all of the time? It will be that way always.

    Also, be sure to stash some chocolate within easy reach in your classroom.


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