Thursday, September 20, 2012

The one in which Greta rants full on, because sometimes bad haiku are not enough

It's a beautiful fall semester here near a Great Big Lake, with sunny, warm days, cool nights, crisp mornings...and the laziest, most entitled students I have ever encountered.

This term, four of my five sections are Fundamentals of Reaching your Hamster Audience, a required class here at LD3C.  Usually, this is a pleasant class to teach in spite of its required status.  I am passionate about the material and enjoy imparting my passion to students; usually, they enjoy my enthusiasm and at least pretend to try to work.

Until now.

There was an assigned reading, four pages, an enjoyable essay.  Four pages.  Four.  The assignment is written into the syllabus, as are the instructions that 1) readings are to be done before class meets and 2) students are to look up anything unfamiliar to them, make note of said things, and come to class prepared to discuss.

To ensure that students understand the second part above--that I really want them to look up the things with which they are unfamiliar so that they may better understand the reading--I quiz them on those little things in the reading that may not be completely familiar to them.  These are easy things, like place names and other proper nouns, and the quizzes are worth practically nothing so that the little dears don't freak out.

In all four of my sections of Fundamentals of Reaching your Hamster Audience, I administered the quiz and encountered sourness beyond anything I have encountered before.  After the quiz in each section, I asked, "Who's actually done the reading?  Now, be honest."

Oh, they were honest.  Out of four sections, nine hands went up.  There are twenty-nine students registered in each section, and at least twenty-five showed up for each class.  Five of those students were in one section and the other four were divided between two of the other three sections.  In one section--the last I met with, this morning--not one person had done the reading.  

What did I do?  I worked directly with those who had done the reading and threw a few extra credit points at them, too.  As for the others, I instructed them to sit down and do the reading so that I could teach the lesson upon which this reading was based.  Remarkably, some of them didn't have the reading with them.  I sent them off to the library to photocopy it.

So that's all preamble.  What follows is the real reason for my rant, conversations that students initiated with me when I told them to read the essay so that we could get on with our work.  There was at least one person from each class who piped up.  And, yes, these conversations are verbatim, given what I remember.

Now, listen.
Everyone keep your
shit together
until next Monday
at the soonest, okay?
I mean, this is IT. It's
I mean, until next Monday,
then it's old news
and something else can
be so designated.
But not until.
I'll always love Greta,
of course.
Indignant Inga:  I lost my syllabus.  How was I supposed to know what was due?
Me:  Please sit down and read the essay.
Inga:  It's so not fair.
Me:  You're right.  It's unfair that everyone came into class so unprepared, but I learned a long time ago that life isn't fair.  Please sit down and read the essay.

Perturbed Peter:  I wasn't here last week.  How do I know what I missed?
Me:  Please sit down and read the essay.
Peter:  But how do I know what I missed?
Me: We did what was on the syllabus.
Peter:  But what did I miss?
Me:  Well...since you weren't here at all last week, I'd say you missed everything listed on the syllabus for last week.  Please sit down and read the essay.

Surly Sally:  It's not fair that you quizzed us before we discussed this.
Me:  Please sit down and read the essay.
Sally: But you quizzed us--
Me: --before you even read the essay, apparently.  Please sit down and read the essay.

Distracted Dylan:  What are we doing after we read the essay?
Me:  Please sit down and read the essay.
Dylan:  But I'd like to know what we're doing when we're done with the essay.
Me:  Read the essay, and then you'll find out what comes next after you've read the essay.  Please sit down and read the essay.

Clueless Calvin:  I don't understand this.
Me: Please sit down and read the essay.
Calvin:  But I don't get it.
Me:  It helps if you read the essay.
Calvin:   But I read the first paragraph, and I don't get what he's saying.
Me:  You might have understood it better had you given yourself time to read the essay more than once before it was due.  Now it's due.  Please sit down and read the essay.

Flabbergasted Frank (before he left to photocopy the essay):  I can't believe you're making us go to the library to photocopy this.
Me:  I wouldn't be making you go to the library and photocopy anything if you had purchased the book, found this online, or photocopied this in advance, as you were instructed to do.
Frank:  I don't believe this.
Me:  I'm having a hard time believing it, too, Frank, mostly because I remember a time when students followed simple directions like, "Have this read for class and be prepared to discuss it."
Frank:  Are you be being sarcastic?
Me:  No, Frank.  Sadly, I'm being serious.  Please go find the essay and read it.

All of these conversations were at my work station in the front of the class, one-on-one and low enough for other students not to hear unless they really tried.  I was polite, professional--and by the end, genuinely saddened.

All of these conversations also took place after two earlier conversations this week, also at my work station, also when students were supposed to be working.  The difference is that they were working in groups rather than reading something they should have read as homework.

Rough Ralph:  You know, this is hard for me because I'm coming back to school.
Me:  Ralph, if you need to discuss something with me of a private nature, please come to my office.  I'm available right after class.  For the moment, though, you need to return to your group and complete the assigned work.  I'll make the rounds of the groups in a moment.
Ralph:  But I need to talk to you.
Me:  But I need to teach.  We're in class right now.
Ralph:  But it's hard.
Me:  Yes, I know.  Please take your seat.

Princess Pamela: Do I have to do this?
Me:  What?
Pamela:  Can I do this on my own?
Me:  I don't know what you're talking about.
Pamela:  I don't like working with other people. I told you that on the first day. 
Me:  Oh.  I don't care. That's the assignment.  Either join your group and earn credit for this assignment, or sit alone and earn nothing.
Pamela:  It's just not fair.
Me:  But it is equitable.
Pamela:  What?
Me:  Please, return to your group and do your work.

Oh, my fellow miserarians, just what the tea party is going on here?  It's a bad week when there isn't enough bad haiku in me to exorcise these demons.


  1. Oh, my. I'm sorry, Greta, but thank you for fighting the good fight and doing your best to enculturate them in the basics of going to college, as well as your particular subject matter.

    Even with the students I teach (juniors who've gone through a modestly selective admissions process at least once in the preceding three years), the business of wanting to have private conversations when they're supposed to be doing group work (or when I'm trying to begin class) is an ongoing issue. I like working with them one on one, especially when it comes to things like selecting topics for their major papers, and I build in time for that, but the work station-side conversations tend to be about tech issues and such, often ones that I'm not qualified to solve (and that should have been discovered, and referred to the appropriate help source, hours or days ago). But at least mine at least skim the reading, or do a half-decent job of faking having read beforehand while actually reading in class. It's not ideal, but it makes life a bit easier.

  2. These are the same lazy snowflakes that will whine if you don't spoon feed it to them via lecture, and if you do lecture it to them, they will complain that they are "active learners" and need hands on activities. Either way they won't read or work because that is what they (the customer) paid you to do. I think it is awesome (and hilarious) that you sent them off to photocopy the work. (Did them come back?)

  3. Snowflakes are adrift
    A blizzard in the classroom
    Generation Fail

    Follow Instructions
    And you may not fail.

  4. It's the lack of student accountability like this that causes me to keep assigning more and more graded work to my students. When I was an undergrad at a somewhat selective private university, it was not unusual to have only 4 grades, usually difficult midterm and final exams, a short paper, and a final research paper. We were expected to keep up with the reading on our own, and we usually did, because we were generally curious students who actually wanted to learn.

    For my own students, at a public state university, I have pared down my syllabus to a series of reading responses and a final paper. They have to write each and every week (usually 12, 2-page responses), mostly summarizing the main points of that week's readings and maybe some questions on the author's methods and evidence. I can't expect them to do the reading without attaching a grade to it, and they are not intellectually mature enough to actually respond to the readings without resorting to uninformed opinion. Hell, the can barely summarize the readings, because they have never learned how to read academically.

    They grumble about so much work, and how frequently I give low, even failing grades on it. It is a lot of work, but if they would do their damn jobs in the first place it wouldn't be necessary. And if I didn't grade them harshly, they would never even bother trying to improve.

    1. "assigning more and more graded work to my students" = more time grading and less time manicuring my pet mongoose. Just no.
      I do not grade anything that is not done under my vigilant eye since I found that a student had had all her papers written by someone else in three of my classes (she ended not graduating). I take the assignments, check for obvious plagiarism and to get a feel of what my students are not getting and give credit for completion. But I do not read the stuff - and I tell so to the little beasties.

    2. My experience matches yours, Curmudgeon, and I'm still resistant to giving quizzes because, at least in college-level literature classes, they feel inappropriate to me (I can see the point in intro-level language, and possibly some STEM fields). But students tell members of my department it helps them "prioritize their time" (i.e. if they know there might be a quiz, they'll do the reading). So I do quizzes, and in- and out-of-class writings (to which I'm less resistant, though, like you, I'd be much happier if such students would just do such work for its own sake, perhaps even on their own initiative, without my getting involved). But it does sometimes feel like an ever-escalating spiral of dependence. I don't mind showing them how to do something (at least not once or twice), and/or guiding them through a process step-by-step the first time, but oh, what I'd give for a bit more initiative and independence (and/or the ability to simply flunk the ones who show none, because a reasonable number of them do).

    3. @French: Can't argue with the more work argument. I try to minimize the time I spend by liberally cutting and pasting comments (I grade everything online), but one can only do that to a point. I do think that all my grading in the beginning of the semester has some pay off by the end. The real slackers quickly drop, and the rest quickly learn they have to actually put in some work. Usually the final papers are pretty good because they know my expectations by that point, and are thus much easier to grade than if I didn't have all the writing assignments. But it is still a ton of work.

      Plagiarism is rarely an issue in the kinds of assignments I do, since most are specific and focused responses to the reading. When students do try to plagiarize, it is painfully, painfully obvious. And then I get to drop the student from the course and my workload becomes lighter! Yay!

      @Cassandra: Agree completely. I could offer them much more interesting and rewarding projects if they could just do the basics themselves. If nothing else, students come out of my classes knowing how to summarize and evaluate secondary sources, skills they should already have at least some handle on. I'm skeptical whether most of my students continue to practice their close reading skills after class is over, but at least I see the improvement.

      I am a big fan of flunking students with no initiative. After those first few Fs, they either suddenly drop or find the energy to do what I ask! That's what grades are meant to do. But I am also in a good position. I have almost no oversight over my teaching, and don't really care if I'm not given adjunct work in the future.

    4. I went to a liberal arts college myself, and I had classes that were either writing intensive or much like the ones you described--a few of major assignments that required the student to keep up with the reading on his or her own time. I have to say that I got much more out of the classes that required constant writing--not because they kept me from slacking (though sometimes they did) but because they required me to process the reading and articulate my own thoughts.

      As for my own students at massive, directonal state school--yeah, accountability and incentives are what drive my classes. There would be no order without the constant threat of a quiz. My students won't do anything unless it's going to be handed in and reviewed by me. That goes for reading, group work, in-class activities, etc. In the first week of class, I tell my students that there will be a quiz over the first reading assignment. Despite the warning, half the class regularly gets a 0 on this quiz. The reason? "Oh, I didn't know you were actually serious, and that this was one of those classes where you have to actually do the reading."

  5. Last week I had a student stand up and claim, "This is far too much work for an option!" She left and dropped the class. There is one semester project, one essay, and a participation mark.

  6. I vote P.O.W.

    This is EPIC in its scope. And you have my deepest sympathy. I have at least one blowup/rant per semester lately where I harangue them for not reading. My some of my colleagues use our LMS to give pre-class reading quizzes but it is such a pain in the ass to set one up, that I have no interest in doing it, much less having to grade the damned things.

    Lately, when my proffie-sense starts tingling to indicate that their blank stares are because they haven't read, I do ask them to raise their hands if they read. The ones who read get to stay. Everyone else has to leave and do the reading and answer the discussion questions on their own. For no points, because I have no intention of wasting my time to reward them for pissing me off in the first fucking place.

    For the first time EVER I am considering a midterm test on the reading in my composition classes. But then that's one more goddamned thing for me to grade on top of their short writing assignments, discussion posts/responses, and oh yeah, their PAPERS.

    As you can see from this response, this has been a hot-button issue for me for quite a while...and got me into trouble in my department because I have gone so far as to call "bullshit" in increasing my workload to try to *make* them accountable...but I'm at an open admissions institution and it's my job to "help" them. God help me.

    1. The other problem, of course, is that they *will* argue, over every tea-partying point in every tea-partying quiz, homework, etc., etc., no matter how little it counts toward the final grade. The result is that we end up severely low on time, energy, and good will by the time we get around to grading the substantive work -- the stuff that really matters. And then people wonder why we don't make more headway teaching them to write.

    2. Now you know why I have abandoned the once-standard practice of going over a quiz or exam afterwards. When I was a student, I thought that was an opportunity to learn from my mistakes, but that was a wee while ago. Now, it's seen as an opportunity to whine about how "unfair" the quiz or exam was, to remind the instructor yet again about how incompetent he is, anything but to learn. I am sorry your students are so terrible, Greta.

  7. Ugh, this is vile and terrible and I am so sorry. I detest quizzes but now give random, unannounced Scantron ones b/c otherwise they don't do the reading. They can drop their lowest grade with no questions asked but I STILL get whining about how this or that quiz shouldn't count as their dropped grade because they were sick, or this or that, and I keep having to say, "That is the POINT of dropping your lowest grade, to solve for one possible incident of your not having come to class or done the reading for whatever reason at all." And then participation -- well, THAT was too subjective and unfair and blah blah blah so now I do it all via written index cards and good oral participation bumps up a borderline grade and that is all. I swear to god they think that the reason to get an education is to accumulate (or not lose) points, not to learn anything.

    Rant over. But Greta, you have my deep sympathies.

  8. Something I've noted recently: I've stopped saying "please" to students like this. It's nice that Greta still does.

  9. Wow, Greta! THIS is why College Misery exists: because students are the miserable-est little shits ever. I'm so sorry! No wonder good professors leave to grow beautiful lawns instead of continuing in the profession.

  10. wow. i'm pow. thanks, mods,
    for the nifty edits. i
    bloom in autumn sun.

  11. I'm surprised Frank knew what sarcastic means. I'm not surprised that Pamela didn't know what equitable means.


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