Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lessons Our Teachers Taught Us. A Big Thirsty from the TubaPlayingProf

This huge stack of essays and examinations has me remembering some of the lessons about teaching that I learned from my own teachers about what NOT to do, practices that guide my grading.  Here are three examples.

The first I'd like to share is from a grad assistant.  He mentioned that for the essay section of our midterm exam he might either choose one of the two topics we went over in class or include both.  Convinced that he was a "good guy," I studied and prepared only one—the one he did NOT include on the exam.  I wrote the one I prepared—along with a note explaining that I worked so hard on it that I had to write it.  He awarded that section a score of zero.  He included no response, no explanation, only the score of zero. Of course the grade was appropriate, for I deserved the grade.  When I have to, I assign the same grade.  But I can't help thinking that for a goof like me the hint of a choice was misleading.  One should usually assume that the typical undergraduate only anticipates hur best option.

Lesson learned: be definite.

The second is from a young assistant professor in graduate school.  He emphatically and dramatically announced on the first day of seminar that he would not under any circumstances accept our essays late (the only graded assignment) and would not under any circumstances assign incompletes.  I had to pull an all-nighter but I arrived with my twenty-five-page essay on the final day of class.  No other classmate had a paper ready—after my professor allowed late papers and agreed to assign two INCs (to the two stars in the programs).  In the three days before he received a second paper to grade, he graded mine—in his words-- reading "as an editor of a scholarly journal might" all to help me improve my writing because I had "the (mis)fortune of turning the essay in on time."  I earned a B for the class, and I feel that my writing improved, yet after six additional months AND feedback from our professor the two stars turned those INCs into As. My essay deserved its grade, but still. . . .

Lesson learned: be strict but also fair by being consistently so.

The final is from a senior professor in graduate school, a well-known scholar.  He had our seminar write five-page essays every week.  We all agreed that writing every week and on every work was worthwhile and instructive.  On the first Monday, seven of my classmates and I arrived with our five-page essays.  And "Mr. Man" had a seven-page essay.  "Mr. Man" announced on Friday that his essay got a A because the teacher liked the development and detail.  Predictably the eight of us wrote seven pages, and Mr M then had ten; then seven turned into ten, and ten into twelve….

Lesson Learned:  follow your own directions, especially target lengths.

Q: What are the lessons you learned from your teachers that you feel make you a better teacher by NOT doing as they did?


  1. (1) Stay active in research, and keep up to date. My undergraduate education was badly marred by professors who were abusing their tenure and coasting to retirement, having become inactive in research 20 years earlier. It showed: they taught us a whole bunch of stuff that was 20 years out of date, such as how to develop photographic plates. This was in the 1980s, exactly when the field of astronomy was undergoing a revolution in electronic imaging. The phrase “electronic imaging” never once passed these lazy old dullards’ lips.

    (2) Make use of resources available to you. Those same lazy old dullards had a million-dollar observatory right on campus, which they could have used for research involving students. They didn’t use it for anything for decades, it deteriorated from misuse, and the university bulldozed it, as a symbol of an incoming new university president’s commitment to cost-cutting. I still want to scream when I think of it.

    (3) Institutionalized conflict is bad, especially for your students. The year before I arrived as an undergraduate, the astronomy department and the physics department had been merged in a “shotgun marriage that no one wanted,” as in the words of one of the proffies mentioned above. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that, if you’re a parent, it’s bad to fight in front of the children? They never take it well.

    (4) Never, never, never, never, NEVER tell the undergraduates that they are “a necessary evil,” or “a nuisance.” It is NOT witty, or clever, or cute, no matter how true they sometimes do make it feel.

    (5) It may be tedious, difficult, and time consuming, but nevertheless, ALWAYS write out organized, easy-to-follow, and complete notes for EVERY class. These need to be written in grammatically correct English, with clear drawings, mathematics, units, and everything else you and your students will need. When I was an undergrad, I had no shortage of proffies who would “wing it”: in other words, they would obviously do no class preparation, and just pick up the textbook immediately before class and proceed to write the book on the board. A particularly nasty case of this was my sophomore quantum-physics proffie: he wouldn’t even bring the book.

    (6) When writing on the board, remember that most of your students read from left to right, and from top to bottom. That sophomore quantum-physics proffie had another nasty habit: not only would he scribble whatever drifted into his transom onto the board, but he’d also write the equations apparently randomly, and never accompanied by any English words to help make it intelligible, of course.

    (7) Be serious about your classes. This is someone’s education, after all. Don’t waste time goofing off, even though a lot of students like it, since goofing off is always more fun than working.

    My high-school physics teacher clearly didn’t know much physics. (For example, he couldn’t correctly pronounce the last name of James Joule: he’d saw “jowl.” Joule was the guy who figured out the nature of energy, for crying out loud.) He also obviously didn’t care much for the subject, and rarely made much effort to prepare for classes. I don’t think I ever saw him used prepared notes.

    We therefore had insult contests, sock inspection, complaining about how long it had been since he'd had a raise in pay, advise on how to forge his signature effectively, preaching about how we will need to work hard in college, and all manner of other silliness marginally related to physics.

    Edu-tainment is very popular with many students, if not most of them. Still, don’t forget that handful of students who do want to learn, and learn the material that the class is supposed to be covering. Whenever I go to class reunions, that old goofball is remembered as lots of fun. I seethe inwardly, since he was SUPPOSED to be teaching us PHYSICS.

  2. This is a great thirsty. I like that the lessons learned were not taught directly, but indirectly by counterexample. We are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of those who've gone before.

    I want to give this further consideration throughout the day, for surely I have some examples to add. However, just now, I have a quick one that was taught directly by counterexample, as in, my mentor said outright, "Don't do what I did," and I took it to heart. So here goes.

    My mentor explained that even if you're lucky enough to have a private office, your expectation of privacy should be tempered by the fact that others have keys. She described episodes wherein certain items were tampered with, most likely to conceal theft of part of their contents, or they "went missing" altogether.

    Lesson learned: don't leave the booze on your desk when you leave the office for any length of time.

  3. This is such a small one that I almost hesitate to share it.

    When I first started teaching, I found myself reading some carefully prepared notes about part of the lesson and as I stood there, hunched over, staring at my notes, I flashed on a memory of my least favorite college prof who had taken the same posture in front of my undergrad class with him, some years ago. For 16 weeks he stood motionless and hunched - reading all the while.

    It wasn't until I found myself in the same attitude that I realized what a turn-off it was and would be for students.

    Ever since I think of that and keep my eyes up, back straight. Always moving!

  4. Two what-not-do-do lessons come to mind, both from the same S.O.B.

    1) If the entire class bombs a question, throw it out, or at least discount its point value.

    This prof put a question on a test that nobody could answer. We all knew for sure that we'd seen the answer somewhere in the book...but nobody--and nobody--could find it. Turns out that the answer was in the preface, and who reads a preface when reviewing for a test, right? Every student in the class got a zero on the question. When we griped, the prof copped a 'tude and said something to the effect of, "Well, it was assigned, so you should've remembered it."

    Yeah, I suppose we should've...but when you throw the class a curveball, everbody whiffs it, and you slam everybody's grade, you're not providing an educational moment; you're providing yourself with an "I am so smart, look how I tricked these stupid undergrads" ego trip. The lesson would've been learned just as well if he'd discounted the question's point value.

    2) Actually teach an idea if you're going to require students to use it.

    This same prof assigned an end-of-term research paper, and he got a bee in his bonnet about the paper's structure, but he never actually mentioned a word about the structure in class. Instead, he put a journal article on reserve in the library, and we all had to troop over and read it.

    I did so, and from what I gathered, the article suggested that research papers should focus on ideas and implications. when the semester's end rolled around, I wrote my paper, and in it, I focused on the conceptual ideas and those ideas' consequences.

    The S.O.B. didn't read my paper, and he gave me a D.

    Why? Because I'd not divided the paper in half, using the first half to lay out the ideas and the second half to explain the ideas' implications.

    If he'd just spoken about the subject in class for a few minutes, all would've been clear...but no. He couldn't be bothered to actually teach his students, as he had an important lecture to deliver. It's been twenty years, and I'm still pissed.

  5. I had several professors whose mission in life was to fail as many students as humanly possible. I would say that if you passed these classes, you knew the material. But if you didn't pass these classes, it wasn't necessarily because you didn't know the material. These instructors used topics that were so broad that there was no way you could produce a comprehensive paper (topics were more suited to doctoral dissertations, not undergrad papers), and the other used trick questions.

    So from this, I would say that assignments/exams need to be designed so that they adequately determine what a student knows or how s/he can apply what s/he knows. I don't mean dumbing things down... Rather, letting students show what they know.

  6. If the directions aren't written down, they don't exist. So don't grade like they do.

    This one still makes me grumpy: a professor in my Library Science program assigned a timeline project. We were to include the 10 most important events in the creation of: the book, the library, and online resources. I read the instructions, and researched for hours and hours. By the end, I had a reference page twice as long as the actual timeline, which was just within the word count, with the 30 requested items included.

    She graded it as a C, because I didn't make it three separate timelines. The fact that the instructions repeatedly said "make a timeline" dissuaded her not at all.

    If students clearly misunderstood my assignment, I either a) ask them to re do it if they were off in left field, or b) accept it if it meets the directions I provided.

  7. These examples strike me as the exception these days. The rule is 4-page instructions for papers with detailed rubrics that students. Still. Don't. Read. If somebody comes up with the Goldie Locks assignment template, PLEASE share.

    1. Indeed. My assignments get longer because I incorporate further explanations, warnings, reminders based on the ways students in prior semesters went astray. And then students say they're "too long," and they probably are, but neither I nor my students have time and energy to deal with too many rounds of questions, or revisions required when a student went badly astray. It's a conundrum.

    2. ...And I spelled Goldilocks wrong. Not getting off on the right foot with da spelling and typos and such.

  8. --Graduate students,even extremely bright, independent grad students who have done pretty well without a lot of guidance up to now (perhaps especially bright, independent grad students who have done pretty well without a lot of guidance up to now) do actually need guidance and support, even if they think they don't (or at least shouldn't).

    --While grad student/advisee relationships are important, you can't run a grad program (at least in the humanities -- I'm less sure how the sciences work) with those relationships as the only structure/accountability mechanism (for either the student or the department), because if the advisor leaves, everything falls apart.

    Both of these courtesy of my grad department, which fell apart (with both my advisors and at least one potential replacement leaving as part of the falling-apart process) the year I passed generals. I could have handled it better (see bright, independent grad student who thinks she shouldn't need help and add in family background featuring similar expectations of self-reliance and some mostly-but-not-always benign neglect), but 50+-year-old me is more and more inclined to cut 25-year-old me some slack, and wonder how in the world the department didn't notice for several years that they had a grad student who was trying to write a dissertation with little to no guidance (or, if they did notice, didn't do anything about it). I'm occasionally inclined to boggle at the amount of guidance even grad students seem to get/require these days, but it sure beats the alternative.

    1. Wow. This is eerie. I was in process of writing up some similar things, when I refreshed the page to see what new misery the morning would bring.

  9. While in grad school and now as faculty, I've observed the intersecting styles of several mentors and mentees. [A bunch of stuff now cut because Cassandra has written it.] At some point, the student becomes aware that zhe was helping the mentor get some pubs out the door and grant apps submitted, but none of that work can be assembled into a coherent dissertation of hir own. And years have been lost.

    Lesson learned: Somewhere between zero guidance and doing all the student's work is the right balance, and the balance should change as the student develops.

    Another lesson learned: Somewhere between "you'll learn a lot from this project even though it won't be part of your thesis" and "this project applies to your thesis but is otherwise useless" is the right balance. Pragmatism and a view to the short and long game should be competencies you model and try to instill.

    I've really enjoyed this thirsty.


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