May 27, 2009

What am I doing?

Posted in teaching revelations, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 12:25 pm by profart

Believe it or not, when I design a class, I am actually thinking about the students, and what skills they need to move on to the next level. This changes depending on whether I am teaching an intro, mid-level, or upper-level class, and whether I am teaching at my community college or one of the four-year colleges. I also pay attention to what skill set kids actually arrive with, and make in-the-action adjustments.

Teaching at the community college is a wonderful opportunity, partly because of the wide variety of skill sets you get, partly because you have a real chance to help students move along in their intellectual development generally, preparing them for more advanced work and thought.

Who are my students? I teach a lot of intro courses. I think a lot of colleges make a huge mistake allowing these classes to be poorly taught, poorly organized, and poorly delivered, because these are the classes that form a real basis for your field and for the development of students. If you can lead the horse to the water now, you give them a great opportunity to know how to drink and what to do when they arrive at the next level classes. ONe of the reasons these classes can be so bad is that the people teaching them either lose sight of who these students are, never find out who these students are, just simply don’t care who these students are. They use these entry-level classes for weeding instead of teaching.

By definition, students in an intro class are at the start of their intellectual development in your field. Even seniors taking an intro class revert to a need for a framework, an authoritative starting point to begin their exploration. It is much easier to explore the world if you have roots somewhere, a point of reference to orient yourself. However, my students tend to be first- or second-year students, or a growing number of homeschoolers. With a community college, they are often a variety of ages and have a variety of goals, and thus have a diverse set of ultimate needs.

With intro classes, that need of a basic framework is the skeleton around which to develop a class. Intro classes tend to be information-laden, packed with all sorts of important basics. You need to pack in basic milestones of your field, while giving your students a sampler of what might be ahead for them and catch their interest to explore more. For art history, I need to pack in a basic outline of works of art that are reasonably firm in the timeline of art, provide vocabulary and methodology used for art, and teach students to actually look at objects in an objective manner.

At the same time, I need to pull students to the next level of intellectual development. At the start of their exploration, they need that authoritative framework; but the next step is to consider the wide variety of interpretations and opinions. After all, without controversy, I’m kind of out of a job. Students need to be able to start considering different ideas and think critically about them- how are they supported? Does the student agree with this support? What counter-arguments are out there? And the best students can even go to the next level- creating their own theories and interpretations of material (a step more usual to take in mid- and upper-level classes).

How to move students along in their intellectual development? That is the question before me as I design assignments, select reading, and evaluate work. If you push students too fast, you lose them. Students seem to feel they are doing “all the work and all the teaching” with actually learning anything. If you push them too slow, the class is boring and they don’t learn anything (nor do they move on in their development).

A lot of the “new-fangled” ideas for teaching do great in upper-level classes, but I’m worried about using blogs and too much independent study with students who have to facts to build on. It is more worrisome with the newer students I am seeing, who do not have the same skill set students had when I started ten years ago. These students have been raised in a world of heavy standardized testing and empty writing shells. They are trained to spit back whatever you have spoonfed them. You would think this would be a great skill set for basic intro classes, but it is a whole step back from ten years ago. These students have no skills for actually thinking about material, for generalizing material. If I teach that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1505, and Michelangelo carved the David in 1501, they cannot grasp the fact that Leonardo and Michelangelo are contemporaries on their own; I have to make a point of saying so. They have no passion for topics, which makes it difficult to make anything relevant for them. Pulling them to the next level takes extra time and practice, because they haven’t had any in any field.

I have to take this remedial role of my classes into consideration when designing them. I have to regauge how and when to push, so that I end up at the same endpoint of my classes ten years ago. What is more, i have to navigate this new challenge with students who feel entitled to high grades, despite their mediocre work. For these spoonfed, standardized world, “minimum requirement” means an A, not a C. My class becomes a very rude shock if I don’t design it to help them move along in their development, and move along quick.

The fact is, I used to get students read for college-level work, and now I get an increasing majority of student who are not. At the community college level, I have a real chance to give these students the opportunity to be ready. At the four-year level, where this cis also an increasing problem, I have a chance to pull those kids who need remediation to the level they need to be to move on to those mid-and upper-level classes.

After all, as an intro teacher, that is my job. Start with what you get, and get them prepared to really explore the world around them.


May 11, 2009

Just Shoot Me Now

Posted in Semester endcap, student stories, teaching revelations tagged , , , , , , at 3:00 am by profart

I don’t know why I did it. Honestly, what kind of self-loathing I must have, what insanity creeps into my brain.

I just sent out an email to students who had not yet turned in all their work, reminding them that tonight is the deadline for turning in work. Of course, they have known this from Day One. However, the “exam week” for the college doesn’t actually end until tomorrow. Of course, the grades are due at noon the very next day, and I need some time to actually grade the work, so I set my deadline for today. Besides, the online course weeks have all ended on Sunday, all semester, so it made perfect sense.

I have three students who haven’t taken the proctored section of the exam yet. They will be screaming in the morning, claiming that they had to work or whatever, and why can’t they take the exam today? Answer: Because it was due yesterday.

I’m just begging for a storm of email to the effect of, “I just got your email! So can’t you take this now?” Answer: No. That email was a reminder of what you already knew. I sent it out of the goodness of my heart for your convenience and in your interest. I did not lie. The deadline was yesterday.

Why do I open myself up to this crap? Just shoot me now.

May 6, 2009

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:46 pm by profart

When I went to college, I had a friend who got through college by begging for extensions in all her classes, and whining about her grades. She was well-known on campus. Why? Because it was rare. People just didn’t whine about having to turn work in on time. You didn’t email your professors complaining about your grades. You did your work and got what you earned. That’s the way it was.

Things have changed since I started teaching. I get more emails begging for grades, complaining about grades, and whining about grades. I have had to put into my syllabus policies like “don’t email me about the grade you want. Trying to influence your final grade is cheating, and is against academic honesty policies.” When I was in school, no one had to put that in a syllabus- it was a given. Also, “Completing the minimum requirements at an adequate level will earn you a grade of ‘adequate’, which is a C.” This was common knowledge when I was in school. This is Big News to many of my students now.

Am I crazy? Is it just me? No, the trend has been noticed, even by the New York Times.

This is a hard enough issue if you are permanent, full-time faculty on the tenure-track, or already tenured. For an adjunct, it is far worse. Student evaluations are part of our lives far more, because if we get enough of the “right kind” of complaints, we don’t get hired back. And if you don’t think student a. know what the “right kind” of complaints are and b. won’t use them to get “back at” at professor who has given them a grade lower than what they think they are entitled to, you’re living in Fantasy Land. It takes far fewer of those “right kind” of complaints for an adjunct to be fired (or just not rehired) than it takes to start worrying about a permanent faculty. It is much harder to fire a professor with tenure, after all.

There is now nothing I dread more than seeing that lovely yellow inter-campus mail envelope, the thick one. You know what it is. It’s your copy of the evals.

It only takes one or two bad apples in a class of 30 to really wreck your eval numbers. It only takes a couple of “unfair grader”, “makes degrading comments/responses”, and/or “difficult to contact out of the class” to really wreck your mood- especially when these comments are untrue. However, I do expect students to show up for class. I expect them to have their textbook on the first day of class (and certainly by the end of the first week). I expect them to turn in their work on time. If there is a problem, I expect to be told in a timely manner- not two, three, or eight weeks later. I expect essays to be proofread before they are turned in. I expect reading to be done before the discussion.

Silly me. I thought these things were student responsibilities. I’m tired of getting slammed by spoiled brats who think they should get an A simply because they paid their tuition bill, and take it out on me when they don’t bother to earn or bother to learn.

May 4, 2009

Clues to the Clueless #18

Posted in clues to the clueless tagged , , , , , , at 9:52 pm by profart

Hint: Just because you didn’t get your way doesn’t make a professor “rude”, “arrogant” or “unresponsive to student concerns.” You were the one who:

Didn’t bother to buy your textbook, or locate it in a library, for three weeks, and then wanted to have me extend the deadlines for the first three weeks’ work.
Didn’t bother to fix your software problem. Sorry, I cannot reopen the entire semester’s worth of work for you!
Didn’t bother to contact me when you missed an assignment- eight weeks ago. No, I can’t reopen that for you now.
Didn’t bother to check to make sure your assignments were properly submitted before the deadline, despite clear instructions in the orientation material and syllabus to do so. No, I cannot reopen the entire semester’s worth of work for you.
Didn’t bother to do any actual research for your research project. Plugging your topic into Goggle and pulling up a page on Wikipedia does not constitute college-level research, even in an introductory-level class. (I find it shocking this would even be acceptable in high school!)
Didn’t bother to proofread your essay before turning it in.

And yes, I find it personally insulting that you would make negative comments on my evals and on eval websites because you couldn’t be bothered to be responsible and do your work. I’m very flexible with students who have medical and family issues, and present them in a timely manner. I am not very flexible to be asked at the end of the semester to let you make-up work from before the midterm, with no valid excuse. Sorry “I forgot” is not valid.

One down, three to go.

Posted in Semester endcap, student mistakes at 3:17 am by profart

One class signed, sealed, delivered. The other three have their exams this week.

The good quote of exams from this done class?

“If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to see it, does it make a sound?”

I guess blind people can’t hear trees falling.