May 9, 2011

Watching Them Learn

Posted in miscellaneous other matters, Semester endcap, teaching revelations at 2:22 am by profart

I love grading discussion boards. I have a little trick for making them uber-successful, even those it KILLS my eval scores:

1. I make them post at least twice.
2. I require one of the posts to be up by mid-week.

In other words, I force discussion. However, this also means they get more learning out of it, because they have to process enough to respond to classmates and what they have to say. Some even make a good conversation out of it.

You get to watch people learn.

To be honest, there is rarely anything new being said on those boards. I am teaching basic-intro classes, over and over and over. The discussion questions are the same ones I asked last semester’s students to ponder. And the students before that. And the students before that.

Because you know what? These are all new students. They have never thought about art this was before. They have never considered the idea of a portrait creating presence before. They have never thought about architecture as controlling your experience of space before. For each group of students, this is all new. And even as they come up with many of the same answers to those same questions, for them it is new answers and new thinking.

Is it any less wonderful to watch your last child walk and talk than to watch your first? For me, not a chance. It remains a miracle of wonder.

Perhaps that is why I love teaching those base-intro courses: I still love getting students interested and excited. Or at least giving them something new to think about, if they so choose.


February 27, 2011

What My Professors Really Taught Me

Posted in miscellaneous other matters, teaching revelations at 8:19 pm by profart

Now that I am teaching, I keep in mind what it was like to be a student; and I find I have learned many valuable lessons about teaching simply by being in successful- and unsuccessful- classrooms. When I think about the world of academia as a whole learning process, I remind myself that my students are at the beginning of that process, and I am in the middle. Not at the end. PhD and all.

Most of the important lessons I learned about teaching were from my professors:

If you want real students, give them real challenges. Students rise to challenge. I had a professor who tested on anything and everything covered- if it was in your book, if it was even briefly mentioned in class (whether it was in the books or articles or not), it might appear in that exam. As students, we often bemoaned the hours in the library digging up items that weren’t in our books, but we learned how to do it. How do you start with a photo, and end up with full identification of an object? How do you track things and information down? (And this was before Google!)

If you want students to meet a challenge, make sure give them the tools to do it. That same teacher had a little corner in the library where she had a box. If you paid attention to the syllabus and went to that box, you found photos of every single thing she mentioned in class or was in any book or article you read for her. Every. Single. Thing. So at least you had a place to start to track it down.

Be holistic. When you are teaching students to think, analyze, and communicate, don’t over-emphasize any one of those elements at the expense of another. Don’t ignore one just because a student excels at another. Work to have your students present with a whole package- that’s education. You have to think to analyze. You have to analyze to understand. You have to be able to communicate those thoughts to be taken seriously in the world. All three are skills that can be taught.

Be present. There is nothing more frustrating to a student than actually having a question, and not being able to find the professor. In this day and age, there is no excuse for it. Email is open 24 hours a day.

Share. Why is research considered so important to Universities and to academia? It gives you something new to share with your students, new perspectives for you and for them to explore. Any student can read a book. They’re college students, after all. They are paying your salary to get you in front of them, to have you share your perspective and knowledge and understanding, and train them to do the same.

Even as a hired gun, these ideas are important to teaching, and getting real education to the students in front of you. Teach them to give and meet challenges, look at the world as a whole, be truly present and truly experience the world, and share that experience with others.

We only have one lifetime, and it seems it is never as long as we think it should be. Unless we become educated and alive, we risk missing that lifetime. And what would it really mean, if we don’t bother to pass it on?

December 14, 2010

Thanks For Ruining My Day, PITA Student.

Posted in student stories, teaching revelations at 5:40 am by profart

Every semester there’s at least one. The student who either can’t be bothered to read the syllabus, or doesn’t think it applies to them. They ask for extensions, but granting them makes things worse. They complain about the formats of tests, that there is too much work, that they just can’t be expected to do all this on time, they have other things to do!

Then they go running to your boss to complain about you. And that is when I am glad I keep my emails, both coming and going.

As the years press on, I am less and less inclined to shift due dates, grant extensions, or do anything else to bend the rules stated in my syllabus. The fact that a student is asking now sends a red flag up the pole: Potential PITA. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

It is the kind of get-under-your-skin itch that makes you wonder if you want to be teaching anymore, especially when the boss the student goes whining to then comes and starts asking you about it, as if you should have to defend yourself against a whining student. Some department chairs just want the facts. I think this current one just wants to cover bases. My last one? Lambast. Full in the face, writing it up on my eval to the dean. Great. Peachy.

Maybe I really ought to be looking for a new line of work. Apparently asking students to complete work, and complete it on time, is no longer fashionable at the college level. I wonder what my new boss will say when I start whining that I have a family, can’t I finish that important project I was supposed to do yesterday sometime next week? And just because I do a so-so job on it, shouldn’t someone give me a medal or something?

Yah, that will go over so well.

December 12, 2010

Clues for the Clueless, #30

Posted in clues to the clueless, student mistakes, student stories, teaching revelations, Uncategorized at 4:52 am by profart

Hint: If your professor says that you must appropriately notate your paper or they will flunk your butt, Professor isn’t joking. And if Professor provides you with an online tutorial on notation, you should look it over, before turning in your paper (in fact, read it over before even starting your paper.) And that mention that no re-writes will be allowed? Take that seriously.

Because if you don’t take it seriously, you’re likely to wind up with a flunked butt. And in my class, that is 25% of your grade. Ouch.

October 19, 2010

Remnants of Hell Past

Posted in student stories, teaching revelations at 12:36 pm by profart

I received my student eval report from Fall 09. I don’t have the originals, just the report. Student evals are always the most depressing part of my job. After busting my butt trying to accommodate students, teach material (not just present it), work on writing skills, study skills, and generally get students ready to be college students, my reward for all the extra work are words such as “demeaning” and “inflammatory.”

I find less and less that I know what these words even mean anymore. Yes, I expect students to do their work. If they don’t footnote their papers, I hand them back and tell them to do it or they get a zero. Students argue with me, and I don’t budge. Personally, I think they ought to be grateful I don’t just put a big, fat zero on the paper and tell them “I told you to footnote. This is plagiarized. I warned you.” After two or three extensions, I don’t accept that assignment anymore. Sorry, it was due three weeks ago, the class has moved on.

Or are we talking about something else? I’m from these parts, and we still call people “hon”- especially when we feel a connection to them, and these are my students. You’re damn right I care about them. When I had a student hyperventilate because they had severe anxiety issues with tests, I provided alternate formats and tried my best to get them to the disability counsellor so they could have some official support. When I had a student who had a death in the family, I worked around that, providing extra materials online and again- alternate testing, at a time that was more appropriately separated from the event.

Yeah, I remember Fall 09. It was the Semester That Sucked. All those blogs I hate to read because they down students as lazy, nasty, mean-spirited, vengeful, ignorant, and manipulative? I came to learn why those blogs are written- because I had every student they described, all at once. I am not a professor that puts up with a lot of guff. It isn’t fair to the majority of my students- the ones that are in there busting their asses trying to get an education, trying to help their families, trying to move on in life and learn about the world around them. It isn’t fair to the real students to put up with crap from warm bodies who don’t know what college is, and don’t care to learn.

But demeaning? I want to know what that means. Only there is no way for me to investigate. Student evals are anonymous. They have now even gone online, so I don’t have handwriting to go by in knowing what might have happened. Did I have a student, a group of students, sitting in my room uncomfortable, feeling worthless? And why did they feel that way? How am I supposed to fix this? Should I even be in a classroom if I have students who are “demeaned” by my teaching style or speech patterns?

Students have the right to safe learning environments. I believe that very firmly. That’s why I don’t just slap that zero on that non-noted paper, but hand it back and tell them to fix it- no matter how hard (or loudly) they fight me. Because it is OK to make a mistake. Or in this case, two: plagiarizing, then fighting the teacher about correcting it. It’s OK to venture a hypothesis about an object and discover what you thought you knew had nothing to do with reality, or that you needed different words to express yourself. It is how most students actually learn. Make a mistake. Have mistake pointed out. Have right answer pointed out. Move on to next topic.

Perhaps this is now seen as “demeaning.” Enough to have it reported to the dean of instruction, and placed in my file on an official report. I wonder what happens to those professors who just slap the zero on and move on. Do they get reported as “demeaning”? Do they even lose any sleep?

April 28, 2010

Letting the Students Vent

Posted in student stories, teaching revelations at 11:42 pm by profart

My classroom opens up about 15 minutes prior to class, and I go ahead and let the students in and settle. I also get set up and ready to roll, and then often prick up my ears to listen to the latest in the student world. Usually, the conversation is about jobs or kids or movies or whatever. However, it occasionally opens into a student vent session. My ears prick up extra sharp, because I get a good idea of how students view their professors, and policies and practices that may be problematic. Its very , very useful. Although often, the thought that crosses my mind is, “put on your big kid panties and do the work your professors tell you to do”, sometimes all I can do is wonder what the professor is thinking, and what gaps there are between practice and perception.

Today (and I don’t often blog about things really happening right now), I found myself speechless, aghast. The horror stories were just… incredible. Professors who throw papers directly into the trash without looking at them. Papers handed back with “redo” in large letters, but no other comments. Papers given an F because the student used a “bibliography” instead of a “works cited.” It went on. And on. And on.

Now, I am not going to sit in judgement of any of these professors. I have no clue what was going on, no objective context for these events, no idea what instructions were given, no idea what frustrations may have lead to extreme actions. I just don’t know.

I was, however, mightily concerned about what I was hearing in terms of perspective. Whatever the context, the perception of these things was shock, anger, almost tears. I honestly didn’t know what to say. I finally jumped in and said, “Wow. I don’t do these things, do I? Would you please tell me if you feel this way?”

The shock I got back was equally concerning. Mouths dropped open. A professor was asking them to tell her if they were unhappy? It was their turn to be speechless, partly because it was clear that I was serious. What I got was a chorus of “oh, no, we really love this class”, but knowing what I’ve seen on evals in years past, I know that wasn’t universally true, either. But the clear gap between students and professors at my college was definitely a shock.

It can be a good thing to let students vent, and to listen to those concerns with an ear for your own practices. Have I become cynical and frustrated? Or do I help students and stay professional? How are my actions and practice perceived? How do I communicate to students that comments are intended to be constructive and helpful? When I correct something in a student’s paper, I want them to understand that I am telling them these things so they become better writers, not because I hate them.

Because these kids are absolutely convinced that the entire English department hates them- and so they have stopped listening. That’s not good for learning.

April 20, 2010

Grade Inflation: I’m a-g’in’ it. (I’m also a-g’in student torture).

Posted in miscellaneous other matters, teaching revelations tagged at 2:52 pm by profart

What is grade inflation about? It is about avoiding our jobs: to teach students. Don’t do it. Stand up against colleges and universities that work to support grade inflation rather than focus on student evaluation and teaching, ESPECIALLY in core or basic requirement courses.

The teacher in this article was, in my opinion, slightly extreme. Note the slightly. I think making a multiple-choice quiz with ten choices is not a good choice of testing format, and it significantly and purposely daunting to beginning students. But daily quizzes? I have no trouble with that. And if you put it in the syllabus that you are going to have daily quizzes, then kids have no right to complain when they get quizzes every day on material they should know. On the other hand, I don’t know what standards the professor was using, what questions were being asked, and how much detail the professor was expecting, which may have justified removal from the class. There is a difference between evaluation and torture, and I do not believe in torturing students.

I do, however, believe in teaching them. Yes, teaching material that is of little interest to a student when they initially walk through your door is a challenge. It is part of the great challenge of teaching- that makes it fun. If it isn’t fun for you… um, get out of teaching. Lots of other things to do in life.

Teaching is about meeting the challenge of getting students what they need and making it relevant to them. Even the best of teachers are not successful with every single student that walks through their doors. That would be a bloody miracle. Making education accessible is our job; there does come a point when the student has the responsibility to actually access it. Making it scary is not making it accessible; on the other hand, you have to evaluate students in order to help them.

Evaluation is a tool, both for the student and for the educator- a tool to evaluate progress and intellectual development. Not a tool to force students out of a class… a tool to track development, and act as a warning to help me, as the educator, adjust my delivery and explanations to fit the needs of my students.

But I don’t like it being my fault if none of them are bothering to do any work. Which, unfortunately, does happen. For some groups, material being relevant to them is beside the point to them.

Do I get paid just the same?

Posted in teaching revelations, Uncategorized tagged at 1:04 am by profart

Well, I printed out my student papers and worked on grading them this weekend (and you thought email saved trees! HA!) I got through them terribly quickly, far faster than I expected. The problem?

Only half of them bothered to turn it in.

This is not a good sign.

March 26, 2010

I Have a Live One Here!

Posted in student stories, teaching revelations tagged , , , at 10:15 pm by profart

One thing I have learned as a professor of intro-level classes, break the paper assignments up into little chunks. First, have them give you a thesis statement and partial bibliography. Check on the progress two weeks later (outlines? drafts? something). Then have the paper due. If I had more patience and was teaching English instead of Art, I would break down even more. I have too many students without a single clue how to put together a writing project. With the huge push for standardized testing, I am getting more and more students who can’t think up a project for themselves, and much less research one. I still remember my own first research paper. I twas on Emily Dickinson. I was in the tenth grade.

I digress. My point is… my classes turned in their topics this week, and I have a live one! I have a student who knows what a bibliography is, how to write a thesis, and on top of that, wow! Its a real thesis, not just a book report. Even cooler, I have a friend who wrote a dissertation on the awesome topic, and I just sent off email of said friend to said student, so said student could actually speak with a real, live scholar about it.

Remember, I teach at a community college. How awesome is this?

March 23, 2010

I can count

Posted in student mistakes, student stories, teaching revelations tagged , , at 12:13 pm by profart

In my online classes, I require students to post twice on each discussion forum. This is a requirement born of experience, as students who come, post, and disappear fail to read the actual discussion or do any actual learning. Not meeting this minimum requirement results in a failing grade for the forum, because, well, they didn’t do the minimum required for a passing grade. Oh, and the posts have to be of passing quality.

Whenever I post the grades for the forums, I often get a light shower of “Why did I get an F? I posted twice!” And I carefully go back and check, and find the student had one post. Very often, it is not even an adequate-level post. I then write back to say minimum requirements were not met.

And occasionally, I still get a student or two who complain that they should have gotten credit for that one post (after first claiming there had been two). I have to then write a note stating that they did get credit; if they had not, the grade would have been a zero.

Perhaps I ought to test my students for basic arithmetic before allowing them into the class.

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