May 8, 2010

End of Semester Blues

Posted in Semester endcap, student stories tagged , , , , at 7:45 pm by profart

As the spring semester winds to a close, I would like to share one of my (least) favorite emails I have received from my students- the kind that makes me bang my head on my desk and wonder why I am here. Several years ago, I received this (and yes, I kept it. Remember, friends, email can be forever!):

Dear Ms. Arrt:

I was wondering if you could help me with my final grade, I’m trying to figure it out. I’m transferring to DecentFourYear College (DFYC), and I’ll have to retake this class if I didn’t get at least a C so it won’t effect my GPA.

Baddat Maths

Note the mis-spelling of my name. Yes, this person actually mis-spelled my name, and continued to do so throughout the whole email exchange, which was a general back-and-forth of “The formula for computing your final grade is stated in the syllabus, as well as conversion from letter to numerical grading. I do not discuss final grades.” “But I can’t figure out my grade!”

And here was the crowning moment:

Ms. Arrt:

When I added up my grades of 58.8 for my mideterm, 45.6 for my final, 72.9 for participation, and my 72 for my paper, I got 251.4, and divided by four, I got a 63.85. Is this a C? I really need to transfer to DFYC.

Baddat

Did you all get out your calculators? That’s right- not one of those calculations is correct. And better yet, neither is the participation score. When I actually tallied it according to the conversion I provided, I got 62.8 (apparently, Baddat didn’t realize that when you get a 0 for a week, you have to actually count that in, and divide by the total weeks, not just the weeks you participated in. And it would still be wrong.) Oh, and according to the syllabus, a 63.85 is a D. Since I consider 62 the cutoff for a D-, the student still got a D. How Baddat would get through DFYC with this kind of problem with simple arithmetic, I have no idea. They certainly took none of the classes I teach at DFYC.

I get a few of these every semester, but none this bad- and despite my “I do not discuss final grades” clause in my syllabus.

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October 3, 2009

Syllabus Insanity

Posted in miscellaneous other matters tagged , , , , , , , at 2:45 am by profart

As you may know, my syllabus is completely out of control. It is up to 11 frickin’ pages. The college I’m working for insists that certain sections be included, even if the information is included somewhere else. The latest addition was a “Dates to Remember” section. Even though I carefully list every due date with the description of the assignment, I now have to have a section with every “important date” listed. When I first saw this requirement, I thought I was already meeting it by listing the add/drop, withdrawal, and exam dates on every page in the footer, and the list of things to be included in the final grade (also now required). But no. I was tongue-lashed by the instructional secretary and sent to syllabus purgatory, where I had to write the section required and insert it after the semester had begun.

I have to list every assignment, plus the instructions for the assignment, in detail. I have to include the description of the course quoted from the college catalogue. I have to list a clear and specific attendance policy. I have to include a paragraph about the disability center, which I have always done anyway. I must include a clear academic honesty policy.

Then I have to have certain things synched with every other professor who teaches the intro classes throughout the college. I don’t have to do this at any other college I have ever taught for, but whatever. Who needs control over their own classes, anyway? I was shocked to find, however, that despite the clear description of what time periods begin and end each section of the intro, one of the other profs was going way beyond where the first half was supposed to stop, because they were very into modern and contemporary stuff and wanted to spend more time on that in the second half. Never mind the description for the course catalogue which clearly states what general material the class is supposed to cover.

Eleven pages, people. The class I just took over at the local four-year school? Her syllabus was two pages. Just like I told you about, the way I remember syllabi being. Student knew they were expected to be in class. The assignments were listed, but everybody knew specifics came later.

Now, there is apparently a move to included a standardized grading standard, to be included in the syllabus. I have wishful thinking that this just means I have to list the grading scale, which I already do, but I have a bad feeling about this. I have never, ever had to put in my syllabus specifics about how each and every assignment is graded. If I grade holistically, and someone else grades substractively, and a third grades additively, we are not going to agree about how to assess students. It is a basic difference in pedagogical philosophies. It would be like asking Jews and Muslims to agree on religion, and now write it all down and nice and clear for everyone.

Part of being in college is experiencing different ways of doing things. Different ways of grading and assessment are part of that. When you go out in the workplace, bosses aren’t standardized. They all have their ways of assessing you, providing feedback, and setting goals. They have different ideas of how the same job is to be done. Some under-manage you, some micro-manage you, and you have to go with the flow and learn these different styles and philosophies.

These kinds of standardization may look good to students- hey, I know what to expect from class to class!- but I find it is not to their advantage. Slackers tend to figure out how to work the system, and with a single system, it makes it easier to work it. Teachers with differing philosophies than the one selected for the “standard” either go teach elsewhere, or squeeze their own standards into the standardized frame, so that students think they know what is expected, and in fact find that “interpretation” can vary. Besides, micro-managing professors? We’re not children, thanks.

I have the feeling I now have a 13-page syllabus. Plus the lecture outline.

August 7, 2009

Here comes Fall

Posted in teaching revelations tagged , , , at 1:47 am by profart

I haven’t actually ended the summer semester yet; this is finals week. But here comes Fall. I’m working on the new syllabus, with the new sections required by the college as well as things that need to be changed and updated based on issues with my students the last few semesters.

I’m up to 11 frickin’ pages. Not including the outline of the weekly topics and reading.

Seriously, WTF? When I was in school, if the syllabus was 3 pages before the outline, we cussed about how nitpicky the professor was. Two pages was standard. Here’s a paragraph about the class, buy these books, here’s the dates your assignments are due, here’s how much they are worth in your final grade, here’s the contact info for the professor. Sometimes a “show up, you idiot” was tossed on. Have a paper for the class? Here’s what you got:

10-20 page paper due, April 20. Topic of your choice. Discuss topic with Prof. Art by March 1 for approval. Bring Bibliography.

And that was it. Everybody knew the drill: that meant it was double-spaced, a normal-sized font, it had to be fully notated, and it had to be somehow connected to the class. You had to go to the library and do real research, not just browse a few webpages. Its pretty hard to write a real paper without a few sources; the general rule-of-thumb was 3-4 sources per page, but it depended on the assignment, what you were doing with it, and what kinds of sources you found. If you were a first-year who didn’t know the drill, that wasn’t a syllabus issue; that got straightened out when you had your topic approved.

Academic honestly policies? That was part of the student handbook. Attendance policy? Ditto. (Besides, if you don’t show up, WTF are you paying for?) You only included in the syllabus the ways you differed from general college policy.

Now? Each and every fine detail has to be outlined in the syllabus. It has become a legal contract, complete with legalese. Each assignment must be presented in exquisite detail, down to font size, margins, and they scream if you don’t give a list of “sample topics” to choose from (which I still refuse to do). If everything isn’t finely micromanaged, the student complain that they have no idea what is expected of them.

How about, I expect you to show up, read these books, and be able to demonstrate actual learning at a college level. Or get out. So there.

June 3, 2008

Can you read now? How about now?

Posted in student stories tagged , , at 11:45 am by profart

One of the important skills needed for taking on line courses is reading comprehension. Without excellent reading comprehension skills, you are kinda screwed, because most of the course is reading your textbook and discussing the material there. You don’t get a lot of lecture time, though with advances in storage and bandwidth at my college, I am working on putting up lots more small presentations. Even in live courses, you need to be able to read and discuss ideas from the textbook(s). We didn’t assign this stuff for our health, guys; we assigned it for yours

A big red flag for lacking this skill is not being able to read and understand the syllabus. Now, granted, my syllabus has turned into a three-page nightmare plus outline of topics. There is a lot in there, but there is a lot in three pages of the textbook, too. I include all sorts of important things in there, like how to navigate the class, when the exams and assignments are due, how to submit them, etc. 

Additionally, we are now entering week three of a summer class. If you haven’t figured this stuff out by now, you’re in trouble. Yet every semester, this is the week I get snowed in with emails to the effect of “I didn’t know this was due!”, “When are the exams due?”, and “Why did I get an “F” for participation?” In the summer, I often get the addition of “I have to be out of town during Exam Week. What should I do?”

SI usually send back polite if brief replies with appropriate answers giving them the information they need and reminding them that the syllabus addresses these issues. I have some students who take issue with the reminder, but after all, that syllabus isn’t for my health… 

As for the extra summer request for being away during the exam week? There is only one choice: “Arrange and alternate proctor, or drop the class.”