Friday, May 9, 2014

Compiled moments of dismay and disgust from the semester that is (almost, thank goodness!) over

--The big gen-ed literature class: I think you’re (mostly) doing the reading; I really do. At least many of you have worthwhile things to say in class that don’t seem to derive from SparkNotes et al. But I can’t seem to write a multiple-choice test that >50% of you can pass. Maybe my freelance test-writing experience for Evil Testing Syndicate is serving me too well (apparently I’m pretty good at writing truly distracting distracters)? Or maybe multiple-choice really isn’t the best way to measure learning in a lit. class? But that’s the main option the powers that be offered us for keeping the work load under control when they nearly doubled the size of the classes that represent our one chance to teach lit at all (plus, of course, the usual 3 composition classes to round off the 4/4 load). And I must admit that, though writing the tests takes some time and thought, I really like the ease of zipping those scantron sheets through the machines. I just don’t like the results, any more than you do (and I do think that you should be able to answer those questions after doing the reading, or even just participating in class discussion, but, somehow, a significant number of you, despite your much-discussed lifelong familiarity with standardized tests, can’t).

--Smelly Sam: I’m on the record as strongly preferring B.O. to Axe (and its more exotic kin), and I’m sticking by that stance. But the particular funk you brought into my office last week had an extra note that I found hard to ignore: long-marinated woodsmoke, maybe (you’re in a discipline that does a lot of field study)? Or chewing tobacco? Or especially raw-smelling smoking tobacco? (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t pot; not sweet enough). Whatever it was, it was a bit distracting, which is too bad, since your draft was promising, and you had some good questions. I hope I answered them coherently; I’m afraid I was sort of distracted.

And the (somewhat) bright note:

--Distressed Doreen, Dan, and David: things seem to be going quite badly for you right now; family health and/or financial issues are feeding personal health and/or financial issues, and vice versa, and, as you have either identified for yourself or conceded when I pointed it out, you really have no chance of finishing the work of the class before the end of the semester. But you’re handling it much better than most students, in my experience, do. For one thing, you got in touch with me rather than just disappearing (and then reappearing to complain when the F appeared on your transcript). And you’re apparently willing to take responsibility: for talking to the appropriate people, for making a decision, etc. I’m worried about both of you, of course, but I also suspect that you’ll do okay in the long run, whether or not you flunk my course this semester. Is there any hope that nearly a decade and a half of financial meltdown and war has helped to shape a more responsible, resilient generation of young people? If so, it’s a hell of a price to pay, but I welcome the results.

--Contingent Cassandra


  1. I had eight disappearances in a class of twenty one. Three dropped formally, the others just stopped coming without a word (and got Fs). Two of them didn't come to a single class. It happens every semester, but still baffles me. Why sign up for a class you have no intention of attending? Why not drop a class you have no chance of passing? (The latter has to do with financial aid, and I do report the "last seen" date.)

    I wouldn't worry about it, except that all these students--those who never came to class, or who stopped showing up before the first test and never turned in homework--will count against my `success rate' for the course, and will be used by the head to give me a low rating for the year. It puts me in the position of having to pass everybody else. This doesn't seem like a reasonable way to run an academic operation, and I wonder how common it is.

    1. It's not (at least not yet) the case at my institution, and for that I am grateful. I don't think I could teach -- especially teach a required course -- under those conditions, especially since an ever-increasing minority of students seem determined to try to get through college by throwing whatever they've got on hand and/or can find on the internet at the professor, whether or not it fits the assignment, and acting aggrieved when it doesn't receive at least a B. If the whole enterprise is to continue in any way that isn't both a fraud and a farce, we really do have to be able to flunk students who just don't do the work of the class.

      I'm in a slightly-less-good mood then when I originally wrote this because Doreen just wrote 3 paragraphs for a minor assignment, while ignoring other assignments worth, in aggregate, 75% of the final grade, and asked me if that was enough to pass. As the numerate will realize, it isn't.

    2. While I was teaching, I was always called on the carpet when an "unacceptable" number of students dropped out or failed. Of course, I was always blamed for it, with my "unacceptable" teaching method being considered the cause. The fact is that the administrators needed someone to blame for letting those workshy and shiftless academic layabouts in to begin with, because those same administrators never took responsibility for anything that went cockeyed.

      But I was also in a bind. If I taught the material like it should have been presented, the students would complain. I lost count how many time I heard variations on "that's too hard", which was used as an excuse for not rolling up one's sleeves and doing the work that was required. On the other hand, they also complained when I made it too easy, claiming I did it in order to keep my job.

      Since the students pretended to learn and the administrators pretended to care, I eventually figured I may as well pretend to teach. There was less hassle that way.

  2. Here at Middlin' State, we have a special grade for disappearances: the grade is WU. At first, I resented being required to give this grade, since I thought it was an attempt to present a failure that deserves an F as something it's not. I have revised my thinking, though. One reason that that a WU grade is much more damning than an F for future financial aid. Another is that WU grades are not counted as failures, which only 20% of the students in my class can get before I get a stern talking-to. You take what you can get.