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I welcome students readers to this blog. However, be aware that, although I do not use anyone's actual name, the descriptions of behaviors and conversations are not disguised. This is a space in which I may rant, vent, and otherwise express responses that I would do my best to mask or at least tone down in professional interactions with students. This is my personal, gloves off, no holds barred, direct from the gut expression of what it feels like to do my job. If you think you might be hurt or offended or upset by that, read no further. The person I'm ranting about could be you.


Hi! And you are...?

My readership has suddenly blossomed, which is a lovely development--but I don't know who is reading the blog, how you found it, and why you find it interesting. I'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to use the "comment" box at the end of any particular post to let me know what brought you to this page--and what keeps you coming back for more (if you do).

Not you, Barry. You already told me--and thanks!






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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gratifying

I wasn't sure what I was going to do with the students in Native American Lit today: they were coming in with the first versions of their final papers, and since I've never taken them through a peer-review session, I didn't want to spring that on them. On my way to class, I decided to talk to them about what topics they'd chosen and how they'd narrowed down their theses--and whatever else they might have been worried about. As it turned out, I walked into a lively conversation about whether they can use other primary sources--and whether the primary sources count as secondary sources (um, no). They were willing to share their theses--even their first paragraphs--with each other, and had a lot of good questions. My one real concern is the sole remaining young man in the class: the one who has struggled all semester trying to figure out the difference between primary and secondary sources and who has tended to wax philosophical about the critical sources without mentioning the literature at all in his papers. He hadn't even started writing: as the rest of us were talking, he was reviewing the assignment sheet--and he was very confused, again.

I don't know why he is perpetually so confused, but--based on today's conversation--I think it's because he is a very bright young man who has suddenly found himself in a situation in which he does not understand what he is supposed to do. Part of the problem is that he tends to make things more difficult than they are (and they're plenty difficult enough), but another part is that this is all genuinely completely new and foreign to him, and he just can't quite get a handle on it.

But what was cool is that they started to talk about what they'd been taught in high school and what a shock my class was to them in terms of their grades and what I demand--but they were truly agitated about how they felt high school had let them down, hadn't prepared them, and they were truly grateful that they are at last in a situation in which they're being challenged. One--who may be the hardest working student I've ever had--said, "I've never spent five and a half hours in the library, never!" But she went on to say that she really loved that she was having to work so hard. I asked her why, and she said because she loved that she was being challenged--and that she was meeting the challenge (and she is). She also said she loves that she actually has to think for my class. Yes, dammit.

In any event, I did tell them what I know about the problems in the K-12 system (and I use the word "system" pretty loosely), about the ways in which the corporatization of education has corrupted actual learning values. I was thinking of the post I've seen recently on Facebook from a group called "Teachers laugh":
 They got incensed--and I urged them to write letters. One student said, "How can we write persuasive letters when we clearly don't know how to construct an argument essay?" Good point. But I said if they write the letters, I'll help them polish them up until they're worth sending off. One student--who is also a mother--said she would indeed write a letter. Man, I hope they do.

I also asked them to write down for me their experience in my class, gutting through frustration, doing the hard work--and having the joy of meeting a challenge, being pushed to a whole new level of thought. Good for Paul's and my project.

It was a great conversation, and one I'd like to have with all my classes. I found it enormously gratifying. And I was very transparent with them that I struggle over my own role in all this: what am I to do? Lower my standards, keep more students, but pass them along as has been done to them for the past 14, 15, more years? Or keep my standards, show them what they really need to know, how they really need to think--and recognize that I'll lose most of them before the end of the semester?

I may go back to that part of the conversation in our last class meeting. I really want their take on all this.

However, now it's quite late--and I still have three more papers that must be evaluated tomorrow morning, which means I need to get up and at it. I'm very interested to note that this morning my rotator cuff problem returned, making my shoulder extremely painful--and making me wonder if going to dance class was a good idea. Since I missed class to get papers graded (and now to write this post), my shoulder suddenly doesn't hurt so badly. OK, I admit, I did locate a place that may have been a muscle in spasm rather than the usual rotator cuff thing and massaged the hell out of it, so that may have reduced the problem, but I wonder how much of it was psychosomatic: here's the excuse to not feel quite so awful about missing dance class yet again....

I hope it isn't too hard to grade those last three papers in the morning. I think all three of them should be OK: one may even be splendid, which would be a hell of a treat. But now, if I don't get home soon, I'll have yet another night of being up way the hell too late--and pretty soon the minimal sleep is going to bring on a major attack of the stupids. I have too much to do to allow that, so off I go.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know....

I'm being attacked by the "shoulds." I just collected first versions of final papers from the 102 students today, and I "should" be reading them and commenting, and instead, I'm doing just about anything but. I may kick myself for it tomorrow, but it won't be the first time that I've paid for a night of taking it easy on myself with a day (or two) of hell. The one thing I know for sure is I'll have everything done one way or another.

I don't think it's much of an excuse, but it is true that part of why I'm hesitating to start is that I haven't quite figured out how I want to respond. I don't think I'll do the usual red pen all over business. I may, in fact, just type up some comments, mark a few things--maybe even mark them in blue ink, not red. I know I'm not going to pay attention to sentence-level stuff in this round: it's a lot more important that the students get their ideas sorted out.

In the two classes today, in fact, that's what they were working on. I am delighted that they were closer to having theses than I think I've ever experienced in any semester: Most of them were at least very close when they walked in the door, and by the time they left, most of them had something that will do. Some of the theses are marginally OK--but that's fine by me.

Only one student was completely off. Well, let me rephrase: he actually had a dynamite thesis, but it had clearly been plagiarized. He didn't even try to deny it; he's so lost he has no idea what he's doing. But I am getting so annoyed with him, it's hard for me to even help him try to get un-lost. He knows he's struggling; he knows that he is having a hard time understanding the book, writing--everything he's had to do all semester long has been out of reach for him--and yet he waited until late last night to write me an e-mail asking how he should approach the paper. It's such a huge question, reveals such a profound level of problem--and was asked at such a late hour--that I hardly knew how to answer him. He's trying, but he looks simply pole-axed, poor thing. He's out of his depth and won't let himself admit he's drowning, paddle to shore on the raft of a withdrawal.

I finally had reason to get rid of the last piece of dead wood that's been cluttering up the 102s today. Mr. "I only had a red pen" came to class without a paper today. I started to just shoo him out of the class, but instead I took him out in the hall and told him he's not going to pass. He was telling me all about how sick he was, that even then he was dizzy--and I said, so sweetly, that of course he can't force his body to be well, but the sad fact was that on top of all the other problems he's had this semester, he simply won't make it. I told him I wouldn't force him to withdraw but emphasized clearly that he will not pass. Period. I probably should have not made the withdrawal optional: God knows I don't want him back in the classroom. But I have a sense that students should make these decisions for themselves: they are adults, after all--at least ostensibly.

Of more concern to me was the fact that one of the potentially wonderful students (who was in my class last semester and had to withdraw) was not in class today--and I've not heard from him, and there's no paper in hand from him. The paper assignment says that I will not accept late papers for any reason, and I believe it even says that if the paper is not turned in on the day it is due, the student will not be allowed to continue and will not pass the class. It would be a hell of a shame, but this young man still has not learned that if he is going to live up to his intellectual potential, he needs to fucking work.

Meanwhile, other stuff is twining around my feet, tripping me up. I have been elected to a college-wide committee on academic standing. I'm truly interested in the tasks of the committee, and very much want to have a say in what's going on, but my term starts as of Thursday--and there is a huge packet of materials I need to read over prior to the meeting. I also have to review applications for Chancellor's Awards--though I caught a break there, as the area I'm responsible for only has one applicant, so reading that will be relatively easy. Both of those things will get taken care of on Thursday--plus whatever else I can squeeze in before and after.

Tomorrow morning I meet with a student from last semester who is complaining about having failed the class: I think I've mentioned her before. I hope the meeting doesn't take terribly long: I'm going to need the time to go through those 102 papers (since I won't have any time to speak of on Wednesday before class).

But I did cross one little niggly bit off my "to do" list: I finished writing up my year-end evaluation (a contractual obligation) and sent if off to my P&B contact. And now, even though it's really time to head for the hills, I'm going to take a few minutes to remind myself what I'm supposed to do for an assessment thingy: I'll be working from memory, rather than actually from papers, but whatever. Mostly I want to get it done and out of my hair so I can truly forget about it, not just put it on the back burner and then have it keep coming back to mind in those "oh shit" moments.

As for other flotsam--ordering books for fall classes, who knows what the hell else--I'm kicking that down the road a piece. It's not in flames just yet, so it can wait.

I feel like Betty Davis's character in All About Eve: "Fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy night." Replace "night" with "three weeks" and it's exactly right.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Quickly

Albeit probably not briefly. However, Paul, William, and I are going out to dinner tonight, and we'll be leaving soon, so I'll write what I can until it's time to pack up and go.

I can't remember the nicknames I've given to the student in my earlier 102 who has been sort of a problem all semester long: he's the one who's been trying to get me to drop requirements, or to make assignments shorter, or otherwise make his life "easier." He was at it again today, when I reminded the students that at the end of the semester, they need to write a brief self-evaluation. You'd think I'd just assigned another research paper. In any event, I realized yesterday, in talking to a colleague, that I really need to let him know that his behavior is not acceptable--so I told him to stay for a minute after class. I told him that as a student, he has an option to look over a professor's syllabus, see the amount of work that will be assigned, and withdraw--but once he agrees to be in the class, it is disrespectful to continually challenge the professor on the rigor of the class. I also said that I know it is a hell of a lot of work, and very difficult, but that obviously he thinks he's getting something valuable out of it or he wouldn't still be there--and in any event, the main thing is for him to learn something, not for it to be easy. It was hard to read his expression: he looked either like he was fighting tears or like he was hostile--but he just sat there. I said my intention was for us to have a conversation, not for this to be a lecture, but he said he didn't have anything to say. I told him that the door was open for him to respond, but mostly I was concerned that if he continued with this kind of behavior, eventually he'd run across a professor who would have a serious problem with it--someone who would kick him out of class. I asked him if he was upset, and he said no, he doesn't get upset. (Bullshit. Everyone gets upset. But OK.) And as he left, he said, "I appreciate it; I appreciate your point of view." At first I thought he meant he appreciated being given some advice--which, I have to say, I presented as gently and with as much kindness as I could--but the part after the semicolon seems to indicate he was simply saying, "I heard you." Not that he really "appreciates" my point of view in the sense of agreeing with it, or even understanding it.

Well, whatever. I've said my piece. And I will be very interested to see what he has to say in the self-evaluation.

Back-tracking: about the two observations. The problematic faculty member of Monday night was 20 minutes late to class--and that reminds me, I need to revise the letter I'm to leave for him and get that to him tonight. He's in deep shit. The other faculty member was an adjunct who got a "needs improvement" rating last semester, when she first started for us. She's improved. Lovely.

But now, realizing that I have to rework that letter, I'd better do that real quick here, as Paul just returned and I know William is going to want to take off very soon....

I hope to have time and energy for a more substantive post tomorrow. I'm sure I can come up with something to say.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Another non-post post

Tonight, I won't have time to post more than this notice that I'm not going to have time to post. I have an observation tonight, scheduling with Bruce tomorrow--and grading to get done for tomorrow's class, so that's what I'm doing, in case you were wondering.

I have an observation tomorrow, too, so it may be two days without posts, depending on how long it takes me to get through the logs and so on for the 102s. (They need stuff back, as they're about to start their papers.)

Whenever I get back to actual substance, I hope I remember anything interesting that happened today....


Thursday, April 18, 2013

TGIT

As I was packing up after class today, I suddenly thought, "Oh, wait, it isn't Tuesday; it's Thursday!" What a relief. But it's a clear indication of how addled I am that I was confused about it.

Class was rather a dud. There are really only five students left, plus the senior observer (who wasn't there today). Sad, really. But I did meet with one student from the class today to talk to her about her papers: she'd said she didn't know what I wanted, but as soon as I pointed out what she was doing, she got it--or at least gets it better. Don't summarize: prove something.

As a result of talking with her, I decided to give them all the way until the very last class to submit revisions. They'll still run out of time, of course, and not submit what they could, or should, but at least they can now turn their attention to their final papers (coming up right quick here)--and the fact that I still don't have all their second essays won't kill them in terms of their having time to get my comments and revise.

Further evidence of my addle-headed state is that I spent quite some time the other night reworking the final essay assignment--at home. It's still on that computer; I never sent it to myself, or put it on my flash drive, or posted it to the faculty home page. And the students needed it today. So I had to give them an older crappy version. Well, I hope I at least got the right due dates--and the topics are there, so they should be able to start thinking about it. I did a quick little overview of how to access the library databases to do their critical research; a few of them knew, but I think it was still valuable. I hope so, anyway.

I'm taking what looks like a shit-load of work home, but it really isn't that much when it comes to substance. Lots of logs and glossaries from the 102s, but I don't have to comment much--and some I don't even have to read, as it is apparent at a glance what the grade should be. I'd love to get it all done tomorrow, but I have stuff to do smack in the middle of the day, so I know I won't. Ah well.

But now, I want to get home to my cats. Until everything has normalized again in the wake of the spaying operation--about 10 days or so--I'm going to feel anxious and rattled. I'll feel better being at home.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Posting from home

I dashed off campus immediately after class, so I could pick my little cat up from the vet. She's now sleeping near me, and I'm going to blow off a little steam.

In the later of the two 102 classes, one of the students is a young man who will only respond when called on and the rest of the time seems functionally comatose. This is a familiar type. Earlier in the semester he turned in his homework in red pen; I told him not to do that in the future, that red is reserved for me, and he needs to use dark blue or black. He said it was the only pen he had. Well, get yourself another pen, I suggested--very pleasantly. About two weeks ago, maybe less, he turned in another assignment in red pen. I wrote a more forceful note, telling him that I would not accept homework in red pen after this. Monday, he turned in more homework in red pen. Today, I handed it back to him and said, "I won't accept homework in red pen"--and he got very angry, saying it was the only pen he had. I said, "So, get a new pen." "I have one now," he said, and again tried to give me the homework. When I still refused to accept it, this went back and forth a few times: he kept repeating that the red pen was the only pen he'd had, and that he had a different pen now. Finally I said, "Well, now won't help you" (meaning it doesn't change the fact that the previous assignment was in red), and when he continued, I said, "Honestly, this is the most lame excuse I've ever heard"--and then I tuned him out. He left in a huff--and honestly, I hope he turns up next class with a withdrawal slip. I'd be delighted to have him gone. He isn't actively a detriment to the learning experience of the other students, but he is an annoyance to me, and I'm fresh out of patience with truculence.

And with the attitude that just explaining to me why one has been absent is enough. A student who has missed class six times came to me before class and wanted to explain why he had been absent. I didn't let him tell me the sob story. I just pointed out the number of absences, and I said, "It sounds like you were dealing with a situation beyond your control, and that happens sometimes; sometimes life gets in the way of school. It's unfortunate, but it happens." And I told him his options are withdraw or fail. He went off to get the withdrawal form. I hope he turns up with it and gets it signed, but if he doesn't, that's an unofficial withdrawal--and counts in his GPA as an F.

In the other class, a student wanted to talk to me after class about whether he had any chance of getting a B or an A. Well, since the highest grade he's gotten to date is a C+, and several of his assignments have been below 59, the answer is no. I said it was too bad he hadn't talked to me about this earlier in the semester, come to get extra help. He said, "I'm just not good at writing papers." OK, I said: so that means you have to put in more than the usual effort, time, and energy so that you get good results. I won't go into all the back and forth, but he told me--quite sincerely--that he thought I was a great professor, because I won't let the students slide, won't let them get away with crap. But he'll probably end up withdrawing. It would be a shame. He hasn't been exactly a huge contribution to the energy or intelligence of the conversations, but I think he could have gotten a lot more out of the class if he'd started working on it earlier. He thinks so, too--and I said that that in itself is a good lesson to learn.

I feel good about that conversation, more so than about the other two. I think that young man is actually learning something--maybe not how to write, but something about how to approach hard work.

But now, I can barely see, I'm so tired. I've been almost unable to speak lately (lots of garbled words and use of the wrong word), and it's carrying over into the writing. So enough for tonight. I may not post anything tomorrow: I'm going to want to get home to make sure my cat is doing OK. And so it goes.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thud


That sound you hear is me hitting the wall. As it happens, the meeting with the problem adjunct that was scheduled for today got postponed; if I'd known, I wouldn't have had to come in at all (as I could have put off starting work on summer schedules). It is a bit stupid that I lost a day of sick leave when I've been here the whole damned day, but in fact, it's probably for the best: I work better here than I do at home. But at this point, even M&Ms plus potato chips are not enough to keep me going.

I've been cranking through the 102 revisions--and I've developed a new technique to save myself a lot of trouble. Sometimes I'll mark a page or two first, sometimes I institute the new procedure starting with the first page: I write a note saying, "From here on, I'll focus on pointing out improvements." Since most of the papers don't have any (or many), I've just saved myself 5-10 minutes per paper. Indeed, one paper I simply stopped reading. It was riddled with the most amazingly sloppy errors, and I'm fed to the teeth with that kind of shit. If the student doesn't care enough about his paper even to run spell check, why the fuck should I read it, never mind provide any kind of comments?

But the fact that so many of the students are simply not revising is making me seriously question the merit of the whole assignment. I spend a lot of time providing detailed comments, only to have them completely ignored--and I'm fed up with that, too. I was tossing around some preliminary ideas for next semester earlier: I don't have it worked out yet, but I think I'm going to try to figure out a way to adjust the grading process so students can opt out of revising--but only if they get a whopping penalty for doing so. I thought it would be sufficient if 10% of their grade rode on revision, but apparently, that doesn't compute for them. I think they need to see points taken off the paper grade--including for cases when all the student does is make superficial corrections (punctuation, a few word choices, that sort of thing). But I really want to find a way so I don't provide comments for students who have zero intention of doing anything with them. I'll have to mull this over quite a bit: I don't just want to penalize them if they don't revise--I don't want to put any of my own time and effort into looking at their papers if they aren't going to. I used to do the whole "If you do not actively engage in revision, your grade will go down" thing--but I still ended up giving lots of feedback to no avail.

It has occurred to me that I can hold off on giving them the grade distribution info and talk to them about it at the start of the semester. I can set out the situation for them and ask them what they think makes sense. I won't necessarily do what they suggest, but sometimes they have good ideas: they often know what motivates them better than I do.

I'm still getting comments in response to my post to ASLE--including one that suggested giving comments without a grade and then going over the paper in a tutorial with the student a week later, "by which time they've gone over it in detail." Ah, the vast difference between a prestigious university in Great Britain and a community college in the U.S. I sort of do that already with first versions of papers (though I give a ball-park of what the grade would be)--and even when I conferenced with students as Paul does (no time for "tutorials"), they did not ever go over it in detail--not even the very good students, for the most part.

Well, fuck. I don't know what else to try that feels like it makes any sense, either for the students or for me. I almost wonder if it's time to go back to 101, in which I'd feel more comfortable with another idea I've had, which is to spend the last third of the semester continually revising one paper, over and over and over--turning a paper from the earlier part of the semester into the final paper, in part by adding research but mostly by reworking it until it's as good as the student can make it or we run out of time. Of course, the really good students might be able to rework more than one paper.... Hm.

In any event, I can't do anything to change the assignments this semester: the revision bit is done. The final papers are not revised but built incrementally--though I've told students they can, if they prefer, write the entire paper and revise it twice instead of building it in pieces. But really, any brilliant (or not so brilliant) ideas I come up with at this point will be for next semester.

As for the remaining five papers I have to grade, I may try to get one (or two??) more done tonight, though it's unlikely. I have to get up pretty damned early tomorrow in any event (have to get my kitten to the vet to be spayed), so I'm hoping I'll be in the office in time to get through more before I have to go to Advisement. And if need be, I'm hoping that I'll be able to squeeze out enough time in Advisement to finish the last one or two. I am saving the best of the second batch for last. In the first class, the best student of the bunch comes last in the alphabet, so I always get to finish with her work (and the second best student comes first in the alphabet: I like the bookend effect). But in the second class, the one really good student--in terms of writing papers anyway--is closer to the middle of the alphabet, so I've learned to pull his papers out and use them as my reward for having gotten through the rest of them. (I just realized that the second-best student is also in the middle of the alphabet for that class. I almost should turn the class inside out to achieve the bookend effect--but it also works to grade a bunch of crap, then get a good one, grade a bunch more crap, then finish with a sigh of relief at grading something that is actually pleasant to read.

Today I thought I detected plagiarism in a paper. I typed it in and ran it through the Turnitin software--which turned up nothing. I think I found a possible source for a relatively distinctive work choice, but I'm not going to nail the student for it. I am, however, going to talk to her about sources.

I realize, too, that this is just going to be one of those days in which I end up not doing the things that I would prefer to do in order to finish the things I have to do. I've been trying to figure out whether to go to dance class, and I realize I shouldn't. I either should stay here and grade more papers or I should go home and try to get to bed early. Or both. Or write up that wretched observation from yesterday (the adjunct is already hounding me for it--like she is my ultimate first priority). But dancing will get me home late and delay my wind-down to sleep. I hate to miss the exercise (like I hated to miss my Native American Lit students, and P&B, and even more time doing the summer scheduling, much of a pain in the ass as that can be). But in addition to the stupid revisions, I have a stack of homework from all the classes that is not going to get any smaller over the next two days, unless I can get the revisions out from underfoot and turn my attention to hacking my way through that stuff, too. And the observation. And I've got two more observations coming up in the next few weeks. Ugh.

Well, what I know--what all my faithful readers know--is that one way or another, it all gets done. Sometimes what the students get back is pretty minimal, but they get it back, I get all my committee work done, and by the end of the semester, my hands are empty again. Five weeks from today, it will be all over. I'll be doing a mad dash of scheduling (both getting ready for adjunct contract signing and doing the full-time schedules for spring 2014), and I'll be trying to get my conference paper written--but all the rest of my chores for this semester will be finished. I meet my classes nine more times: that's it. Seriously: hang on to the safety bar and scream, because we're on that downward plunge to the end of the ride.