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For the past few years I have been requiring students to answer discussion questions about the readings before coming to class. The purpose of these discussion questions is to make sure that students do the reading (obviously) but also to ensure that students think about the readings and their connections to other course topics. After a trial run in one course I have adopted the practice in nearly every course with small variations (in lower-level courses, for example, I provide the discussion questions while in upper-level courses I combine my own questions with those written by students). When preparing my syllabi for the fall, I again included discussion questions even though I wasn’t entirely sure what students at my new institution would be like. In the days after completing my syllabi, though, I began to feel uneasy.

Using discussion questions in a course I’ve taught a number of times does not contribute much to my workload outside of class. Since I know what lass discussions have focused on in the past I can be sure to include questions on those elements of the readings. For a new prep, however, writing discussion questions involves reading a week or more ahead to anticipate the direction of class discussions while allowing my students enough time to use the discussion questions to complete the readings. The more I thought about it, the less I looked forward to writing discussion questions in addition to preparing for one new course and one course with substantially-revised readings. Higher publication expectations were also a factor, since reading ahead to write questions, preparing for class, reviewing readings before class, and grading would have left me with little time for writing.

In the end, although my syllabi had already been posted to Blackboard, I decided in the interest of my sanity and productivity to delete the discussion question requirements before handing them out on the first day of class. This will also give me a chance to see how I might use discussion questions most effectively with my new students. My decision isn’t particularly groundbreaking since my students likely won’t even know what they’re missing, but ten years into teaching it is important to remember why I was advised not to try too much in my first semester of teaching: it is easy to get overwhelmed when starting something new.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed. You should also appreciate a post about labor for Labor Day.

Ten years of teaching

Ten years ago I walked into a college classroom to teach for the first time. A few minutes after that, I walked out again because I had gone to the wrong classroom. Then I walked into the correct classroom and began my teaching career. If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have said that my teaching hasn’t changed that much in the past ten years, but looking back at the materials from my first semester the gradual evolution of my teaching became much clearer.

Looking at my first syllabus (which was only six pages – maybe syllabus bloat is a real problem), I am struck by how light the workload was (in my defense, I had 70 students and we were advised not to shoot for the moon in our first courses). Attendance and participation were each 10% of the final course grade and the remaining 80% was made up of the three exams. Students could also write three short “bonus” papers for up to 3% of their final grade, but these were the only writing assignments. About half of the students completed the first and about 60% completed the final one. I was apparently very lenient with these because most students received between .9 and 1 (out of 1). The average final course grade was a B.

Without looking at the roster, I can remember only three students’ names from that semester, one of whom I labeled “squirrely looking” on my roster (he earned an A), one of whom later died of cancer, and one of whom was friends with the student who later died of cancer. Even looking at the roster I can only picture a few more. What I do remember is walking across a stage at the front of the room every time I wanted to change the PowerPoint slide and then waiting for students to write down a definition that I had displayed (I didn’t use a textbook but had not yet discovered guided notes). I also remember feeling awkward when standing on the stage because I was so far above the students and feeling awkward when standing in front of the stage because I was so close to the students.

Although I felt fairly comfortable at the time, in retrospect I did a terrible job of getting students to participate in class discussions, which was noted on my evaluations. One student also noted that I seemed nervous a lot of the time. Another commented that by making them copy vocabulary words I was treating them like they were in seventh grade. The student then drew a frowny face, demonstrating that I may have been aiming at the right level after all!

Ten years later, preparing to start teaching at my fourth institution (including grad school and a small commuter college I taught at for a few semesters back then) it is nice to see that things have progressed. Given my emphasis on teaching as a grad student, I think that the biggest changes have been more about refining my approach than adapting to new institutional settings. At this point, I’m glad that my oscillations between different approaches for things like class participation and attendance have gotten much smaller. While small refinements may not seem as exciting as big changes from one semester to the next, it is nice to have gotten to a point with fewer glaring errors. I’m excited to see what changes the next ten years will bring.

ASA ended a week ago so I suppose it is time to post my 2014 ASA Scavenger Hunt results. Last year I set a personal best by completing 20 of the 30 items, but this year I could not attain that level again, ending up with 17 of 30 items. For those competing at home, I completed items 3, 7, 8, 11, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, and 30. I also left San Francisco with some good ideas for next year, including people sitting in the back row of an empty presentation room and “We’re going to use X as a proxy for Y.”

Regarding item number 14, I was fairly busy at ASA this year and may  have attended a record number of sessions and meetings, so I didn’t have time to check out all of the unisex restrooms. The ones that I did see, in the Hilton on the Ballroom Level were a textbook example of how not to designate unisex restrooms, and were even worse than those in the Hilton last year in New York. Although they appeared on the conference hotel map and signs were posted on the restroom doors indicating their unisex status, the door to each restroom was at the end of a 10-15 foot-long hallway, the end of which was marked for men or women and made no mention of unisex status. Thus the Hilton Union Square receives a 1 out of 10 for its unisex restrooms. Grading it felt like grading the student who puts absolutely no effort into an assignment. Hiltons of the world, you can do better!

 

Hard times in San Francisco

As a friend noted last week, the presence of sociologists from all over the world descending upon San Francisco to hang out in the Hilton and discuss the conference theme of “Hard Times” while the homeless begged outside helped put things in perspective. Because of that, I was struck by Ana Velitchkova’s post at Mobilizing Ideas where she discusses her stay in the Tenderloin district, both a few blocks and worlds away from the conference hotel. She writes, in part:

The hotel reviews depict the place as located in an area where homeless people, drunks, and drug addicts loiter. Some reviewers even report bed bugs, which horrifies a San Francisco friend of mine most of all. While waiting for my room to be ready−I was being treated to a brand new bed [a sigh of relief!]−the manager, who is also a concierge, repairs guy, and anything else that he needs to be, regretfully informs me that “My only problem is the homeless and the drug dealers in front”. Indeed, the place isn’t that bad. The room is large and clean (I am not a fan of the smell of the cleaning products used but I can live with that for a few days, I try to convince myself). It has a bathroom en suite, free Internet, and coffee 24 hours: the traveler’s essentials.

The first morning challenges my poise though. One of the cute little conference outfits I had been so happy to pile in my suitcase makes me feel uneasy when I leave the hotel and walk the one block to Mason street, which separates the “good” part from the “bad” part of the neighborhood. The dark-blue business-casual dress matched with a white cardigan, red flats, and nylons, contrasts flashingly with the baggy jeans, tank tops, and sports jackets of the residents hanging out in the neighborhood. After eyeing me continuously, one man greets me with an exclamation, after I pass by him: “Good morning!” I barely have a chance to respond with a confused “Good morning” back, when a woman looks me over and mumbles something disapprovingly incomprehensible. I try to breathe normally and maintain a fast and steady stride as I make my way through the block. Beyond Mason street, I feel a tension release and realize my body had internalized a sense of fear of the downtrodden. Then, I start to wonder: ‘Who is really more in danger, they or I?’ (But notice the distinction this statement already implies.)

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, then consider the ASA’s position (WARNING! Read only the first post on that page, read nothing else! Trust me!) on the difficulty of making the conference more financially accessible even for faculty members and spend some time thinking about hard times.

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At Slate, Hanna Rosin discusses a children’s book for parents who are uncomfortable allowing their children to have the same freedoms they did while growing up. While they have been raised with Curious George, then, George does not provide the type of example they want their children to follow. As Rosin says:

Remember poor Curious George? How every time that “good little monkey” tried to have a little fun, he would get severely punished? Like, he’d walk up to a friendly stranger in the jungle and wind up smuggled across the ocean in a bag, or play around with the phone and end up in jail? This year brings the successor to Curious George, an energetic little monkey named Bitsy who is possibly the most pitiful children’s book character I’ve come across in a long time.

As a result, the book Bitsy Bear solves the problem of parents who want to read their children a story about monkeys (although the book is called “Bitsy Bear,” Bitsy is a monkey and the bear is the antagonist) without the danger inherent in exploring their world or jumping on the bed. Rosin concludes:

Jenks’ appendix is full of helpful safety tips for parents, such as: Keep DNA samples at home and teach kids about safety latches in trunks. She says to discuss “good strangers,” such as a police officer and other family members, and “bad strangers”— “people who try to lure children from public places.”  In fact children are vastly more likely to be abducted or molested by family members and people they know than they are by strangers, but this kind of information is far too complex for Jenks to process. “This book is dedicated to the sweet innocence of every child,” she writes. If you are so unfortunate as to have a complicated child with other, less savory qualities—curiosity, willfulness, mischievousness, even, God forbid, a wicked temper—I’d say it’s not the book for you.

Maybe the man with the yellow hat will buy it for George.

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Have you seen the lines at the Hilton Starbucks? If only there were another one nearby…

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I can’t believe that I didn’t put something about this on the Scavenger Hunt

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