Archive for November, 2011

As end-of-semester papers draw near I find myself facing the age-old question of how to grade them in a way that is consistent and clearly communicable to students.  Because I generally give students very detailed guidelines for writing assignments it is relatively easy to assign points to those details and grade papers based on them.  This helps me stay consistent from one paper to the next and also allows me to explain grades to students (beyond this, professors who could offer no explanations beyond “you got an A- because you wrote an A- paper” always frustrated me as a student).

In recent semesters, however, I’ve found that grading based on a detailed rubric leads to a few problems.  These include a focus on details that can prevent a view of the whole and, as a result, the potential to give a poorly-written paper that has all of the necessary components a higher grade than it would receive using other methods.  As a result, for some assignments I’ve moved to a letter-grade system in which I meeting the basic requirements is equal to a B and students need to do particularly insightful or well-written work to earn higher grades.

So far, I’ve been using rubrics for longer papers and letter grades for shorter papers.  Eventually, I would like to merge these approaches in a way that goes beyond a “quality of writing and insight” portion of the rubric.

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As the fall semester winds down I find myself thinking about how to improve the less-than-perfect aspects of my courses for the spring.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t found the perfect method for motivating my students to come to class prepared to engage in intelligent discussions of the reading (and it is increasingly evident that daily quizzes in 50-minute classes have a number of drawbacks).  To this end I am considering a range of options including providing discussion questions ahead of class and taking some of the control over who participates and who does not away from students.  I am also thinking of stealing some lines from a syllabus by David Foster Wallace.

Katie Roiphe at Slate notes that Wallace’s section on participation notes that:

Even in a seminar class, it seems a little silly to require participation. Some students who are cripplingly shy, or who can’t always formulate their best thoughts and questions in the rapid back-and-forth of a group discussion, are nevertheless good and serious students. On the other hand, as Prof — points out supra, our class can’t really function if there isn’t student participation—it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways.

As you might expect, he also has some words of wisdom for students’ typical approach to writing:

If you are used to whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense and having the professor accept them ‘because the ideas are good’ or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.

While I don’t have the reputation of David Foster Wallace (nor am I teaching at Pomona), giving students a clearer picture of expectations upfront is a key component of holding them to those expectations near the end of the semester.

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Near the beginning of the semester I read an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education that my recent experience semi-annual experience of surviving advising brought to mind.  The gist of the article is that some graduate advisors do such a terrible job that their advisees pay for advising from others.  As a faculty member with over 40 undergraduate advisees, I would argue that many of the same lessons apply.  The relevant passages state:

Your responsibility to your advisees extends to telling the whole truth about the academic enterprise at this time. Tenure-track lines have been evaporating for years. Aiming for a tenure-track job is, for most students, unrealistic. For those students who wish to try, the effort requires years of methodical training and calculation of career chances, from the point of arrival in the graduate program through the dissertation defense and beyond. Your job is to look up from your students’ dissertations, and assist them in mastering those skills and calculations.

How? By teaching your Ph.D.’s how to write a CV; to cultivate prominent scholarly supporters; to pursue grant money with a single-minded purpose; to apply for national awards; to publish, publish more, publish higher, write a stellar application letter, and do the elevator talk.

And when, even after doing all of the above, the tenure-track job doesn’t materialize, as it often will not, instead of averting your eyes in shame from their so-called “failures,” you step up, professors, and work with your Ph.D.’s to transfer their skills into some sector of the economy that is not contracting as badly as your own.

While it is true that there are some bad advisors at my institution, and I’m glad that I don’t have to advise students writing master’s theses or dissertations, it seems that if I served my advisees as poorly as some professors serve their graduate students I would be out of a job.  For example, the person that I replaced was reportedly a bad advisor, but that person that I replaced was replaced after failing to get tenure.  I’m not sure if any research exists on this, but it would be interesting to see if the general orientation toward students and teaching at a SLAC also leads to better advising than the orientation toward publications and grants at larger institutions.

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I recently posted about an effort to get students to understand inequality by discussing it as a room on fire – with the idea that a lucky few will always escape but that the failure of others to escape cannot be written off as a lack of motivation.  This morning, I graded a few rewritten essays and found that students had added a number of structural elements that their initial essays lacked while maintaining individualistic conclusions centered on motivation.

And people say that sociology is common sense!

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Tenured Radical has a great post about the ways that colleges and universities typically respond to accusations of sexual assault and how those typical responses failed Penn State in the case of Jerry Sandusky.  Largely absent in the media’s coverage of the case is the idea that we need to respond to all reports of sexual assault differently, not just those that involve children.  She states, in part:

Given what we know about all the adults who failed to act at Penn State, and the coarse indifference of a large number of Penn State students to their university throwing children under the bus in exchange for a major Bowl bid, we can speculate that sexual assault of all kinds is way down the list of administrative priorities at many universities. This isn’t just Penn State.  At Yale, women decided that DKE pledges chanting “No means yes, Yes means anal” was the last straw and filed a Title IX discrimination suit.  Only then did Yale close a fraternity that has been notorious on campus for decades. At my very own Zenith, charges of rape filed after an assault at a Beta fraternity last year have been followed up by that fraternity — and Zenith’s DKE chapter — inviting a speaker to campus to raise the topic of why fraternities — not women — are under assault.  And many of us on the faculty were shocked, following the accusations of rape at Beta last fall, as we followed a comments on a campus wiki where numerous students, male and female, assert their entirely unfounded opinions that the accuser was a liar and had filed a police report out of spite; and that the men who ran the frat were “good guys” so clearly no rape could have occurred.

Every time one of these things happens, what it exposes is the way social power is expressed through sexual power, and it requires a feminist response. Let’s move this from the sports page to our classrooms and start connecting the dots.

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Since I was recently asked to review a paper, it seems like a good time to take a look at “The Art of Manuscript Reviewing.”  Although it is aimed at historians, the advice it contains is equally applicable to sociologists.  You should check out the entire thing (it is short!), but the list includes:

  • Recognize what the author has accomplished
  • Be honest
  • Be concrete and constructive
  • Don’t take over
  • Be attentive to questions of audience
  • Be gracious

All of these are points that I would appreciate as an author.  Incidentally, since I have only published sporadically in the past few years and I’m certainly not the go-to “expert” on any topic, I rarely get asked to review papers.  One piece of reviewing advice I’ve received from a senior scholar that I’m unlikely to be able to follow is that I should spend only two hours reviewing an article: one hour to read it and one hour to provide comments.

Via: Edge of the American West

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The widespread power outages on the East coast got me thinking about what I would do without power for a week.  Beyond the obvious difficulties of controlling the temperature of my house and refrigerator, it seems like I might be more productive in a world without the distraction of TV and the internet.  Even though there are a lot of days when I come home and don’t feel like doing any additional work, it seems that boredom might overcome laziness.  Similarly, I might get more done around the house without the temptation of football games on Saturdays and Sundays.  On the other hand, I’m not sure how much reading I could stand to do by candlelight, so the winter months when it gets dark by 5 pm might be a different type of challenge to my productivity.

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