Archive for August, 2012

On the first day of the first course that I taught, I went to the wrong classroom. Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely alone. Two male students had also neglected to check the updated list of classrooms and accompanied me on my walk of shame from the business building to the library. On the way across the street I jokingly told these two guys that they would be my favorite students. The thing is, I have no idea who they were. It isn’t that I remember nothing about the students in that course. I remember that I labeled one student “squirrely looking” when I was trying to make notes that would help me remember students’ names. I remember the student who had excellent class participation but mediocre grades and who needed to take an incomplete because of a recurrence of cancer. I remember the student who later joined the military but came to sit in on one of my subsequent courses when he was on leave. I remember these things because I got to know my students over the course of the semester. On the first day of class, however, I was so caught up in my efforts to make a good impression (and the fact that I had likely failed by going to the wrong classroom) to pay much attention to the students who were with me.

Although I was especially flustered on my first day of teaching, this pattern has held over subsequent semesters. Despite, or perhaps because of, my efforts to make a positive first impression on my students, they fail to make a first impression on me. This actually works to the benefit of my students, since I fail to form negative impressions of those who start the semester without the required books or who take a while to grow comfortable participating in class discussions. So students, you have a few weeks to make a positive first impression, regardless of how things begin. Take advantage of it!

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The intense thought that I put into arbitrary decisions when creating my syllabi does not prevent me from making (and dealing with) mistakes. This semester, for example, a mix-up between me, the campus bookstore, and a publisher led to me arriving in the classroom with a different version of the textbook than my students and, as a result, a syllabus listing the wrong page numbers for course readings. Last semester my small discussion-based class was assigned to one of the largest lecture halls on campus. Making matters worse was the fact that the seats were arranged stadium-style so that everybody had a good view of the front of the classroom but the students could not hear each other.

Nothing tops my experience when heading to teach my very first class as a graduate student, though. On that fall day I took the bus from my apartment to campus, transferring at the downtown station. I then made my way to my classroom, which was in the business building. I arrived suitably early and started preparing by getting out my notes and syllabi and logging into the computer system while students trickled in. Then, just before my class was scheduled to begin, a man walked in, thinking that it was actually his classroom. I asked him if he was sure he was in the right place and he said that he was. I asked the assembled students what class they were there to attend. All but two (out of approximately 70) said that they were there for this other man’s business course. Since I was logged into the computer I looked online and found that my classroom had been moved late in the summer from the computer building to the basement of the library, which was thankfully just across the street. Publicly revealed as idiots, my two students and I quickly made the walk to our actual classroom, where we arrived about ten minutes late. Thankfully, the students who had gone to the right place to begin with were there waiting for us. There’s nothing like a humbling experience on your first day in a position of authority!

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Lots of people talk about a syllabus as a sort of contract between professors and students in which professors tell students what will be expected of them and students are informed about how their final grades will be determined. Of course, this contract is one-sided and typically gives students no input into the process (yes, there are exceptions), but at least they typically know what they’re getting themselves into by taking a given course. As I tweak my syllabi in the week or so leading up to the beginning of the semester, though, I often find myself asking questions like “Should this assignment be worth seven percent or eight percent of the final grade?” and “Which of these assignments do I expect to take students more effort?”

Because these questions have no clear answers, I end up making arbitrary decisions to determine how each requirement will contribute to the final grade. This is especially a problem in new courses or courses in which I have new assignments (some of which have not actually been written when the semester begins). In one previous course two assignments were given the same weight in the final grade but one ended up taking students about half the time, thought, and effort, of the other. I tweaked the weights the next time I taught the course, but the “contractual” nature of the syllabus prevented me from changing the weights when I realized the problem.

I don’t think that setting course requirements in stone at some arbitrary point (for me, this is when I make copies of the syllabus for students) is a bad thing. Students have a right to know how their grade will be determined. I’ve actually heard students in other people’s courses complain when assignments were dropped because they were hoping to use those assignments to bring their grades up. I do think, however, that it is important to recognize how arbitrary some of these decisions are and carefully reflect on them throughout the semester so that we can make adjustments for the future. Just because we set something in stone doesn’t mean that it is necessarily correct.

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Despite writing the scavenger hunt myself I completed just over half of the items on it! I completed numbers: 2,3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 13, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 24, 27, 29, and 30. I wish that I had put seeing a scared employment services candidate on the list. Did anybody else notice how terrified ASA Bear was before his interview?

I consider my biggest ASA failure this year to be the fact that I never came across the unisex restrooms. I thought that they may have been nonexistent until I got home and noticed that they were marked on the map distributed upon check-in. If anybody saw them, I’d love to have a picture for the SLACer archives!

And now, the fall semester awaits.

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ASA is over but you still have twelve and a half hours to submit your entry in the inaugural ASA scavenger hunt! Entries are due by midnight Eastern time (ten ASA time).

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In case nobody has told you yet, there are some cool buttons featuring social theorists at the Norton booth in the Convention Center at ASA. Collect all seven! (By that I mean “stand at the jar blocking other people’s access to the buttons until you’ve found all seven”.) Too bad it isn’t on the scavenger hunt.

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Unlike Friday, my scavenger hunt pace slowed on Saturday, though it picked up a bit again this morning. Yesterday I crossed numbers 5 and 6 off the list. Number 6 was interesting since the technical difficulties were due largely to the fact that the presenter forgot his glasses and couldn’t find his PowerPoint on the computer everybody was using. Then, when he found it, he couldn’t figure out how to get it started. This morning, I crossed numbers 2, 3, and 4 off of the list. There were only three papers, which made number 3 easier!

In addition to the scavenger hunt, the conference has rejuvenated my interest in sociology, which is always a good thing heading into a new academic year! I hope that your own scavenger hunt and conference experiences are going well.

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Day one of the inaugural ASA scavenger hunt has come and gone and I’ve already made some progress despite not arriving in Denver until Friday afternoon. I covered #16 and #17 at my graduate department’s reception last night, I covered #21 and #22 in the cab from the airport to my hotel, and I covered #27, #29, and #30 last night at the Colorado Rockies game. That gives me a total of seven out of 30 items without attending a single session! We’ll see how many of the first seven items I can cover today (I’ve already passed up my chance at #4).

Good luck to my fellow hunters!

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As sociologists from around the country (and even the world!) head to Denver, here are a few things to keep you entertained: First, a post about making ASA better by using Twitter and other forms of digital communication (I think I joined Twitter once. I might have to dig out my account in preparation for the conference). Second, Kieran takes this year’s bingo card to the next level, complete with a “mobile app” version. Finally, and most importantly (and perplexingly), instructions on how to use ASA’s preliminary online program to put your conference schedule into your Outlook and/or Google calendars. The perplexing part is that although you cannot see locations anywhere on your schedule when using the ASA’s website, they’re there when you open the calendar on your computer or mobile device. If these locations are correct, why is the ASA hiding them from us when we use their preliminary program? If they are not correct, I’m going to be awfully disappointed when I get to Denver! Enjoy your flights and don’t forget that the scavenger hunt begins tomorrow morning!

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As I said last week, what we need is not an ASA bingo, but rather an ASA scavenger hunt. In a scavenger hunt, everybody is free to seek the items on the list in any location and order they choose, making this format perfect for a large conference like ASA. A scavenger hunt also allows for there to be a winner! Thank you to everybody who submitted suggestions. In keeping with previous ASA Bingo cards and their detractors I have tried to create a list that balances cynicism with (hopefully) positive experiences.

Click here to download the 2012 ASA Scavenger Hunt and don’t forget to read the complete rules below.

The 2012 ASA Scavenger Hunt Rules:

  • The 2012 ASA Scavenger Hunt is open to anybody who is attending this year’s ASA conference in Denver. Your status as an undergraduate, grad student, assistant professor, or “famous” sociologist will not affect your chances of winning.
  • Record the dates, times, locations, and/or session numbers for the items on the list between Friday, August 17 and Monday, August 20.
  • Items may be double-counted. This means that if, for example, you attend an 8 am session that includes a paper titled “Farm Sociology: Bringing Cattle Back In” in which every presentation is interesting to you, an audience member asks a question that is actually a statement, the person next to you is sleeping, and the third presenter cannot get his flash drive to work you will have covered items 1-6 on the list.
  • The person who submits a form accounting for the most items will receive $50. The date and time of submission will be used as a tiebreaker.
  • All entries must be submitted to socslac@gmail.com by midnight Eastern time on Tuesday, August 21. Submissions can be scanned, photographed, or typed (except #18).
  • The winner’s name, along with his or her winning entry, will be posted here in order to demonstrate that there was actually a winner and to discourage falsified entries.
  • I will be playing along and will keep you posted on my own progress throughout the weekend. Although this blog is pseudonymous, I promise that I will not declare myself the winner!
  • If you would like to discuss your own progress on Twitter, use hashtag #ASAHunt.
  • Have fun!

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