Archive for January, 2015

In the past I’ve shared my disdain for bad customer service, so it seems fitting to recognize good experiences when they occur. A few weeks ago I ordered some books from Amazon and had them delivered to campus. At my previous institution, having something delivered to campus typically added about a week to its arrival time, since there was a huge lag between its arrival at the mail room and its appearance in my mailbox, but my experiences here had been good so far. One of the books was back ordered, so it was shipped two days after the rest. The first shipment arrived without issue but the second did not, so I waited. And waited. And waited.

A few weeks after Amazon said that my book had been delivered, and after e-mails had been sent to various parties on campus in search of my missing book, I reluctantly informed Amazon that I had not received my order. I fully expected to explain my situation to somebody at Amazon but it turned out that I didn’t have a chance. I simply received a notice that a new copy would be shipped and a link to a prepaid return address label to use if the original copy ever showed up. Of course, the original copy showed up the next day. It had been sitting in a pile in the mail room that had gone undelivered for some reason.

Two days later (and on schedule this time) the new copy arrived, so I printed Amazon’s return address label, enclosed a note thanking them for their help, and prepared to send the second copy on its way back to the warehouse. At no point did Amazon question whether my initial copy was legitimately lost (even though it sort of wasn’t) and I wasn’t asked to pay for shipping costs for the replacement. It was nice to have an interaction with a large organization that wasn’t a huge hassle!

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With a new school comes a new student evaluation form. Having taught in various capacities at four institutions, I have now experienced evaluations on four different forms, the most recent of which I got back after the fall semester. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t know if these forms measure what some administrators think they measure, but they do provide some insight into student satisfaction with our courses. Like my previous institutional transition, where the evaluations went from questioning the quality of class discussions to questioning whether I tried to have students discuss things, this new evaluation form demonstrates some of the things that an institutional committee agreed might be important while also showing how flawed this system is.

At my current institution, the evaluations measure things like students’ rating of me, the course, my grading, my assignments, and my course materials, indicating that all of these things are important. (My all-time favorite evaluation question was how close my course came to a student’s perceived “ideal college course” – talk about a high bar!) These items are measured on a five-point scale ranging from “poor” to “excellent.” The problem is that the scale is unbalanced, meaning that “poor” is really the only negative option and the other four are varying degrees of good. I suppose that this might allow administrators who look at my evaluations to see how positively students viewed my courses, but it also means that a rating like “acceptable” that falls in the middle of the scale looks like “neutral-to-bad” to administrators.

As I expected, my evaluations took a hit upon changing institutions. This is the aspect of the experience that led me to realize the ways that we reify student evaluations. By the last few semesters at my previous institution, evaluations for one difficult course were almost universally positive. The evaluations at my new institution for largely the same course were not nearly as positive. Why? Because I had responded to years of student feedback on a few particular areas of the course at my previous institution and then the instrument used to measure that feedback changed. Now I will begin the process over again, responding to feedback in new areas that will help me hone my course into one that students don’t have as much to complain about on course evaluations. This doesn’t mean that my new course will be “better,” just that it will better reflect the areas that my new institution deems worthy of student evaluation.

The thing is, if I hadn’t changed institutions again I might have forgotten the degree to which I’ve been effectively teaching to the evaluations over the past five years and simply accepted that I had become a master teacher. Even recognizing this, there isn’t much that I can do about it since these are the measures that will contribute to determining my future. As a new faculty member, it is comforting to think that lower evaluations are not only about me. The trick is to remember this fact as the evaluations rise over time.

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I’ve cautioned against asking “what are the students like?” in the past, but upon changing institutions it seems broad enough to use as a starting point for comparisons. The short answer is “not that different,” though this perception is influenced by the courses I’ve taught so far and the students in them. With that caveat, below are some initial thoughts:

There were fewer very weak students but not many more very strong students. Grading assignments and exams for last semester’s courses sometimes seemed like wading through a sea of mediocrity. Most students didn’t fail at anything but there were very few solid As. Instead, there were a lot of students between B- and B+.

Writing skills were better. This may seem counterintuitive given the above point, but my students last semester were much better writers overall than those at my previous institution. As a result, I was more able to focus on their ideas in my feedback, which was nice, even if their…

Ideas were not better. Despite the ability to string together coherent sentences, these sentences did not typically contain ideas or insights that were any better than those at my previous institution.

Ability to follow directions was still lacking. Whether using ASA format or including all of the required parts of each assignment, many students made relatively simple mistakes in following directions.

Students still need time to put things together. Exam grades last semester were typically about 10-12% higher than those for the same course at my previous institution, but they followed the same pattern. One student even admitted that she did not study for the first exam. Nevertheless, most students did well on the final exam and most who had poor midterm grades were able to improve.

Together, the above factors suggest that the bottom of the distribution may have been cut off, but college students are still college students. This also supports the “an excellent student here would be an excellent student anywhere” adage. The generally-better writing skills were the most noticeable change, though their combination with some of the other factors above led to the best-written C paper I’ve ever read.
It is far too early to get a sense of my students this semester, but it will be interesting to see if these patterns hold over time.

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Just in time for the spring semester, i09 has a post about comics that break down terrible arguments, many of which are sociologically relevant. For example, there’s this one about people who respond to “black lives matter” by insisting that “all lives matter”, this one about sexual harassment, and three about privilege.

If you put a few of them on your syllabus students might even glance at it!

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As I said on Facebook, today’s last-minute 24-hour ASA extension was like cancelling school when the kids are already there. It did nothing to help those who thought they wouldn’t have time to prepare a paper due to the ridiculously early deadline. It did nothing to help those who stayed up late and got up early in order to meet the original deadline (if the deadline had been extended last night I could have gone to bed at a reasonable hour instead of staying up late and submitting my paper by 2 pm). Instead, it seems more like a favor to some “famous” sociologist who needed a bit more time to finish his or her paper.

Worst. Extension. Ever.

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As you may know, the ASA’s submission deadline is tomorrow, January 7, at 3 pm EST. As you may have noticed from the title of this post, I think that this deadline is ridiculous. It is a ridiculous deadline because it falls in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week. It is a ridiculous deadline because those who have jobs that require substantial amounts of teaching probably don’t have much time to work on their papers until winter break, the first few weeks of which are likely filled with traveling and family visits, leaving a few days to throw something together. It is a ridiculous deadline because the ASA wants a completed paper seven months before the conference (though how complete that paper needs to be appears to have been relaxed, as Jeremy noted). And finally, it is a ridiculous deadline because session organizers can’t even access the submissions until a week later. If you take a look at the Call for Papers webpage (excerpted in the image below), you will see that the module for session organizers opens on January 14:

Session OrganizersCurious about why papers need to be submitted a full week before anybody can actually start looking at them, I sent an e-mail to ASA using the “meetings@asanet.org” e-mail address. The response I received was that “Once the submission site is closed, ASA staff has to then do some things in the system before we open it up to the session organizers.” I don’t know what these “things” are, but I have doubts that they take a week. Thus, I propose the following changes to the ASA deadline:

  • Stop requiring full papers.
  • If #1 isn’t possible, make the submission deadline January 31st every year, with notifications due by March 31st
  • If #1 and #2 aren’t possible, make the submission deadline midnight on the Sunday before session organizers are given access. This year, that would be January 11, giving ASA workers the ability to start doing their “things” on Monday morning when they get to work and finish them by Wednesday.

We are the ASA, so there should be no reason that we need to continue punishing ourselves like this, struggling to finish our work in time for a mid-day mid-week deadline and hoping that DC will get enough snow to push the deadline back.

Since today’s snow did not appear to be enough to push back the deadline, there is only one remaining question:

Elba - WritingAnd now you’re distracted…

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In my tenth year of teaching college students, I am largely past the big changes in course policies from one semester to the next that characterized my early teaching. Traditionally, I have accepted late assignments with a reduction of one letter grade for each day that they are late. Looking at the syllabi of my new colleagues before the start of the fall semester, however, I saw that many of them would comment on late assignments but would not grade them, combining this with one or two exceptions per student, so I decided to change my policy. This was a big change.

This change was so big, in fact, that I had a very hard time enforcing it. Even though I had a very lenient policy for granting extensions (essentially: ask and you shall receive), a zero seemed like a very harsh penalty for an assignment that was a few hours, or even a day, late. For the spring, then, I’m returning to my old policy. I’ve considered limiting the number of extensions that students can ask for but I would rather have them learn to be proactive about recognizing when their schedule is going to be too busy to give something their best effort than imposing some sort of arbitrary cut-off for doing so.

I guess that in my tenth year of teaching I finally realized that if a class policy makes me uncomfortable, it probably isn’t best for me or my students.

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