Archive for the ‘Student Life’ Category

In the wake of shootings that involve classrooms, whether elementary, middle school, high school, or college, I ask myself what I would do in a similar situation. I have been fortunate to never have a a student that I was genuinely afraid of, but that is no guarantee against violence. Claire Potter, a.k.a. Tenured Radical, has had such an experience and discusses the possible ways that the situation may have played out:

So because I knew nothing, except that this had occurred in a small town near my old rowing club that I had driven through multiple times to get to I-84, what I thought about was the campus shooting I experienced on May 7 2009. On that day, a young woman at Zenith was gunned down in front of her friends at the campus bookstore by a man who had stalked and threatened her for several years.

And on that day, the campus went into, as they say now, “lockdown.” We had very little information about what had happened, or what might happen next. My office was in a small building: we locked all the doors and gathered upstairs. I, at least, was well aware that if the gunman proceeded up the hill towards the main campus, ours would be the first building he got to.  As we waited, for hours, I turned different scenarios over in my mind. Most of them had to do with running away: how thick was the front door? If the gunman entered our building, could we all escape in good order through the back? And as Director of the building, would it not be my moral duty to help everyone else get out in front of me, be the last to leave, and assume the greatest risk?

In case you have never had this experience, these are the kind of things you think about as you are waiting to see if you are going to die you are going to become a casualty. After a bit, my co-teacher, a young postdoc, and I quietly confided to each other our worst fear: that the shooter was one of our students, a young man I will call Jack. Jack’s eccentricities had morphed, week by week, into what both of us believed was a full-blown psychosis, resulting on odd to scary behaviors.

Suddenly, the front doorbell rang: we looked out the window and — it was Jack. What to do? If he was the shooter, could we keep him out? If he was not the shooter, he was in danger, and as his teachers, we had a moral obligation to help him. What if, floridly psychotic or not, murderer or not, he had come to us for help?

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In line with my post the other day about my decision to require students to meet with me, and suffering for that decision, Bradley Koch at Soc’ing Out Loud has a recent post about student reactions after receiving a grade that was lower than they expected. He discusses four ideal types of students: those who do nothing, those who drop the course, those who get angry, and those who seek advice during office hours. I’ve also encountered these general reactions (and I’m similarly frustrated by those who drop a course after receiving a single poor grade on an assignment) but I think that he misses an important group of students in his discussion of those who do nothing. He writes:

Most students do nothing. They show up as if nothing has changed. I suspect that these are the students who have done well on their assignments and those who are too lazy to actually open the email attachment that includes comments and their score.

In addition to those who have done well and those who are lazy are those who are intimidated by the thought of meeting with professors. While he notes that many students at his institution are from privileged backgrounds, lots of sociological research tells us that many students who are raised in working class and poor homes are much less likely to approach a professor and ask for help. Even if they do approach their professors for help, they are also more likely to be uncomfortable about meeting with us.

I don’t know what to do about this problem, but it is definitely something to take into consideration when reflecting on student reactions.


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The internet has made it easier than ever for students to turn in work that is not their own. Fortunately, the internet also allows professors to use services like Turnitin.com in an attempt to ensure that the work students are turning in hasn’t been turned in before. Of course, that doesn’t mean that students always write the work they turn in themselves, as this Chronicle article from a few years ago highlights. The problem (for lazy students) has always been that they had to do the other things that go along with being a student. Annoying things like taking notes and studying.

Now, for online courses at least, their problems have been solved. As noted on Inside Higher Ed:

Prices for a “tutor” vary. Boostmygrades.com advertises a $695 rate for graduate classes, $495 for an algebra class, or $95 for an essay. When Inside Higher Ed, posing as a potential customer, asked for a quote for an introductory microeconomics class offered by Penn State World Campus, noneedtostudy.com offered to complete the entire course for $900, with payment upon completion, and onlineclasshelpers.com asked for $775, paid up front. Most sites promise at least a B in the course.

I typically like to save money and do things for myself, which makes me a bad candidate for this type of service, but as online classes increase in frequency, the fact that we never see our students in person will surely bring up a new set of problems for faculty members. Less money, more problems? Great.

*Don’t forget the soundtrack

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Any college professor who has received a call from a parent concerned about his or her child’s grade has experienced the wonder of helicopter parenting. While Lareau has demonstrated the involvement that many middle-class parents have in their children’s daily lives, this involvement can also extend past the teenage years (as documented by Arnett in Emerging Adulthood). As Nelson argues in Parenting Out of Control, technological advances are one of the primary factors driving this change. This recent commercial from Google shows us how:

I don’t mean to imply that the increased connections made possible by cell phones, texting, Facebook, and video chatting are necessarily bad (especially when a child’s mother has passed away!), but we are in a period of rapid change when it comes to relationships between parents and their college-age children. It wasn’t that long ago that I started college in a dorm room with one landline phone (and no answering machine) that was shared between five roommates who had to use calling cards to make long-distance calls home!

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Almost as if she had read my post about reifying arbitrary decisions on my syllabi (I’m sure she hasn’t!), Tenured Radical recently posted about her view that syllabi are guides, not contracts. She states:

Most people feel committed to the syllabus they handed out on the first day of class. I understand this. You worked hard on that syllabus and it represents your mastery of a field. It is a symbol of your intellectual authority and autonomy. Finally, even if you want to change it, you may not think that you are allowed to change it. Many faculty and students regard a syllabus as a contract between teacher and student that should not, and cannot, be changed.

But syllabus isn’t a contract: it’s a guide, and a set of appointments you keep every week.  It lays out the scope, logic and promise of the course, offers signposts in the form of topics, requires some readings and suggests other readings that the more ambitious student might wish to pursue. It articulates basic expectations for what students must do (how many papers? How long? Will problem sets be accepted late?), and it spells out as when and how work must be accomplished.

For precisely these reasons, if your syllabus is flawed you must change it. Teaching a syllabus that you have lost confidence in is like choosing to drive a car with a flat tire.

Although I have never substantially altered a syllabus during the semester I agree that flexibility might help a floundering course. To her advice I would add a caution not to remove assignments or change the point distribution in a way that will make it harder for students who have struggled during the first portion of a course to feel like they can bring their grades up. Whether or not they actually will bring their grades up is another issue, but I am always in favor of their ability to feel like they can!

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As somebody who likes to break down the events of songs and TV commercials and somebody who is lazy, I enjoy when others do the analysis for me. Because of this, I was thrilled to see that Rob Delaney at Vice.com has tackled Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night.” Thrilled, at least, until I actually read his analysis and thought about the song. Before reading his analysis I’d heard the song and seen the video, but I’d never given much thought to the lyrics. That, I suppose, is the danger of catchy pop songs about party rape. Reading the whole thing doesn’t take very long, but here are a few excerpts from Delaney’s analysis:

There’s a stranger in my bed

Uh oh! Already scary. You should know everyone in your bed with you. Rape is already a possibility, unprotected sex has almost definitely occurred.

Is this a hicky or a bruise?

Hold up! There’s a huge difference. Also, in the video for this song, the hicky’s on your neck. Did the aforementioned “stranger” punch you in the neck while raping you?

It’s a blacked out blur

This is serious. Blacking out can be a symptom of alcoholism. Most people don’t black out. Do you display other symptoms? Call me.

But I’m pretty sure it ruled

You are a terrible detective with limited to no self-respect.

Beyond the fact that all of these things are seen as normal and depicted in a video that is intended to be humorous, I think the contention that “it ruled” is my biggest problem with the song. Artists like Katy Perry are perpetuating the idea that young people must drink alcohol to the point that their ability to make decisions is obliterated in order to have a good time. This idea surely contributes to the party culture, and accompanying sexual assaults, that exists on college campuses across the country. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t rule.


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Over at Scatterplot, Drek points to a blog post by John Scalzi that likens being born as a straight white male to playing a video game like World of Warcraft on the lowest difficulty setting. Here’s a taste:

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

[I]t’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer and/or their highest stats are wealth, intelligence and constitution and/or simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting.

You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore.

And maybe at this point you say, hey, I like a challenge, I want to change my difficulty setting! Well, here’s the thing: In The Real World, you don’t unlock any rewards or receive any benefit for playing on higher difficulty settings. The game is just harder, and potentially a lot less fun. And you say, okay, but what if I want to replay the game later on a higher difficulty setting, just to see what it’s like? Well, here’s the other thing about The Real World: You only get to play it once. So why make it more difficult than it has to be? Your goal is to win the game, not make it difficult.

I like this analogy, but I wish it was presented through something like Call of Duty or Madden that a wider variety of (likely male) students spend their time playing.

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Roughly ten years ago I was graduating from college and making plans to start grad school in the fall. I was lucky to have great undergraduate mentors  who gave me an idea of what to expect. Today, students can also rely on Fabio’s Rulz. Here, then, are a few pieces of advice for those who will be starting grad school in the fall from somebody who survived (and even enjoyed) the experience:

Show up to things (Whether or not there is free food, it is good for faculty and other grad students to know who you are.)

Once in a while, say something that sounds intelligent (Once people know who you are it will be helpful if they occasionally hear you say something that indicates you were paying attention.)

Do not tell your professors about your work habits (Ideally, they will think that you start every paper months before the deadline and thoroughly complete all of the readings. Don’t ruin the illusion for them.)

Do some thorough reading (In my first few years I diligently read every page of the assigned texts but I wish I had taken more time to actually digest the material that I was reading. Reading a portion of the assignment thoroughly and being able to discuss it intelligently is probably better than doing a surface reading of all of it but having nothing to say!)

Get started on research (Whether working on your own or collaborating with professors or other students, it is never too early to start developing your research agenda, whether or not you think this work is leading toward your master’s thesis or dissertation.)

Think seriously about the type of job you want (Research will be important for getting any type of job, but there being able to teach some of the core courses in your field will also be helpful in most situations. If you know what kind of job you want it will be easier to seek opportunities that will look good down the road.)

Have a good time! (Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint. Your life will not be appreciably worse if you put off – or skip – some of the reading to go out with friends, but it will probably be appreciably better if you do!)

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It seems that around 2/3 of the way through every semester I find myself dealing with issues that have become major problems for a few students. Even after seven years of teaching college courses I still have a hard time being proactive in dealing with student problems. This is especially true if students do not do anything to establish themselves as “good” early in the semester.

One student, for example, missed three weeks of classes in a row before missing the first exam. I assumed that the student was planning to drop the class. I was wrong. When students were working on group projects and papers late in the semester, this same student neglected her group responsibilities. It is possible that she has been dealing with problems in her work or family life or that she just doesn’t care about my course. It is also possible that she has emotional or psychological problems that have prevented her from coming to class and performing her student responsibilities.

If she had been coming to class regularly at the beginning of the semester, I may have been more likely to reach out to her when problems developed. It would also be nice if students were more proactive in explaining their situations to me. As it is, though, I need to work on reaching out to students who are MIA before their problems become insurmountable (at least in terms of their grades in my courses).

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As an instructor, I’ve always fought to find a balance between making class interesting and making class entertainment. While student interest is a good thing, turning classes into entertainment may encourage them to pay attention in the same uncritical way that they engage with other forms of entertainment. Now there is research to support this contention! As discussed at Sociological Images, research by Poh, Swenson, and Picard finds that students’ “brain patterns during class matched watching TV closer than any other activity on the list.” No wonder they hate it when I make them get out of their seats to form groups for class discussion!

*This post has a soundtrack:

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