Posts Tagged ‘Professors’

Over the years, I’ve tried various approaches to grading, from spreading things out to allowing for relatively intense periods of grading followed by relative peace. This week, though, I have run into a perfect storm of grading. Due to rescheduling some things early in the semester, I moved one of my exams from before Thanksgiving to the week after Thanksgiving, where it was met with a paper assignment and another exam. In a two-day period, then, I collected 20 papers in one class and gave 61 combined exams in two other courses, totaling 81 things to grade and, thanks to the impending end of the semester, not a lot of time to grade them. In response I have stocked up on bottled water and canned goods in hopes of hunkering down and surviving the storm.

Is it Christmas yet?!

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Last semester was possibly my most frustrating as an instructor, given that two of my courses had lower-than-normal levels of class participation. Having finally received my student evaluations from the fall, it appears that my frustration was felt by at least a few of my students. Numerically, my evaluations were similar to other semesters. Qualitatively, though, it appears that a higher number of students who would have normally left the comments section blank were compelled to complain. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Very negative attitude towards teaching. Often made rude comments to students for no reason… Terrible class, terrible professor.”

“Dr. Smith tends to be rude and misunderstanding towards his students. It would be appreciated that he shows his students the respect he demands as a professor. He doesn’t relate well to college life and all that it entails.”

“he is a good teacher but he is kind of mean sometimes & comes off indifferent to helping.”

“When talking to students in class or when commenting on a student’s answer to a question, it would be nice not to receive a smartass answer/comment in response.”

“Snide comments were made to multiple students and I was offended by his ego. He acts as though he is better than us simply because he has a PhD. My suggestion would be to tone down the sarcasm.”

If one looked only at the comments above, I would seem to be a terrible professor. I understand that not all students appreciate sarcasm, and that my responses were likely harsher last semester than most. Thankfully, there were also a few students who seemed to enjoy my courses. When compiling evaluations for review by others, I always follow a negative evaluation with a positive one that contradicts it. Toward this end:

“You were a great professor. You were able to relate to us but keep respect.”

“Dr. Smith needs to be less enthusiastic with his teaching and try to be more boring and even more unpredictable with grading and pop-quizzes. His energy level is far too high for someone like me and it amazes me how someone like that can become a professor (just kidding, Dr. Smith is awesome).”

“Great professor. Very knowledgeable and always willing to help.”

Thankfully for both my students and me, this semester has been much less frustrating than last.

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As I reach the point in the semester where exams and assignments have started to come in and initial grades have given me a better sense of where my students are I am faced with familiar frustrations.  In each class there seem to be students who take a wait-and-see approach to exams and students who are unable to follow directions.  As a professor I find this incredibly frustrating.  This is partially a result of the fact that I was never that type of student so I have a hard time empathizing with the ways that some of my students approach their educations.  Larger, though, is my frustration with the fact that I have no idea how to motivate some of my students.  I know that I can’t make them care, no matter how much I would like to.  So far, though, I have not felt successful in helping them care, either.

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I was recently reminded of my reflections on academic behavior by Tenured Radical’s recent admission that:

As it turned out, I was unable to sit through a meeting that bored me without fidgeting, texting, whispering to my neighbor, and going on Facebook repeatedly to update all my “friends” (many of whom were in the room) about my status. Status as what? Status as a middle-aged person who has utterly lost patience with meetings? Status as someone who has utterly lost hir manners?

I have to admit that there have been times in the past year where I sent text messages during faculty meetings – usually to let my wife know that I was not going to be home anywhere near the expected time.  I find it interesting, though, that Tenured Radical blames Facebook for her behavior:

If it were not for the mileage I get for this blog from being on Facebook, I would definitely punish myself by canceling my account, since my behavior yesterday seems like de facto proof of cerebral and personality changes that have been wrought by this particular form of new media. I wasn’t even able to sit there quietly reading The Atlantic on my iPhone, which is the kind of non-disruptive behavior that many fifth graders with ADD have mastered.

As I’ve said before, I strongly believe that the bad use of technology is a symptom, not the disease.

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From a Facebook friend’s status update:  “5 more days of teaching then 115 days off…bitches!”

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As a professor, I recognize that students have all kinds of lives outside of the classroom that I almost never see.  They have parents, siblings, romantic partners, stupid friends, cell phone bills, and to-do lists.  Most of the time I am happy to get a glimpse of what my students are like outside of the classroom but a small part of me dies each time I find out that an intelligent, thoughtful student is a smoker.  I have smoked a few cigarettes in my lifetime but they never did anything for me other than make me cough.  Apparently, the fact that their addictive quality does not kick in immediately prevents me from seeing their benefit.  As a result, it is hard for me to reconcile “intelligent and thoughtful” with “willing to pay somebody to slowly kill me.”  So students, if your own health is not motivation enough to quit, maybe you can do it for the little part of me that you are killing when you stand outside of a campus building and light up.

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At some schools, the biggest transition for new faculty is probably related to learning the ins and outs of departmental politics.  Luckily, my own department does not have much in the way of politics.  I have, however, noted some interesting campus politics.  During a recent conversation about student evaluations I found myself with several faculty members from the humanities who appear to have an inherent distrust of the process.

Obviously, lots of people dislike evaluations, but I’ve never talked to anybody who distrusts them like these professors from the humanities.  The fact is, I’ve always approached student evaluations from the stand point of the social sciences.  As such, evaluations are one way of collecting data about the ever-elusive student satisfaction.  As a sociologist, I’ve never questioned whether surveys were a valid method of data collection.  While survey methods are not perfect, they do reflect something about students’ reactions to what we do in the classroom, even if that something is not what we intended to measure.  This allows us to compare the reactions of our most recent students to those in the past using a standardized set of questions.

In contrast to the attitudes toward surveys that I developed in years of sociology courses, my colleagues in the humanities likely spent their graduate school days wrestling with debates about what constitutes a text.  For them, bubble sheets and numeric printouts are a mysterious entity that others (such as the members of the administration who have backgrounds in the social sciences) can manipulate to suit their needs.  While I strongly believe that this distrust is misplaced, this glimpse into campus politics was eye opening.

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After accepting positions at teaching-intensive universities, many are stunned by the direction their careers take and how academic roles are shaped by the institutions. Working for an Ivy League institution or a big state research university would also shape careers and lives, but new faculty members don’t anticipate the consequences of working for the “lower-tier,” “open-admissions” universities and colleges that pick them up fresh out of graduate school.  (Inside Higher Ed)

Cautionary tales such as this highlight the importance of finding an institution that matches your professional goals.  Unfortunately, the current state of the job market means that those who apply broadly and are lucky enough to receive job offers may not find a perfect match on their first attempt (this may also mean that advisers who push candidates to apply broadly are doing them a disservice).

So far, the job I received at a SLAC as the result of a more specific approach has met my expectations.  Despite this, there are aspects of my grad school days that I miss (beyond having large numbers of fellow students who are eager to grab a drink on a warm spring evening).  One thing that I recently realized that I miss are the various colloquia.  Although my coworkers are all involved in research of one sort or another, the members of a small department cannot be active enough in this area to support frequent discussions of original work.  In the R1 department where I attended grad school, on the other hand, there were several weekly colloquia on various topics in addition to occasional invited speakers.  At the school level there are still numerous outside speakers and events that I have attended as often as possible, but these occasions merely remind me of the days when it was all sociology, all the time.

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Despite the arguments of some that you should “teach naked,” spending class time on discussion and shifting the  presentation of material outside of the classroom, there are going to be times that you want to present information to students in the classroom.  The classroom is like a war zone in that it is best to go in with a plan, even though that plan may be blown to bits.  Toward this end Tenured Radical posted some tips today for how to manage lecture classes.  For example:

Establish the Rules. Every social space has its own etiquette, and similar social spaces do not always have the same etiquette. While there are some things that students know they shouldn’t be doing in class (surfing the web, indulging in side conversations, passing notes) there are other things that vary from classroom to classroom (eating and drinking, leaving the room for reasons of hygiene, coming late or leaving early, cutting class entirely.) Instead of establishing a set of rules and becoming an enforcer (something that is easier to get away with when you are older and your reputation as a cantankerous old fart is well established), consider setting aside a portion of the first class to consult your students about what they think is appropriate classroom behavior.

Be warned, however, that if you ask for student feedback on rules such as these you are likely to find that a vocal minority of students feel that they should be able to come and go as they please, text during class, and use their desks as uncomfortable pillows.

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After the aforementioned second rash of first-exam failures, scores on the second exam were significantly improved.  This fact alone does not confirm the wait-and-see approach but I can confirm that at least one student has taken this approach to my class.  When asked what she did after the first exam to improve her performance on the second exam she stated, “I actually studied this time around.”  Of course, when I asked after the first exam how long she had spent studying she reported a study time of three hours, so there is either a difference between “studying” and “actually studying” or my methods of data collection are returning invalid results.  I suspect the latter.

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