There’s Not Enough Scotch in Tacoma, Part I.

This is still not enough...

This is still not enough…

“How were the papers?” asked one of those students who knows that she didn’t put in all that much effort but hopes that being cheery about it will count for something. “Did you finish them?”

There’s not,” I replied, “Enough scotch in Tacoma.

I know. I probably shouldn’t have said it. It was one of those things that one thinks but isn’t supposed to say. But I did. I may have tried to mitigate it afterwards, like when Susan went back and put a smiley face after an “Are you insane?” comment on a paper. But the damage was done. The comment showed up on my evaluations, and even on Rate My Professor. Tender little things.

gradesGrading is the worst — by far the worst — part of being a professor. It’s why God made grad students. But here at PLU we have no grad students. We do our own grading.

PLU takes teaching seriously. All universities say they do, but many, in practice, just don’t. Professors are elsewhere by and large tenured and promoted for measurable academic production (papers, articles, books, conferences), and sometimes that comes in spite, or at the cost, of abysmal teaching. At PLU, excellent teaching is the highest priority in tenure and promotion decisions, and it’s right there in our Faculty Handbook (pages 43-46, 91-93, 101-104).

In any case, the craft of teaching rates high at my university, and faculty put a lot of effort into it. It’s not easy. These days, you practically need a degree in design, IT, and developmental psychology — besides your own subject — to do it. We spend months designing courses that take into account the different learning styles and developmental stages of students, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and a productive sequencing of information and skill sets. We spend weeks preparing syllabi, assignment guidelines, and evaluation rubrics (what will be evaluated, the specific differences between A-B-C-D-E, etc.) in gory detail for students. We read over assignment guidelines word by word and explain them in class. We make notes to hand out. We create Powerpoints and post them on line for students to recap lectures. I provide additional materials and links on a course web site, and electronic copies of my syllabi and assignment descriptions that include links to online homework, more information on subjects, or guidelines for formatting papers and references properly.

Oh no, can't tell what you're doing there...

Oh no, can’t tell what you’re doing there…

And, in spite of the dubious value of teaching evaluations, we pour over them at the end of term, fret over every negative word and rejoice over the positive. We recap the last semester and retune what we’re doing, or sometimes scrap the whole thing and start over again with new (and we hope better) texts and assignments. And in between we try to research for our own specialties, write articles and books, submit materials to journals and publishers, redraft and resubmit what comes back, attend and organize conferences, sit on committees, manage departments, advise students, hold office hours, coordinate programs, plan for curriculum, and … oh, yeah, have a life. And write a blog.

The point is, by the time grading happens you have put a lot of work and thought producing the substructure that is supposed to enable, inform, and support what the students produce. But when you get to see what the students produce, the brutal realities set in.

"Stop staring at Sally and get back to your Latin." How's that working for you?

Get your eyeballs back to my blog.

The brutal reality is that many students haven’t really paid attention to a damn thing you have done, written, or said.

If you assign reading and attempt to lecture or have a discussion over the material, students bitch because it’s redundant. They quickly stop reading because — duh — you’re doing it in class so why should they read it? And if you assign reading and don’t go over it in class they get snarky because — duh — how can you possibly hold them accountable for material you haven’t gone over in class?

There is a depressing truthiness here...

There is a depressing truthiness here…

Regardless of what you do, 25% of the material has simply disappears into the void that is the student mind. 15%  ricochets off their burning hormonal freenzy like a radio waves off a solar flare. Another 12% gets through but distorts beyond recognition due to self-imposed sleep depravation or hangovers. They missed another 27% while surreptitiously (they think) on Facebook, Twitter, or texting in class. For heterosexual males and lesbians, 13% passes them by while they stare directly at the tits of girls who come to class wearing scoop-neck cleavage display cases; about the same percent goes by heterosexual females and gay males while they try to look like they’re not interested in male class members.

75% haven’t read the assignment guidelines carefully before they begin, 20% don’t show any sign of having read them at all, and a full 93% do not begin until the day before the assignment is due. The whole enterprise is, for a professor who cares about what s/he is doing, a repeating exercise in mass passive-agression. Grading is Groundhog Day.


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3 Responses

  1. Josh R. says:

    Read that. I couldn’t find a better copy of it on the internet, but it’s Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: as Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students.” I hope the title, in itself, demonstrates the relevance to your blog entry.

  2. Whitney says:

    Yeah, it could be worse though. It could be K-12. At least with college kids there is a certain amount that you can say “Your problem, grow up and pay attention.” You can’t do that with children. I don’t know, I’m also in that transition period out of the college mindset where I don’t precisely recall what I was like. I know that there were times that I skipped class or wasn’t paying as much attention as I should but for some reason my actual remembrance of such things is hazy and my identity is that of a responsible student. It’s rather strange how we remember things.

    I’m sorry that you got negative comments from your student. That is one reason why I always take so much time filling out those forms. They really do matter at PLU. Sometimes that is really nice because it is my one opportunity to have control over quality education. In general I would give good reviews ranging from slightly above neutral to singing praises.

    Once in a blue moon I would give bad reviews. I think it only happened 3 times that I can recall. Usually I will have tried to address my issues with the professor and she (yes I think they were all female) would brush it off. Also, all 3 times she did not provide evidence the entire semester that she actually knew what she was talking about within her area of expertise. One of them was an upper division class that highschool students would have found shallow and patronizing. One of them would not answer questions that I asked but take key words, make her own question, answer that and skirt the issue entirely. The first one was during my first semester. She was antagonistic with me the entire semester, contradictory within the context of the subject of study, and had completely illegible handwriting that she made no attempts to accommodate for when asked.

    I’m actually thinking of writing a letter to the Provost and describing in detail the professors that made the biggest difference in my education. There are several that I don’t think I had enough room to sing the praises I wanted to. It would probably get back to them and bring a smile to their faces. I should do that.

    Y’know, one of these days my house should have you over and we should hang out. I miss having classes from you. Even the one I slacked on and failed.

  1. December 29, 2009

    […] As I was saying, grading is the worst part of being a professor. That’s when the brutal reality sets in (for you the professor) that an alarming percentage of students, despite (of in spite of) your best efforts, haven’t been paying much attention to anything you’re written, said, or done. […]