Post Academic

Don’t let teaching mess with your head (Part 2 of a series)

"Barrio Juroca en Reus, Tarragona, España/Spain" by Estruch (Public Domain)

Yesterday, I covered some of the things that make me mad when I’m teaching, mostly how classroom interactions with students can make me go Hulk.  Today, I discuss how a few bad classes–with a few bad apples–can really bring you down and make you feel awful about humanity, particularly yourself!  It really is a vicious circle: You take a poorly executed lesson plan home with you, let it stew, then those bad vibes and that cloud over your head go back with you to the classroom, and so on and so on…Somehow, you’ve just got to break the cycle and take a deep breath.

Here’s some more stuff that I get worked up about teaching…

I’m angry when I feel like a grumpy old man: Do you ever chalk things up to “generational difference” as a defense mechanism to explain away you might not be doing a particularly great job of teaching?  Or get in the mode of saying, “When I was in college, [fill in the blank]”, after teaching a class that you stayed up late to prepare, only to notice your students web surfing even more than normal?  Or how the thought that, “These kids have no respect!”, go through your mind in the middle of executing your lesson plan, only to have the whole class go off the rails because you get too fixated on that students texting right in front of you, as if it didn’t matter whether you saw it or not?  If you have, like me, take a step back, a deep breath, and tell yourself that you don’t need to let what’s left of your own youth go to waste becoming a grumpy old man before your time.

Continued, below the fold…


A reason for becoming post-academic: Being “reassigned” mid-semester

The latest brouhaha making the rounds online involves the dismissal of Dominique G. Homberger from the intro-level biology course she was teaching at LSU–mid-semester!  As the story goes (check out this account on Inside Higher Ed), students complained that Homberger was too harsh a grader, since she gave exams that included 10-option multiple-choice tests and had failed and caused to drop 90% of the course as of the middle of the semester.  Sure, she sounds like a tough teacher, maybe unreasonably so, but the response seemed to be more  unreasonable: Disrupt the course midway through.  Here’s how Dean Kevin Carman explained the situation, via Inside Higher Ed:

“The class in question is an entry-level biology class for non-science majors, and, at mid-term, more than 90 percent of the students in Dr. Homberger’s class were failing or had dropped the class. The extreme nature of the grading raised a concern, and we felt it was important to take some action to ensure that our students receive a rigorous, but fair, education. Professor Homberger is not being penalized in any way; her salary has not been decreased nor has any aspect of her appointment been changed.”

According to Homberger, admin gave her no warning that she might be “reassigned” from the course before she was.  The only complaint she heard was–get this–that there were “too many facts” on the exams.  Part of the reasoning for the low grades at the beginning of the term, as the professor would have it, was that it would give students a kick in the pants to improve as the term went on.  Homberger also claims that subsequent grades in the class had improved.

Whether or not Homberger’s methods seem too extreme, what this story reflects is a change in student culture that is either the cause and/or result of a Rate My Professors mentality.  Not to be too curmudgeonly old-school here, but there are enough students these days who go to class as consumers to make it seem like the inmates are running the asylum sometimes.  If an instructor doesn’t measure up to some students’ expectations, whether it’s in terms of grades or more superficial matters, they get savaged in a public forum.  If the teacher begins to kowtow to these student “concerns,” it can begin to affect the course material they teach–don’t be controversial or don’t offer too many facts–and the kind of inflated grades they give.  And it certainly doesn’t help that official evals have begun to resemble RMP, since they have gone online.

Lest it seem that I’m a goo-goo or some kind of “pure” academia apologist, I’m not.  Nor was I an ideal student myself, even though I was a good student.  Sure, I grumbled about grades and wasn’t entirely enamored of all my professors and TA’s, but I never ever complained once about a grade.  You know why?  Because the teacher is the teacher, and the student is the student.  Now please excuse me so that I can go find a “Get off my lawn” sign.

Who Really Failed? [Inside Higher Ed]

Professors Outraged by Admin Decision [The Daily Reveille (LSU)]

Removal of Professor Causes Furor [The Chronicle of Higher Education]

“LSU Flags” by JustDog from Wikimedia Commons, public domain


Since we’re on a streak of silly right now, I figure it would be a good time for the second installment of “Footnotes.”  Every once in a while, we’ll collect some stories out there on the Interwebs that might be very tangentially pertinent to our interests in academia and jobs, but centrally relevant to our websurfing.

1. We covered the phenomenon of Rate My Professors a few weeks ago, with this link to RMP’s “best” professors of 2009 list.  The Washington Post just tracked down the winner, Kimberly DuVall-Early of James Madison U.

2. This year’s most famous prospective grad student has to be James Franco, who has been accepted to Yale’s English Ph.D. program–have any prospectives crossed his path on any campus visits?  You can recommence with in-class sleeping jokes, which, aside from the admirable novelty factor, is what Franco’s forays into academia are best-known for.  (h/t to reader and amateur gossip blogger Patty)

3. This is an oldie-but-goodie about grad school from Stuff White People Like, which I came across as one of those WordPress randomly generated links.  It might be funny, but it’s also pretty dead on, especially how the cultural capital ascribed to critical theory has very few practical applications.

4. Huffington Post’s “College” section has another one of those fancy photo polls, this one of the most expensive schools in the country.  The “winner”: Sarah Lawrence College at $54,410(!)/year.

5. The music blog Stereogum has this great ongoing feature called “Quit Your Day Job”, which checks in with up-and-coming bands to see what they do to get by on the way to (hopefully) making it big.  Actually, the indie rock life doesn’t sound so different from grad school, in that aspiring rockers and students hafta work extra jobs to get to the big payoff that might never come.

“Palo Alto High School, CA, graduate James Franco visits Paly for a day of observation” by Amin Ronaghi from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

“Sign at Sarah Lawrence” by SadieLou from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

Last week on Post Academic (3/14-3/20)

If you’re waiting to watch the House vote on health reform coming some time  today, why don’t you check out what you might have missed last week on Post Academic?  Besides the fun stuff on what (not) to wear, March Madness, and Spring Break that’s still on the home page, here’s what else we covered:

* Caroline tries to buck up prospective grad students who might not be getting great news about their applications.  Arnold does the same for jobseekers who haven’t gotten the results they’ve been hoping for.

* Caroline looks at more broke-ass schools and more broke-ass folks.

* Arnold learns that the NY Times figured out that there’s this Rate My Professors thingy.

As seen in The New York Times: Rate My Professors

Posted in Absurdities,The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on March 17, 2010
Tags: , ,

Last weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a humorous piece on Rate My Professors that probably would’ve been more timely in, like, 2002 or earlier, coming to the conclusion that the dishy site represents an alternate reality.  Writes Virginia Heffernan, “like many online experiments, Rate My Professors has turned out to be a companion to nothing. It is its own world.”  Yet at the same time the article (rightly) suggests that no students should determine anything important according to RMP, it acknowledges that the site does hold sway over the decisions students make on what classes to take and what to avoid.  In effect, the NYT figures the best way to treat RMP is to read it like fan fiction, as Heffernan suggests: “I know only the figures they cut on Rate My Professors, where they might as well be characters in novels.”

While the Times‘ piece is annoying in that it publicizes Rate My Professors at all and makes it sound kinda fun to boot, it probably conveys the same disdainful, above-it-all attitude towards RMP that most of us would–especially if we have no chili peppers.  And certainly, it’s easy to try and poke holes into the methodology of RMP’s madness: one important point that The Paper of Record doesn’t mention is that RMP encourages extremes, since who would really want to comment unless you had an axe to grind or the hots for teacher?  There are definitely some attempts at objectivity at RMP, but I’m doubting most busy college kids are logging on to give lukewarm fair-to-good assessments.  RMP basically gives the megaphone to the students who need it the least, the good know-it-alls and the bad know-it-alls who already have your attention as a teacher anyway.

So we all may think that the best approach to RMP is not to take it too seriously, but, then again, academics aren’t always ones to laugh at themselves without reservations.  And even if we like to brush off RMP in some of the same ways the NYT piece does, it probably doesn’t only represent some kind of virtual reality, but does have some impact on the way we teach and the way students approach learning, at a personal level and in the larger scheme of things.  As the Times aptly points out, it nurtures “the ‘attitude of calm-consumer expertise’ in contemporary students, who regularly rate everything from purchases to people” in both students and faculty.  (Maybe even worse than RMP is that universities are rated on Yelp, like Pinkberry or something!)   And now that schools (or at least UC Irvine) are switching to official class evals that conducted online, the RMP culture of complaint and hotness is being replicated to some degree in evaluations that could have a real impact on faculty and their careers.  That’s not to say I’m an education purist and I’m not against the idea of students being consumers and acting on it, since college is likely any student’s biggest expense.  But the issue should be whether they are good consumers who want to find out if their prof or TA shows up on time and is professional or bad consumers who want to rationalize their bad grades/inattention and try to Toyota recall as many others as they can along the way.

Still, even if we were to wish that Rate My Professors could really be banished to “its own world,” as the NYT deems it to be, it probably has a much greater influence than any of us old-school types would want to admit.  How do you take Rate My Professors, with a grain of salt or just a little too personally?  Has it changed the way your students think about you, you think about your students, and the way you teach, as you scan the lecture hall for students who gave you the stunned “blue face” ratings?  Or is it really just a newfangled way of expressing age-old sentiments we might’ve had when we were in the same position that our students are now?

The Medium: The Prof Stuff [NY Times Magazine, 3/14/2010]

Top Professors Lists [Rate My Professors] — Yes, I am linking this, in spite of my better judgment…