Sunday, October 9, 2011

Rigor, reason, and reality

Continuing a bloggy conversation that Dr. Crazy started this past week, I've been doing a lot of thinking about, well, look at the title of this post.  I've been bitching and moaning for weeks now about my disappointing students, and some blogging colleagues have offered various suggestions for getting a handle on my anger and frustration, and for finding more useful ways to explain information to students.  In the meat world, some colleagues and I have also been commiserating about all this, particularly those of us who are all new hires at Ghosttown U.

From one angle, at least, I feel a lot better than I did before: I have learned that the students' evaluative narratives count for precious little towards my future job prospects.  Thus, I don't have to fret before bed each night that I won't get another job because my students here, irked at being made to think hard, are going to write "OMG wurst prof evar, to hard, donot take any classes with this jerk!"

And on my end of things, I am making my peace with the fact that some of my expectations for my students here were simply too high, and I will have to adjust them as much as I am able within the confines of the course requirements, and fix them more fully in future semesters.  I've heard universal exclamations from my newly hired colleagues here that the students at Ghosttown U. cannot handle the same level of work that students at a wide variety of other big state universities could do.  My former students at Dear Old University are but one example of this phenomenon: I was at a collegial party last evening, and I lost track of how many different state universities were mentioned in exactly the same way.  They could handle what Ghosttown U. students cannot.

Obviously, this means that I have more work to do on my syllabi than I wanted, but that's the way it is.  Challenging and pushing my students is one thing, but it's a kind of cruelty to set them up for failure by presenting them with reading material that, by all accounts, they cannot yet understand at all.  In practice, this means that I will need to ditch two or three readings on my current syllabus that aren't working out: students come to class without having really tried to read, because they are dead certain that they cannot do it.  As pathetic as that sounds, that's the truth.  The few super-bright students in my classes will not be harmed by not reading these things; they'll likely encounter them later, as they qualify for and seek out successively harder, more ambitious classes.  I'm teaching an intro course, after all.  It also means I have to lower my expectations for one or two readings this semester: the students will suffer with them, not get them at all, and give up.  And, as I remain aware, I do not want them to give up if they are really trying in the first place.  I don't grade primarily on effort, but I pay a lot of attention to effort when looking for ways to engage them.

That's not to say that I'm not going to challenge my students at all, and just pat them on the head for spelling their own names right.  The challenges will continue.  But I'm developing a sense of where the boundary lies between "tough but possible" and "impossibly tough" for the majority of my students. 

I'm also going to fiddle with the current syllabus a bit – it ain't no legal contract, after all – and institute some pop quizzes on the readings.  I'll have to go easy on this in practice, lest I simply demoralize them with the sense of constant testing.  But I'm seeing even some of my better students acting on the belief that it's okay for them to slide on some days.  I'm okay with them struggling with the readings, but not with neglecting them.  I thought that the pace of the standard quizzes would keep them current, but I was wrong.  Too many of the students assume that they don't have to read if I haven't expressly warned them of a coming evaluative assignment.  Like I said, part of the problem is that I overloaded them with reading material that they find too difficult, but another part is that they think that they only have to read before quizzes and tests.  Well, we'll see what happens when they learn that any day (...or every day?...) can be Quiz Day.  

As for not being heartsick and agonized to behold the continuing downward spiral of public education in this state...well, I'll have to toughen up about that.  In some ways, it just sucks for my students that they have run into a professor who runs a tougher class than some others do, and who thinks that even an intro-level class should make students sweat a little.  But I'm going to try very hard to demonstrate to them that, in some ways, this is not only good for them, but will feel good, too.


  1. Tell them that the best gen eds are like a rigorous workout that prepares them for success with the greater challenges of upper level courses in their majors.

  2. Thanks, Brian, and welcome! I've already been trying out football metaphors on them, with very limited success. I sense that the greater challenges of future years of college hold no resonance for my students. I think I'll have to hit upon something more immediate to their worldview.