Thursday, January 19, 2012

Evaluations and syllabus revamping

I had all kinds of bad physical feelings today: I resolved this morning that I need to man up and review my students' evaluations of me, which I've been avoiding.  One way or another, I need to know what's in those documents, since they will factor into my job hunt in a few different ways.  After fighting off the very real urge to have a whiskey first, I sat down after lunch and downloaded them all.

I'm kind of shocked to see how positive these evaluations are, all in all.  Class by class, my students were remarkably high graders on every metric that the university uses.  Thankfully, this seems to be due to the tendency of the disgruntled students to chuck the survey altogether, and of the happy students to effuse about their success and whatever they perceive to be my role in it.  The only class that seemed generally less contented was, of course, the one composed primarily of lost souls who scored way below their peers in my other classes.  Can't say I'm surprised to see that I didn't rate quite as highly with them.

The critiques my students gave ranged from the totally absurd – one in particular seemed aggravated that attending class was a needful part of the course – to the dead-on accurate, which was generally the suggestion that I chill out a bit.  I'm never going to be Zen master-mellow, but I can recognize that the students are right that I tend to come down harshly on people who screw up.  I need to remember that those who screw up will be penalized for it in their grades, and that attempting to goad them into getting it together comes across as shaming and counter-productive.  Let the grades tell them the story, let the grades tell them the story.  I can do that, I think.

I've also thinned out the readings, over my instinctive objections.  Some of the readings I tried last semester are simply too hard to comprehend without more prior knowledge (or – sigh – better reading skills), and I'll be able to communicate the material better by interactive lecturing than by making them read.  Where I could, I also trimmed the lengths of the readings I kept.  No doubt I will always get complaints on evaluations that there was too much reading, but I'm hardened to that: way too many students come to college with the apparent belief that reading should not be required at all.  I've made my peace with the reality that some students will skim, and some will skip a reading completely, and they may even have good reasons for doing that, but all of this does not mean I shouldn't assign a useful reading anyway.

On the other hand, something I plan to try to avoid a bit of this is to hand out the syllabus in hard copy.  Last semester, since I had a huge number of students to deal with, I decided to just upload the syllabus to Blackboard and let them download at will.  This led even some smart, hard-working students to give into the temptation not to read the syllabus at all.  I'm hoping that sticking a copy under their noses will make them a little more aware of what awaits them.  (And, in a perfect world, encourage the real slackers to drop during the first week.)

Finally, I'm also planning to spend part of the first week walking students through how one reads in college, and how one takes notes on that reading.  I figured out way too late in the game last time that most of them didn't know these study skills at all, and I had to tell them on an individual basis, which meant that only the students who came to my office hours ever heard that talk.  Clearly, I need to take the bull by the horns here.

I have some other issues to deal with for my new class, Pseudology of Research Area.  This one will be a brand-new experience for me all the way around, and I'm a little freaked out about not screwing it up.  I never even TA'd for an upper-division course, and now I have a course of my own and a TA.  Good heavens, how will this work out?  I settled on what I think – I'm probably wrong, but whatever – is a really light, doable reading schedule for the syllabus, one which will let us read two full books closely, and take in a bunch of articles and, depending on how crazy I feel, a little multimedia.  My enrollment is all over the place, so I have no gauge of how this will pan out.  Most of the registered students are pseudology majors, but a fair minority are not, and many of those are only sophomores — and this is an upper-division course.

One might ask how or why such students could even register for my course.  The answer is that, for some politicky purposes that I hope will eventually serve someone's interests (preferably mine), I was not permitted to impose any prerequisites on registration.  I'm not actually certain that I won't end up having a frosh or two.  It's weird, but as long as registration doesn't go much higher than it already is, I'll be content.  Ideally, this class would function as a smallish round-table seminar, and we're already on the hefty side of that.  If a few more students sign up, I'll have too large a class for my preferred style of interaction, and the course will necessarily skew more toward lectures and less toward student-to-student interactions.

To combat this, insofar as I can, I've arranged for the first few readings to be on the harder, theory-oriented side of things.  That, plus a few early quizzes, ought to clue in the idler students that they need to, in the words of Junior Soprano, "come heavy or not at all."*

*In the metaphorical sense ONLY.  Don't even get me started on the topic of concealed firearms on college campuses.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure your pseudology of pseudoism class will be snazzy. Hey, if this is pseudology, what department/discipline would be "realology" then? Hmm.

    Not only do I still hand out all the syllabi in hard copy, over my department's environmentalism objections, I make them all read it along with me. First day sucks, but I try to model as much as I can them referring to and reading the syllabus --- I wrote all that crap for a reason, right?

    And please keep holding the line on this wild and crazy idea that you need to do all the reading, and carefully, for classes. The more people who cave on that idea over in other departments make my job teaching the lit surveys that much harder.