Saturday, August 27, 2011

First week of classes

I have now survived my first week of teaching as a titled professor.  It's not so bad, for the most part.  There are a few little irritations, but they're nothing I can't handle.  The worst is seasonal in nature: it's goddamn hot and humid here in Ghosttown.  Walking from building to building, as I must each class day, is unpleasant.  But, as Haphazard Musings pointed out to me, this will soon seem delightful, once the summertime intensity cools off and we settle into whatever passes for autumn here.

The most unexpected aspect of my classes for me is how much the character of the class seems to be determined by the time slot.  My early morning class?  A little foggy while the caffeine does its job, but they're game to try their best.  My noontime class?  A bunch of zombies, most of them.  My afternoon classes fall somewhere in between those extremes, and I haven't worked out the finer details yet.  People can still add and drop through next week, albeit with less ease, so things may be fluid for a while.

I am amazed at how little common sense college students have.  My syllabus has a huge wealth of information on it about how the class is structured, things they need to do, etc.  And they bring the dumbest fucking questions to me, all of which reveal that they haven't clapped eyes on the syllabus at all.  No, the course reader has not sold out — you went to the wrong place to buy it.  No, I will not tell you what the readings for next class session are, because you ought to know already.  It's not some goddamn state secret.  The statistics tracking in Blackboard clues me in that a little over half of the zombie class hadn't even downloaded their syllabus by Friday.  How on earth do they expect to do anything?  No wonder my pals from grad school are always ranting "read your fucking syllabus!" on FB. 

My first impressions of my students is that they, as a rule, not terribly well educated.  Based on accumulated data about public education in this state, that's hardly a surprise.  Apparently, it's in the running for Dumbest State in the Union*.  That's a harsh idea to process, one which would rankle me to no end if I were from here.  On the other hand, most of them give me the impression that they are willing to learn, if I can show them how to go about it.  I don't know how many are willing to put in the effort for close reading, but I guess I'll find out.  I tried to emphasize that skimming will get them nowhere, and they might have to – gasp! – read things twice in order to understand them thoroughly.  I'm sure a lot of them will blow this off and, consequently, do poorly in class, but I'm starting to accept the idea that all I can do is provide good advice for how to succeed in this class, and then let them make their own mistakes. 

It's eternally frustrating to witness – and participate in? – the phenomenon that Dr. Crazy and many others have discussed, the structural discouragement of working-class kids in college.  I can see it right away: the kids who look uncomfortable among their middle- and upper-class peers, the ones who seem not to understand anything about high-level study skills, the ones whose body language communicates to me that they want to do their best, but they just don't know how in this environment.  Most of them – hell, most of my students in general, more likely than not – could easily have gotten to Ghosttown U. by coasting through K-12.  When the public educational standards are really low, a smart kid can figure out pretty fast how to sail through with minimal effort, and look super-smart and accomplished to boot. 

But pseudology isn't a subject they would have encountered in school before, and lord knows that I am not the kind of teacher that they have probably gotten used to dealing with.  I know that a bunch of my students, and not just the ones from the lower socioeconomic strata, are going to hit the rocks as soon as the first evaluative assignment comes, but relatively few of them will heed my call to come to my office hours and ask for help.  They are used to hiding from teachers when they don't have to see them.  A few of them will shut down when they see a low grade, perceiving it as confirmation of their fears that they don't belong there.  They'll stop coming to class, and then they'll drift away from college altogether. 

It angers me that they come in with the idea in mind that their peers kinda-sorta don't even want them there, and that this is their starting point.  I want to tell them that the best way to show up their snooty, preppy classmates – who are no brighter than they, but have been trained and conditioned to succeed in both classroom and in elite social situations – is to kick ass at their studies and come out of college prepared to do something better than drift back to their little hometowns and do whatever Mom and Dad did for a living.  But, for a host of reasons, this is not practical to tell them.  Sigh.  I really hope at least a few start coming to my office hours after the first assignment, when they see the difference between what I expect and what they were prepared to produce.

On another note, I made the choice to forbid all electronic devices in my classes.  These students are going to have enough trouble concentrating without dicking around on Facebook and shopping online.  While I'm not going to let myself get sucked into policing over teaching, I have found that this ban has forced me to pay more attention to people who seem to be playing with smartphones in class.  One of them definitely was, because zi didn't listen to me or read the syllabus.  The rest, though, weren't — they were just doing other stupid shit that caused them to lower their eyes and hands toward crotch level.  This has brought into focus for me just how much college-aged dudes pay attention to their crotches, in one form or another.  Five minutes adjusting your belt buckle?  Obsessively trying to scratch out a stain at the bottom of your t-shirt?  Guys, it can wait.  Was I this crotch-focused when I was eighteen?  I'd like to think not.  I mean, if nothing else, I had enough sense not to give the impression that I was literally jacking off in class.  (We had no smartphones back in the dark ages, so there was only one reasonable assumption to draw about such behavior then.)  Clearly, I need to go Zen about delivering my lecture to the students who are looking at me, and tuning out the fuck-ups who have drifted back to their junk.

*That's not the formal designation for the statistic, but you get the idea.


  1. "I want to tell them that the best way to show up their snooty, preppy classmates – who are no brighter than they, but have been trained and conditioned to succeed in both classroom and in elite social situations – is to kick ass at their studies and come out of college prepared to do something better than drift back to their little hometowns and do whatever Mom and Dad did for a living. But, for a host of reasons, this is not practical to tell them."

    Maybe don't tell them this in these exact words, but you can communicate this to them. And you can get them to come to your office - just say that you won't return any papers below a C unless they make an appointment with you in your office. (You can do a sign-up sheet, and you can plan to meet with each for only like 5-10 minutes - this doesn't have to be lengthy, but if you want students to come to your office, the best way is to force some students to your office, and then the word will get around that it's worth doing, even for those whom you don't require to come. And the ones who are unreachable will just drop with that requirement rather than pick up their papers. And you shouldn't feel bad about that - you can't reach them all.)

  2. What a week. I hope it gets better -- cooler at least. Not sure what you're teaching, but my experience is that students don't read the syllabus unless you go through it the first day. Also, I have never had a successful lecture class. Discussion works better for the students. And I've also found that if they won't talk in class that a little group work goes a long way toward rectifying that. Good luck!

  3. @Dr. Crazy: Yeah, I know, I can't reach all of them, and it's just sanity-busting to try. I may experiment with your suggestion, although in my case it will have to be exams rather than papers, which means that I might not get them into my office until it is already Too Late To Fix. But we'll see.

    @Fie: I did go through the syllabus on the first day!! What the hell is wrong with these people that they don't even have the damn brains to download the central organizational document of the entire class during the first week? Does it all go in one ear and out the other? As for group work, I've found it a lost cause: pseudology requires a baseline of knowledge just to do small-scale group work, and since everything the students think they know is about to be challenged by the material, they can't be trusted to do it right. They reliably put everything through the blender of their cockeyed understandings of reality. Lectures it must be for the time being.

  4. Lots of short quizzes are great for 1) sending the warning shots across their bow before things are Too Late to Fix, 2) encouraging students to actually do the reading and thus be more likely to participate in class, and 3)getting some students to discover this class is not for them and have them drop.

    Good luck!