Sunday, September 18, 2011

Deadwood students

I'm having trouble getting my mind around how my students think.  On a superficial note, I had to throw out one from class, and issue a stern warning to another about not using cell phones in class.  (I couldn't quite see for sure what the second student was doing until class ended, although she kept looking down to do something in her lap.)  I guess students have always tried to get away with things they know are forbidden, and they always think they can avoid getting caught.  It irritates me that they refuse to understand that using their cell phones in class is disrespectful, but I freely acknowledge that this is partly my own ego talking: they are disrespecting me much more than their fellow students, especially when they oh-so-cleverly sit in the back row and then tack back and forth between looking at me and the iPhones in their laps.  And, as we all learn at one point or another, the professor's ego is largely an expendable item in good classes.

I'm more perplexed by the culture of ignorance that seems to suffuse Ghosttown U.  Most of my students seem totally unmoved by my explicit warning that they failed the first quiz because they didn't know what they were doing, and my concomitant offer to explain all of this to them if they came to my office hours.  I understand why the students who hacked out a good (or at least passing) grade might skip this; I probably would have done the same as a freshman.  But failing?  I'd have been unable to get a decent night's sleep until I found out exactly how I had managed to bomb something like that.  It seems that most of my students are literally not bothered by the thought of failing.  WTF?

I guess my colleagues warned me about this, but I didn't fully grasp the scope of the phenomenon.  It's no secret that education in this entire state sucks the dog's balls, so I expected to see a lot of unprepared students who needed to be brought up to speed pronto.  But I hadn't realized how many of that bunch would be so fatalistic, or accepting, or just plain apathetic that they wouldn't bother to do anything about a class that they had begun to fail by the third week.  To my mind, that first quiz was a wake-up call, a warning siren, a fire under the ass.  To them, it seems to have meant...nothing.  (The number of students who sought me out to discuss the quiz were perhaps a quarter of the total.  Maybe less.)

Trying to fathom how or why a student would approach college in this way feels like staring into the abyss: existentially terrifying.  In a way, it even makes me nostalgic for the previous bane of my pedagogical existence, the grade-grubbers.  Haphazard Musings has a post up now about these and other hobgoblins of her classes, and I am envious of her conclusion that the real problem students are only "a small handful" of the total.  In my case, it seems that only a small handful give a flying fuck about whether or not they fail out of college.


  1. First, repeat after me: "My students are not the student I was. Most students are not the student I was." Think about it: you are the sort of student who thought going on to get a Ph.D. was a great idea. 99% of the world does not share this view.

    Second, they don't actually think they will fail out of college. They just figure that they'll study harder next time, or that you're just an ass, or that the first failing grade was a "fluke."

    Third, if you want them to come see you, require them to come see you. Don't assign a grade to anybody below a C next time. Just write across the top, "you must make an appointment and meet with me. Otherwise you will receive a zero for this quiz/assignment/whatever. If you choose not to meet with me, I recommend that you withdraw from this course." An offer to meet or an invitation to meet is not something they read as a necessary thing to do. If you think it's necessary, make it necessary.

    I don't say all of this to discount how demoralizing this type of student is, how tough it is to transition into this sort of teaching situation, especially when you're used to something else. I spent about my first two years at my institution feeling demoralized. But you have a choice here: teach the students you have, or teach the students you wish you had. And if you choose the latter, you're going to spend a lot of the time feeling like crap. Life's too short, friend.

    Here's the thing: I know you're feeling badly because you care. But *you* feeling badly doesn't really result in them learning more. And them learning more - even if it's not as much as you think they should be learning - will make you feel better, and it will be better for them, too.

  2. Oh, and a couple of other things.

    re: cell phones, saying "this is disrespectful" I've found produces no results. It just makes them think you're a fuddy-duddy who doesn't understand them. And kicking them out because of the disrespect doesn't change that view. I have a colleague whose technology policy is that if she catches them texting or if their phone rings they have to dance in front of the class for one minute. One student dances each semester, and it's funny, and it eliminates the problem. I choose another tack: I stand over them and stare for about a minute until they blush and apologize. Basically, both of us make the point that it's distracting for US, and thus it stops us from being able to teach EVERYBODY. But we don't kick people out, and we don't make a big deal out of it outside of the moment that it distracts us. You might also add in a joky thing that students don't want their profs to think that they're doing some secret business in their laps... that it sends the wrong message :) Everybody laughs, and this does wonders to stop the behavior.

    re: the "culture of ignorance," if you look for ignorance and expect it, that is what you will see. If you look for excellence, you still might see ignorance, but you are more likely to inspire those who are capable of excellence to produce it. If they think that you think they are ignorant, they will prove you right.

  3. Is your class a required class? Or one of a choice to fill a requirement? Cause I have students who not only are failing my Stripey Class, but this is the second or third time they are failing it. I don't know why someone would commit to a class they absolutely hated and found pointless *again* just because they already have the book and have sat through about half the lectures the first time around, but it's their choice I guess.

    I'm doing more homework and quizzes this time around, which is absolutely burying me in crap, but I hope I will actually see improvement at some point in the term.

    You could always try instituting daily quizzes and tell them you'll stop quizzing them if their scores go up. I've also found my students are destressingly made happy by worksheets and fill in the blank type stuff they can hold on to during lecture. On the one hand, it makes the class feel like the shittiest parts of high school, on the other, I am sorta modeling the whole take-notes-while-you-read-and-listen-to-lecture thing ... which the students should know about already. Sigh.

  4. I agree with Dr. Crazy. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, as the song goes. It's hard for eggheads like us to understand them, because these aren't the people going on to do much of anything educationally.

    In the end, you can't care more about their education than they do. I like Sis's idea of quizzes. Just keep doing it until they realize that they are accountable and will actually fail. Maybe they just thing you're bluffing this early on in the semester. I say call them on that shit, posthaste.

  5. Love Dr. Crazy's comments.

    And 1/4 of your students coming to see you when it isn't required is a lot!

    Also, my DH has been having the best semester ever (which isn't saying much) after implementing a lot of techniques (tactics really) from Doug Lemov's book on teaching K-12 students. They honestly do need to be told to do things like take notes.

  6. @Dr. Crazy: Seriously, what would I do without you? I really need to get my head into the game I'm in, rather than the one I come out of. I really like the idea of forcing them to talk to me. I (thought I) tried this before, but I recognize now that I watered down this idea when you suggested it last time: I told them they would have to come to my office to learn how they scored what they got, but the raw numbers were known to them without that. In hindsight, I see this was a mistake on my part.

    I'll work on not being demoralized by the atmosphere. I know that coming across as depressed and disappointed in my students will not encourage them. It's really hard to keep those feelings out of mind. But, since that could make almost any student shut down defensively, I guess I have to think positively. If you have any meditation exercises for such a scenario, I'm all ears!

    @Sis: This class isn't required, but fulfills the social science requirement, so there are tons of students with very little interest in the subject. I couldn't bear to assign any more quizzes than I already have on my syllabus. When would I do anything other than grade? The number I already have budgeted really should serve to keep them hopping, if they are willing to work at all, and if I implement Dr. Crazy's idea of yanking all the marginal students into my office to talk about their study skills and habits.

    @Hap: Now I have that damn song in my head.

    @N&M: You mean I should rejoice that a quarter of my students showed up to discuss their quizzes? Very well, I rejoice! (I'll take what I can get.)

    The note-taking thing is really crucial, I think. Almost none of the students who came to my office hours took notes regularly, if at all. It was clearly a novel idea to them that one might write notes about a book one was reading. Some of them took it hard – after all, it's more work and time commitment for them, if they do it right – but some of them looked like the proverbial light bulb had turned on over their heads. I may have to bring this up in class earlier on, rather than just do it one-on-one.

  7. It took a long time for me not to be offended by students being idiots. But now? Meh. I had three students not turn in papers for the first essay. I am giving them Fs and being thankful that I have less grading to do.

    I'm more offended when people fall asleep in class. I mean, hell, I probably get just as little sleep as the average college student. But I have to be awake for class. So should they. It's usually just one person, so I know it's not that the class is 100% boring. But still, I find it very distracting. I did have to stop class to tell someone to get off their cell phone (texting) the other day. I think he was embarrassed. I hope it doesn't happen again.

    But yeah - these students aren't going to be PhDs in anything. It's hard to relate to them sometimes because of that. I just try to meet them where they are and then have high expectations for the rest of the semester. It's a delicate balance.

    has changed DH's teaching life! Check it out of the library. :)

  9. I fell asleep in class several times in college. Even though I really liked college. I was just super-tired. Probably from staying up all night talking about Nietzsche.

    Ditto Dr. Crazy's comments in a big way. Also, I recommend a Donald Barthelme essay, "Inventing the University," if you haven't run into it before. Also some Mina Shaughnessy. Really changed my attitude towards teaching basic writing to students.

  10. I read a book this summer called Student Engagement Techniques, and another one for teaching writing and engagement techniques --- they had some stuff I found interesting that might help, but I couldn't point you to specific examples and chapters off the top of my head (turned it back in).

    Have you looked up "how to take notes during a lecture" or "how to take notes on a college textbook" on one of those Student Academic Success Centers thingies? Or does your tutoring center do any of those types of exercises? Maybe you could somehow model some of that for the students or show them a good and bad example. I have a model "how to write a paper about a poem" type of thing that I show them and then make them do a paper and oddly, it made my grades more divergent --- I can really see the difference between the ones who are trying and effing it up and the ones who don't give a shit and tell me about King Elizabeth the First, and those I just give a big fat F to and move on. Or maybe it's that I'm doing more yoga and am more zen this year. Dunno.

  11. A teacher I know said that a young woman TOOK A PHONE CALL DURING HIS CLASS.
    He stopped lecturing and stood there with his hands on his hips, staring at her. She suddenly realized what she was doing, hung up and started apologizing.
    Teacher: "Are you done?"
    Student: mumble, sorry, blushes
    Teacher: "Because I don't want to hold you up from anything important. We'll all wait until you're through."
    Me, I would have been tempted to go over and snatch the phone out of her hand and say, "Could she call you back? She's in the middle of a class right now." And then hang up, and go put the phone in my briefcase until the end of class -- just long enough for her to be terrified that she wasn't going to get the phone back.