Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Grading drives me to drink

NB: This blog is FERPA-compliant.  No small animals or cute large animals were harmed in the making of this post.  Don't ask about the big ugly ones, though.

Except for a few stragglers who may or may not provide me with acceptable excuses for make-up quizzes, I have graded all of my students' quizzes this weekend.  The scores, to be frank, suck.  I mean, damn.  I've never seen such a bottom-heavy grade distribution, across every class.  One the one hand, I kind of expected this, and intended the quiz as a diagnostic both for myself, and for them, to let them know that they'd have to take the progression of readings and assignments a lot more seriously than they seemed to believe necessary.  (Sure as hell hope that works!)  On the other hand, I was expecting the bulk of the grades to fall somewhere in the C range, not all the way down at F.  If anything, my students appear to have inverted the bell curve — the second largest group was the As.  Bizarre. 

So now I'm a little anxious about what people (my students, my colleagues, my chair, even?) will say about all this.  Am I really so draconian that most of my students were bound to fail?  I really don't feel like that — from my perspective, I've been telegraphing to them exactly what they need to do to excel, and they just stared back at me in a stupor.  I've tallied up more failing grades than all other grades combined.  How can that be normal?

...Is that normal at Ghosttown U.?  Or am I the outlier, the deviant, for expecting students to perform at minimal college level?  Hmm.

Naturally, I'm drinking now.  Apropos of Dr. Crazy's post about self-medication, I am choosing to massage my aching brain and nerves by thinking about things I like to drink.  So, along with my semi-rhetorical lamentations about grading, I'll ask my readership: what do you like to drink as a balm for your academic woes?  I have been known to indulge in whisky, wine, beer, tequila, and rum, and lately I've even discovered a cocktail at my favorite local bar that makes gin palatable for me.  Tonight's balm is a so-so pinot noir, since all the rain has made it feel somewhat chilly for the hefeweizen in my fridge.  If things really go off the rails, I also have a bottle of rye in the house at present.


  1. If I'm drinking to get drunk: Jack and Coke. If I'm drinking casually: wine of some sort. I like the taste of red wines better than white wines, but I get terrible hangovers from the former, but not the latter. Weird.

    Anyway - I think that treating this as a diagnostic is a good idea. Temperature taking in a class is really necessary because -- as much as we'd like to think we can really plan for a whole semester -- we don't really know what the students need until we meet them and can assess something they've done. It's hell when your expectations are not met initially. But you just have to adjust as needed. Hell, 3/4 of teaching is improvisation, ya know?

  2. For what it's worth, I don't think your grade distribution on a first quiz in the first weeks of school is all that weird. Basically, the A's did the work; the F's didn't. There's nothing in the middle because the middle doesn't know that it has to do at least *some* work in order to get a D,C, or B. Take this as an opportunity to give a lecture about how you can't teach students who aren't prepared to learn (one of my favorites), perhaps adjust your expectations about how much scaffolding your students will need to do well (not that you should change your ultimate expectations, but they may need you to connect the dots a bit more than you initially expected they would prior to quizzes/tests). Oh, and I also find it useful to be transparent about the grade distribution - make it clear that there were a ton of A's and a ton of F's. Then the A students feel appreciated and the F's understand that it's not just that you're "mean" or "unreasonable." It also shows that you can't, actually grade on a curve, because there isn't a curve.

  3. What Dr. Crazy said. I have taken to giving "practice quizzes" that students grade themselves, in class. I collect them and give them back, but I don't actually do anything with them. But it shows the students what they need to work on, and may help to reduce test anxiety when the real quiz comes along. Speaking of which, I need to go invent one.

  4. I agree that you shouldn't worry about the Fs, since that A/F distribution is a pretty good sign that doing the readings and taking notes during lectures will get you full credit on the quizzes, and not doing the work will result in an F. If you had *no* As, that would be a different message, and might suggest something about the difficulty of the quizzes.

    As for drinks, I like red wines, especially pinot, and dark beers like stouts or porters --- none of that super bitter IPA crap. Partner of a Postdoc (the same dude who infuses stuff) made me a really nice gin-and-ginger the other day at the party, and the gin taste was almost completely covered up. Tasty! There was bitters and I don't even know what-all in it too.

    Later when I am buried in grading I will be too busy to do anything but huff the markers I grade with, but right now things are ok.

    What does one do with rye? Doesn't it taste awful? I know nothing about it.

  5. I'm a scotch girl...Red wine or some esoteric microbrew also float my boat. In fact, I'm sipping some red Catalunyan wine to wind down from a physically and emotionally draining day.

    As far as your grading issues, I wouldn't worry too much. I think by giving F's, you give some people much-needed wakeup calls. Sometimes I think students honestly believe that a professor will not fail them, and they need to have their bluffs called in a serious way.

  6. @Everyone: thanks for reassuring me on this. I'm thinking that I'll need to take Dr. Crazy's advice to heart about showing my students how to connect all the dots before the next quiz rolls around. But, like all of us said at some point, this is what is supposed to happen when most students slack off and essentially dare the professor to fail them. I'm also beginning to recognize some of the grade-inflating tendencies in some of the professors I TA'd for, back in the day, and now I'm fighting off the lingering trauma of that experience.

    Now, the, a few geeky comments on the important stuff.

    @Sis: I only drink delicious things. I usually take my rye straight, but it works well as a general house whiskey with mixers, and there are some fine cocktail recipes intended specifically for rye (like an old-fashioned) that people usually make with bourbon because they don't know better.

    Rye is the spicier, more peppery older brother of bourbon. Bourbon is the show-off and monopolizes attention, but rye has its own quiet charm. Rye is like the slightly misanthropic older brother of that popular kid you knew in high school, who grew up to be a professor and is actually a lot of fun to hang out with, but never throws it in your face how cool he has become.

    Uh, hm, my alcoholic anthropomorphism seems on the verge of running away with me. But you get the idea, right?

    @Hap: Since we had all this rain over the weekend, we're just beginning to have weather cool enough at certain points in the day that I could begin to envision drinking scotch again. I love scotch as a cold-weather tipple: wonderful stuff when it's cold and rainy, but I can't enjoy it as much in summertime. I get a lot of mileage out of red wine at the end of the school day, although I find that I need to be pretty much finished with work to do it. Even with a glass of something light, my concentration is easily wrecked in the evening. Catalunyan red sounds lovely!

    Having said all this, I think I'm going to sketch out tomorrow's lecture, and then have a glass of rye, which is calling to me for some reason.

  7. Been drinking some brandy lately. It also (not so accidentally) got used in a home-grown/home-picked carob-fig cake. Come over for a piece and a drink. We need a good catchup.


  8. Did you catch this post when I read all sorts of old-old cocktail-making manuals?