Sometimes I Love My Students

I have awesome students.

This morning, I prepared my class, went downstairs to my 10:30 class at about 10:25, ready to set up some web things. I got to the door, and the whole class was there (all but one or two, itself quite remarkable at this time in the term), lights dimmed, watching the student scheduled for one of the presentations that day _doing_ his presentation. Everyone was listening intently, laughing in all the right places.

It was all a bit “wtf” but I thought, oh, maybe he’s been telling them about his play (this is the scriptwriting class) and they wanted to hear it (I know, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but…). Anyway, when he was finished, I walked in, took my place at the computer terminal and started setting up. I looked at them, looked at the clock, and said “I’m not late… ?”

Uh. Yeah. I was. The class started at 10:00. I don’t even have the excuse that I was an HOUR late because of the time change. I just got muddled, because all my other classes start on the half hour, and I think I conflated this one with another one later in the week. And this one has a silly schedule that’s different on Mondays than it is on Wednesdays. And I’m tired, and a bit depressed, and my brain is fuzzy.

But – HEY YOU GUYS!! They were carrying on the class without me! How cool is THAT! They were engaged, responsible, and participating. Wow.

They could have walked out. And if I’d walked in, 25 minutes late, to find one person there to tell me they’d done that, I think I would have gone and jumped off a bridge. Instead, they give me this gift.

Oh, and we’re reading Firefly episode 5, “Out of Gas,” and someone in the class was wearing a cunning hat. How cool is that?

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Thoughts on the Shadow Scholar

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published this article, written under a pseudonym, by someone who makes a (rather good) living writing papers for students who cheat.

He accuses us (we teachers) of being ignorant of how much of this goes on. In fact, I was perfectly well aware that such services exist; you only have to Google any vaguely academic topic and after Wikipedia usually a high percentage of the top ten entries are links directly to a term-paper factory.

What is more disturbing is the somewhat accusatory tone:

I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created.

This is like the criminal blaming the system, and, as in many criminal cases, there is probably some truth to it. We create pressures and perhaps do not adequately provide means for students to meet and handle those pressures.

I liked the example he gave of the “rich kids,” who are learning to do what they will spend their lives doing: pay someone else to provide a service for them.

This comment is perhaps a greater cause for concern:

Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.

Custom papers do not make it impossible to detect cheating: of course we know that the student who can barely string two words together in an email did not write that smooth, coherent, intelligently argued paper. But how to prove it? Sometimes, if confronted, a student will break down and admit it. But often they do not. What are we to do?

Students hate in-class work, but often that is the only way to control whether or not the work is original.

I believe that we need to change our assignments, and to change the way we measure student success, but it feels like an endless problem. And cheating is not limited to colleges and universities: look at the Olympic athletes, already in the top of their field, already performing at a higher level than most mere mortals, who feel that they “have” to take performance-enhancing drugs in order to “compete.”

Indeed, I believe it is “competition,” and perhaps, at risk of sounding like a rampaging socialist, our market-driven society, that is pushing people to cheat. Colleges and universities are only the places that institutionalize the system. If the academic institutions were once again the places where people came to explore ideas, to learn, to express creativity, instead of credential factories, perhaps there would be fewer students willing to get those credentials by any means necessary.

The Invisible Curriculum

The other night, one of my students told me that I had made the most incredible comment on his essay, the best comment he’d ever had from a prof. No, I hadn’t told him that his essay was the best I’d ever read or that his use of the semi-colon was sophisticated. I had simply remarked that I used to drink at the same shabby-genteel, ever-so-slightly seedy bar that he mentioned in his essay.

Sometimes things like that just make us real to our students, and it’s connections like that that I think James M. Lang is talking about in his very interesting piece The Invisible Curriculum. He writes about the importance of personal contact, of the way we can stop in the middle of a lecture or a lesson and interject some comment about life and teach something personal.

I love little personal moments with my students; they are one of the things that make teaching such a wonderful profession. On the other hand, I am quite shy and sometimes find it difficult to initiate conversations or to reach students who are themselves a bit reserved. I’ve occasionally been told by students in evaluations that I play favourites, and this troubles me, because I don’t, but I can understand how sometimes staying aloof from one student but laughing and joking with another could be easily misinterpreted. Perhaps this is a lesson in the “invisible curriculum” for me: that I have to work hard to make sure all my students are included. It’s not enough to admit to the whole class that I’m a hopeless Buffy fan, I need to try to reach each individual on some personal level, too.

Rumours of my death…

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

My good friend and colleague told me about the success she had had with an “obituary” assignment. The concept was simple: get students to interview each other, then write a fake obituary of the person. It teaches good interviewing and instills a sense of responsibility for the person you are writing about.

So, I got my English 152 (creative non fiction) class to do it. The numbers were not even, so one student suggested that she interview me and I interviewed her.

When the time came, I couldn’t write her obituary. It just felt _wrong_ to write something about the death of this bright, vibrant, passionate, fascinating young woman. I couldn’t tempt fate. I couldn’t do it.

However, she, driven by the power of an “assignment,” wrote a terrific one about me. Oh, there are a few places where the facts are not quite right (I never actually finished my PhD, and the Isle of Wight is not in Surrey, though both are in England, but, hey, details…) And I realized afterwards that I never said anything about my wonderful circle of dear friends, who I think would probably miss me, too. I think she captured my spirit, though, and I’m grateful.

And lest you think that no one ever reads these blogs? A student from one of my other classes stumbled across this one, and was genuinely worried for a little while. I’m grateful about that, too, but sorry for worrying anyone! I’m glad to see that where the students have posted things about another student, it’s pretty clear that the obituary is a fake one.

Sunday Rant – A Plea for the New Media

Are there any Math teachers out there who still refuse to use a calculator? Who still use a slide-rule and memorize times-tables?

To me, that’s the same as the way many of my colleagues, not just in my department, but everywhere, seem to be in a state of denial about the importance of new developments in web technology to what and how we teach.

I admit that I was an early adopter; I jumped all over the web when it was all server-based and clunky and before YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia. And I can understand that anyone whose first contact with all this was back then when it was server-based and clunky might have been put off wanting to try it again. But still.

One of the most valuable benefits of all the new Web 2.0 social software sites has been the ability to develop world-wide networks sharing information, pedagogies, material. Well, at least, for some. In vain, I’ve been searching for my “PLN” – my personal learning network. Oh, there are academics and professionals out there. Historians appear to be all over the web – medievalists for gosh sakes! Librarians are all over it. K-12 people are all over it. Writers – mostly working writers rather than writing teachers – are all over it. ESL teachers are all over it. So my Twitter feed is full of historians, librarians, K-12 and ESL teachers, and some writers and ed-tech people (though many of them tend to focus rather too much on the technology and not on the content). But where are the college or university level writing teachers? The literature profs?

A large part of it, I think, is workload. Many of us are just so busy that the thought of learning something quite new is daunting.

But – pssst – guys! This stuff is EASY. If you can use Microsoft Word, which you all can, you can do this.

But another large part of it, I think, and here I may be in danger of stepping on some people’s toes, so forgive me in advance, is … elitism. Snobbery.

There’s this perception that it’s all brainless and shallow and produced by and for the unwashed “masses” and is therefore beneath the notice of those of us who read the Globe and Mail (paper edition) and read only Booker prize nominated novels. It’s all about dumbing down and reduction and therefore should be resisted with all our intellectual strength. Oh, yeah, our kids are all on Facebook and into that Twitter thing and writing fanfiction, but there’s no need for us to dirty our hands with it…

But you know what? There’s some brilliant stuff out there! Denying that it’s there is like refusing to watch any television because much of it is stupid. Don’t dismiss as silly the “Twitterization” of literature – think about its potential for our teaching! The new media is not about the death of literacy and critical thinking, it’s about the growth of universal literacy. It’s about the ability to collaborate and share and create and publish at a rate unimaginable even ten years ago. It’s about recognizing that the ways we read and write and publish are changing and are going to change even more – and it’s going to happen probably within our professional lifetimes. We are going to have to rethink our ideas about copyright and – yes – plagiarism and originality. Students are going to need the critical skills to help them wade through the information overload, to help them sort out good from bad. And, just as the birth of the calculator meant that students no longer had to waste their time doing the “grunt” work of mathematics, so, potentially, does the new media technology mean that students can concentrate on higher thinking skills: synthesis, critical analysis.

But only if we teach them how. And we need to know the tools ourselves before we can teach our students.

ETA: look what appeared in my Twitter feed, quite by chance, just after I posted this:

Weekend? What weekend?

Another thing I dislike* about my wonderful, chosen, profession as a college teacher is the fact that I can rarely enjoy a day off during term time. There is always homework: marking, prep, reading. Or thinking about homework. Even when I make time to do something else, the work that needs to be done is percolating in the back of my brain, nudging me, making me feel guilty about walking the dogs or taking photographs or working in the garden.

When I was in grad school the second time around, while continuing to work at least half time, I worked out a system whereby I did as much school work as I could, morning, afternoon and evening for six days a week but always reserved Sundays for myself. That worked well, but I don’t seem to have the energy these days for evenings, so the work time bleeds into the day that should be “off.”

Oh well, in another ten years or so I can retire… and probably then, I’ll complain about not having enough to do 🙂

*Sorry for the moans today and yesterday, but I’m feeling a bit tired and under the weather…

100 Words

Early in the term, I asked my creative writing students to write 100 words exactly on either “lemon,” “asparagus,” or “bread.” We were working on descriptions, and I thought it would be an interesting exercise in writing something precise and focussed (one of the things many students have trouble with is getting to the point right away and keeping focus). Some of the results were amazing; it was a good exercise, and one that I’ll use again. I’ve given them a few more words to try for their blogging challenge, and I hope that some of them will.

It’s also surprisingly difficult. Here’s mine, on “asparagus.”

I tried growing asparagus once. It’s my favourite vegetable; I love its indescribable, slightly musty, flavour, the strange combination of textures in my mouth – crisp stem and rough, bitty tops. There’s an art to cooking it. If undercooked, it’s bitter; if overcooked, it’s soggy and tasteless. Nothing is better than eating your own asparagus fresh from the garden. Phallic, it pokes up through the soil, the early shoots surprisingly thick, sometimes twice as fat as anything you normally see in the store. At the end of its season, the shoots become wiry and fragile, tips finally bursting into feathery fronds.