Archive for the ‘Academics’ Category

Every professor's nightmare

Back in September, Maria posted on the phenomenon of laptops in the classroom, specifically students’ laptops running Facebook or e-mail or Ebay or whatever. She asked for my comment and I said, a la Jack Benny, “I’m thinking about it.”

Part of my reluctance was that at that point, I hadn’t really experienced this trend. Well, now I have. For some reason, this semester I’ve seen a 200 or 300 percent increase in classroom laptops–from one or two per 20 students in the past couple of years, to four or five or six now.

Much of the commentary on the issue, including an NPR report that aired a couple of days ago, has focused on the dopiness of websurfing while a professor whose substantial salary is paid in large part by your substantial tuition dollars is sending profound insights in your general issue. That’s not so much my problem. As Fredrick Lawrence, dean of George Washington University Law School, said on NPR, “Daydreaming did not start with laptops and passing notes did not start with instant messaging.” I used to doodle in class or glance at a magazine; the world did not end. Lizy websurfs while watching a movie she is intently interested in; she apparently absorbs all of it.

I actually have two problems. The first is active typing, rather than occasional clicking. Not only is it rude, but it’s incredibly distracting to my middle-aged mind. It’s why for a couple of years I have banned texting in the class. Of course, on one of the few times I admonished a student about this, it turned out she wasn’t texting but searching on her smart phone for a fact I had just said I was curious about.

The other thing is that while I understand students’ doing other stuff during a lecture, for the most part I don’t conceive of my classes as lectures. What I generally teach is the set of writing, research and thinking skills required for journalism or other kinds of writing. As a result, I want the classroom to be a somewhat dynamic place. My biggest challenge over the years is my sense that students come in with a passive rather than active attitude–thinking of themselves as content recipients and me as a content provider. My main task is to get them to participate mentally and vocally, and that will definitely not happen if they’re occupied with the screen in their lap.

Rest assured, I am not tempted to reproduce the YouTube clip where a professor smashes a laptop.

Nor do I want to spend the time figuring out how to block wifi in the classroom, as some profs have apparently done. (And anyway, there is no way to block solitaire.)

But I am seriously thinking about banning laptops next semester. What do you think?


*For an amusing discussion of the origin of the question “Threat or Menace?” see this site.


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Roll call

So here I am in gay Paree, visiting Maria on her semester abroad. The weather has been cold and wet, and the eating wonderful; you can read all about it on Maria’s blog. I will say only: hot chocolate at Angelina’s, and soupe de poisson at La Coupole.

While she’s in class this morning, I have been working on my syllabi for next semester (which at U. of Delaware, with its elongated winter session, starts 2/8). I’m starting out in my hotel room on Boul. Montparnasse; when this darn computer gets charged, I will move to one of the many iconic cafes round here, Le Select. Alas, you can no longer smoke a Gitane inside, but at least I will sip on an espresso.

As always, doing a syllabus is a heady Charlie-Brown-kicking-the-football feeling: this time, I’ll finally get it right! (By the way, that football thing has to be one of the truest metaphors ever concocted by man. Hats off, not for the last time, to Charles Schulz.) I feel this most pointedly in attendance policy. Not to belabor the obvious, but it bugs me when students don’t show up to class, for multiple reasons:

  1. Disrespect—it’s like not showing up for a business appointment. Plus it’s unseemly: they are wasting their, their parents’, or (if on scholarship) the university’s money.
  2. Not having been at previous classes means you are not up to date on the conversation, so you will not be a good participant in discussion in subsequent classes. (I should say that mostly I teach workshop-type writing classes, with 18-25 students.)
  3. Probably most important, I feel I am being paid a good salary mainly to teach stuff to students, and to the extent they are not there, they can and do learn less stuff from me.

I can predict how many will respond to the foregoing: just be a hardass, don’t coddle the little darlings, etc., etc. Part of my Charlie Brown experience does in fact entail envisioning a new hardassness, in either of two ways. First, treat them as adults, and let them suffer the consequences (in their poor performance and hence poor grades) if they don’t attend. Second, install a zero-tolerance policy. Each time you don’t show up. your grade suffers. I am going to guest-teach a session for one of my friend Bruce Dorsey’s classes at Swarthmore, and I was very impressed to see such a policy set out in his syllabus.

But for me, both options have problems. The trouble with the first one is that, under it, students will not show up. True, they will ultimately suffer consequences  so that cosmic justice prevails, and possibly (but not likely, IMHO) they will learn a valuable life lesson), but negative outcomes 1, 2, and 3 in the above list will all occur.

The trouble with the second option, to be honest, is that it creates work for me, work that I don’t like, I’m not especially good at and that I feel I am not being paid my generous salary to do. It only begins with taking attendance. Then there’s the issue of what constitutes an acceptable excuse, because surely some excuses are acceptable. For major things, like serious illness and major religious holidays, there is an apparatus by which the student can get a note from the dean. But what if your grandfather died, or you have a bad cold and you’re constantly coughing and sneezing? What you do then is e-mail the professor and ask if it’s all right if you miss class because, etc., etc. At that point the professor has to exercise Solomonic wisdom and decree that yes, indeed, it is all right, or no, alas, it is not. That is exactly the sort of wisdom I do not wish to exercise.

What I usually do, and what I will probably do this semester, is say, without a dean’s note, students are allowed two absences a semester, after which I will decrease their grade. This will mean that I will have to take the roll, which I’ll do the best I can.

What do you guys think? Those of you who are professors, what do you do?


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Today’s NY Times has an article about Princeton’s attempts over the past few years to reverse its grade inflation. It seems that their efforts have been pretty successful; nearly half the grades given in 2004 were in the A-range, and now it’s less than 40%. The students are hopping mad, and I don’t blame them.

At Swarthmore, students pride themselves — and are furious about — our purported lack of grade inflation.  They feel they are at a competitive disadvantage when competing for medical and law school seats against students at the “easy Ivies.”  They have the hope, perhaps even the expectation, that admissions officers will equate a Swarthmore C with a Harvard A, and will make decisions accordingly. (I met with a student recently who hoped that medical schools would not hold his F in chemistry against him, because, after all, it’s Swarthmore.)

I have no way of knowing, truly, how Swarthmore’s grading stands up against other comparable schools. If I had to guess, I would imagine that graduate schools realize that applicants from Swarthmore, Princeton and others have performed academically at a very high level, even if their actual GPAs are a little lower than their typical norm for accepted students. Beyond that, I’d be surprised if they were making distinctions within this group of top schools.

Now back to Princeton, and their stated desire to “deflate” grades.  Here they travel the world over, literally, to recruit the brightest, most accomplished, most motivated students. These kids really, really know how to do school. So why the surprise that they end up performing very well? Why impose artificial limits in evaluating and rewarding their work?

One more thing – a Princeton student in the Times article complains  about competing with students from Yale, apparently one of the “easy Ivies” in his view. Maria, what do you think?


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Turn on, tune in, drop out?

Him, Al Franken

The Philadelphia Inquirer today has a really useful roundup of colleges and universities offering online courses—some audio, some full video—for free. They’re available through through iTunes, YouTube, and the international consortium site OpenCourseWare, which has about 13,000 courses from 200 different colleges. Last year, according to the Inquirer, OCW courses were viewed by 15 million people.

We’re talking major-league institutions here. Yale has been a pioneer, with 25 free courses online and 11 more coming this fall, but MIT offers course materials for every single one of its 1,950 courses, including video for 30 of them.

Did I mention that all of this is completely free?

It’s an unbelievable opportunity–anyone with an Internet connection can virtually sit in an MIT classroom! But you’ll forgive me if I immediately start thinking about how it will affect “me, Al Franken” (as Senator Franken used to say on Saturday Night Live).  Among all the other blows to my profession, this may prove to be the most devastating. After all, why should someone pay 50K a year in tuition when he or she can experience, for nothing, the lectures of better teachers than yours truly?

Of course, my fellow profs and I will hasten to note that a YouTube lecture provides zero opportunity for interactivity, whether in the form of in-class questions and give-and-take, or comments and grades on coursework. So that’s our Unique Selling Proposition.

For now.


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Fat studies

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports the increasing trend of “fat studies,” as scholars start to examine and understand the underlying roots of the country’s war on fat. The Chronicle writes:

The field of fat studies invites scholars to pause, interrupt everyday thinking (or failure to think) about fat, and do something daring and bold. Moving beyond challenging assumptions, they must question the very questions that surround fatness and fat people…Marilyn Wann, a leader of the fat-activism movement, writes, ‘Fat studies is a radical field, in the sens that it goes to the root of weight-related belief systems.’

I think there’s a lot to this. Especially when you think about weight and class, legal issues, notions of health, and the media. And when you think about the economic value to the cultural perception of fat–it supports a multi-billion dollar industry.


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If he were applying today, Chevy Chase wouldn't be able to get in to community college

I had a post last week about the big boom in community college enrollment. Community colleges do not have unlimited capacity, so, inevitably, the New York Times reports today, they have begun turning people away.

They have done so not by being more selective, but by instituting strict deadlines. (Traditionally, students could walk up and enroll right up to the first class meeting.) In New York City,

LaGuardia stopped accepting applications on July 30. The Borough of Manhattan Community College stopped in late June, while Bronx, Hostos and Queensborough Community Colleges cut off applications in the first half of August…. Applications to the community colleges for the 2010 spring semester are up 19 percent from the same time last year. LaGuardia, which has 52,000 students, including 17,500 degree-seeking students, has imposed a Nov. 15 deadline for spring applications.

If I’m not mistaken, Nov. 15 is this Sunday. So if you want to go to LaGuardia, you better fly.


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