Wednesday, December 6, 2006

[Teaching Carnival] End of term

With classes officially over for the year, and next term's class ready to go, I thought I'd try to put down a few thoughts. In my mind, this term's class was both more and less successful than the other two times I've taught it, and I think I'm finally starting to appreciate how much difference the students themselves can make. But before I launch into a tirade about the disappointments and failures, I want to make sure I remember the truly exceptional students I had the pleasure of teaching, and who taught me so much as well. Some were 'A' students and others were 'C' students, but they all approached class with interest, imagination and dedication. They worked through difficult ideas and came up with their own. They helped other students and filled the room with laughter. Without them class would not have been as interesting or as fun, and for that I am most grateful.

But if I'm to be honest I also have to admit that the majority failed to meet my hopes and expectations. I was surprised to learn that these students wouldn't do anything unless a mark was attached to it, including coming to class. This is the first time I chose not to include marks for participation, and I won't do it again. I mean, I thought they would at least show up out of respect for their discussion groups and moderators but there was no solidarity, man. None. I also continue to be amazed that there are students who think it's either amusing or appropriate to ask for a grade change while none-too-subtly flipping through a wad of $20 bills; who come to my office with tales of hardship that make me want to weep; who think that flirting is a reasonable way to solicit extra marks; who blatantly lie to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and inactions; who place so much stock in their marks that they will demand the extra point that makes an 'A-' become an 'A'; who think they are the only ones who work and go to school at the same time; who are so oblivious to academic integrity that they leave the wikipedia links in the content they pasted into their assignments, and think it's acceptable to make up all their observational data... Oh my god. I have to stop!

Then again, inter-disciplinary work is really hard. I mean this was by far the most academically diverse bunch I've ever taught, and there were weird trends: Like failing and near-failing marks went almost exclusively to political science students. Like young women almost never asked questions or addressed the class as a whole, and a few young men dominated. Like psychology and computer science students did particularly well. Like too many students didn't submit assignments at all, or submitted them so late that the deductions caused a failing mark. Like anthropology majors consistently outperformed every other major.

And the evaluation part is especially tricky. I mean, can I expect all students in an anthropology and sociology class to demonstrate a particular skill set? And in doing so am I obligated to teach that skill set to other students who do not share our focus and emphasis? I believe there are amazing merits to disciplinary studies, and I'd like to teach some kind of specific skill-set. But I also have to acknowledge that I am unable to dedicate class time to both foundational skills and introducing new content. (It's hard enough to work with 70 students for one three-hour block a week.) I need students to have a body of shared skills before we can get to the business of working and learning together.

I wonder why we don't teach more first year seminars on research skills? I mean, is it unreasonable to expect all second year students in the arts and sciences to know how to locate and critically evaluate information? It's not like there aren't systematic, and well-established, methods across disciplines for doing just that!

Anyway, so the term was challenging. And sometimes depressing. But it was fun too - still totally worth it - and I'm looking forward to doing it all again!

[more teaching carnival]


Blogger enrique said...

Priceless. Last term, I was draconian in my "no wikipedia entry" policy ... to no avail. I also loved when people would submit these incredibly long, detailed reference lists attached to their papers, but would only use one or two (secondary) sources. And what really got my goat were those who unabashedly asked me to do their research for them. bah!

Blogger Lilly said...

At my school, freshman were required to complete the Writing and Critical Thinking Sequence, which was 1 or 2 quarters depending on your high school preparation. It was basically a class about writing, research, rhetoric, and argument with a big research paper as the capstone.

Anonymous anne said...

enrique - it's a fine line between teaching students to do research and doing it for them, isn't it? at least we have the convention that citations must match bibliographies, but i'm afraid i don't share your frustration with the use of secondary sources. every critique is a secondary source and i can't imagine that they are necessarily inferior because of that.

lilly - that's exactly what i mean, and in my imaginary university, students would have to get a B or repeat it ;)

Blogger enrique said...

Yikes ... I stand corrected ... I meant that my students were using these huge entry-level "Intro to Architecture" historical sources, and would not probe issues past that. Indeed, every critique is a secondary source, and I wish they would have used more of these types of secondary sources. I was a little too haste in my comment.

We're on the same page, tho.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I look forward to dominating discussions next term. -kevin

Anonymous anne said...

behave conway!

Blogger Mark said...

I have to say that I'm not surprised at the disciplinary flocking that you observed among your students. During SSHRC discussions among the faculty and grad students in my department at OISE at U of T (I'm in the latter category; the department is Adult Education and Counselling Psychology), we noted that the two programs are distinguishable on the basis of "what is valued as knowledge" more than, say, methodological differences (the former program more qualitative; the latter more quantitative).

Perhaps the characteristic "what is valued as knowledge" among the various disciplines that are represented in your large seminar classes accounts for the discrepancies - the "weird trends" as you describe them. This suggests that you, yourself, bring your own knowledge context that is tacitly being applied in your evaluation. A good test might be to take some representative papers to share with a colleague from political science to see if her evaluations match yours.

Among the big buzz-terms that are circulating around the academy (like so many flies on a dying carcass) these days are "inter-disciplinarity" or "trans-disciplinarity." The problem, I think, is that almost none of the professors have any specific training in how to value "extra-disciplinary" knowledge. Alan Foster has a piece that I have found particularly enlightening, albeit in a different context [Foster, A. (2004). A non-linear model of information-seeking behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(3), 228-237].


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