Friday, December 15, 2017

Experiments in grading? Maybe another time

What better time to think about grading than when you've just done a bunch of it?

I'm overall pretty happy with my current standards and methods, which have been developed over the years with lots of help from readings in pedagogy, colleagues, and, probably most of all, experimenting from semester to semester to see what works and what doesn't.

This last, I think, gets underrated. We experiment all the time, trying an approach, a topic, or an assignment one semester and modifying it if it doesn't work. Right now we're being inundated with very self-righteous screeds from both sides on laptops in the classroom. The thing that they seem to forget is that you have to find a balance that will work for your and your students. 

Right now I'm fascinated by the accounts people who grade in non-traditional ways and have so many questions for them.
  • Cathy Davidson's version of contract grading sounds interesting. Students contract for a grade and then complete assignments graded by their peers S/U, while Davidson confines herself to comments. It sounds good but highly labor-intensive; she says that she has never used it in a class of more than 30, and she has a TA and a Teaching Apprentice to help with the 30-person class. 
    • Since the production of an edited video is part of the course, who pays for the software? (Maybe this isn't an issue since she teaches at Duke.) Who teaches them to use it and to upload it to YouTube? 
    • What happens if the required writing has some good ideas but some grammar or structural problems (like wordiness)? Problems like that can take several papers to get ironed out, and if papers can be handed in an infinite number of times to get to an "S" (not sure if this is the case), does the student get discouraged? What about the teacher? 
    • What happens if everything is grammatically correct but entirely uninspired? 
  • Jesse Stommel says he doesn't give grades at all. He says a lot about what he won't do but never says what he does, because he's apparently saving it for a future post. 
    • He makes some good points--grading on a curve is pretty heinous, true, and feedback is far more important than actual grades. But how does he not give any grades at all? I suspect that there's some semantic wiggle room going on here--that there's some "commenting" and "assessing" that he doesn't call grading but that the rest of us would.
    • At every university where I've been employed, I have to fill out a grade sheet at the end of the term or face some draconian consequences, like being fired. I can't just announce to the registrar that grades are part of a neoliberal capitalist oppressive system that disenfranchises students and march on out of there. Or can I?
  • Kevin Gannon's "How to Escape Grading Jail" at the Chronicle has some good suggestions. 
    • Smart "calendaring" that means not too many essays in one week. 
    • Rubrics, which I've never had any luck with but are always worth trying. 
    • Recorded rather than written responses. He uses Voisi, records comments, uploads them to Dropbox, and sends the students a link. For me, this would be more time-intensive than simply typing the comments (with the help of auto-text), but I've recorded comments before when teaching online. I asked the students how they liked it, and they seemed to like it as a novelty but didn't want me to switch to it. 
The main thing I took away from all these is the same thing with which I began: you experiment, and you ask for feedback, and you observe your class and students to see what works.

And don't think that you have the One Best Way. None of us has the One Best Way, or we could stop trying.

Other posts about grading here:

Friday, December 08, 2017

At The Atlantic: Bryan Caplan's entry in the "kids today! Amirite?" sweepstakes

At The Atlantic, Bryan Caplan says "The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone." (

But just when you think he might have a point--there are indeed many kinds of work for which traditional college isn't needed where people will make way more than college professors, for example--he joins the chorus, usually led by the minions of wealth at the Wall Street Journal, about kids these days.

He has a minor point with this:
"The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them."

If we can swallow "useless subjects"--I can't--it's still somewhat true that the traits are important, yet so is the place where you learn to think.

But here's what he concludes:
Kids these days don't like to learn: "Indeed, today’s college students are less willing than those of previous generations to do the bare minimum of showing up for class and temporarily learning whatever’s on the test. . . .  Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Effort has since collapsed across the board. “Full time” college students now average 27 hours of academic work a week—including just 14 hours spent studying.
What are students doing with their extra free time? Having fun.
 Aaaaannnnd--there it is. Kids these days. Having fun. I don't know what his students are doing at George Mason University, but mine are working. They're holding down jobs and trying to get through with a minimum of debt because they don't have a trust fund.

His argument is basically twofold, but wholly conservative.

1. People in Certain Classes of Society ought to know their place and become worker drones if they can't properly appreciate, with suitable leisure, Great Thoughts.

2. Things were better in the old days, when everyone was intellectual.

This tells me (1) his political perspective about social class and (2) that he has no idea that students have been excoriated for "having fun" for literally millennia.

As I wrote in a little screed of my own against this kind of article in 2013
First of all, I think this is the same article they run every month under a different title and by-line. It goes something like this:

When I was at beautiful Ivy or Oxbridge back in the olden days, I had an extremely famous professor (this time: Frank Kermode) who inspired me with the timeless truths of the humanities curriculum. 
Alas, there were few such professors then, and there are none today. That pesky GI bill opened education to the masses, and now students want grades instead of reading literature for timeless truths. Literature has been sullied by the grade-grubbing paws of these students. Where is the pure love of literature of yesteryear?  
Now, I have a certain sympathy for the author's love of literature because I obviously think it's important, too, and what he says about the thrill of books--yes, I get that.

But is the best way to get students to have this relationship to books, where the books help them to experience their lives in different ways, to avoid teaching the humanities?

I'm imagining students, taking 15 credit hours, working 20 hours a week at Mickey D's. What happens if you toss them a copy of The Odyssey or Henry IV, Part I, and say, "Here, kid, this will change your life. Read it in your spare time"?
This is the "kids these days" argument 2.0, and I'm still not buying it. 

Monday, December 04, 2017

Nattering nabobs, or how 'bout you stop muttering and interrupting so we can finish this meeting?

We've all been there. It's the end of the semester. Meetings are inevitable, but here's a difference:
  • Our campus has a strong culture of announcing agendas, setting a time, and sticking to both. (I've been places where this wasn't true.)
  • When I call the meeting, I am an especially firm believer in upholding campus culture.

Agenda and all relevant documents distributed well ahead of time, and people are gathered in the meeting room. We start right on time. We get through a couple of items. We have time for lively discussion. People make good suggestions. I call for votes.

But there's one thing that isn't running smoothly.

It's not "he-splaining," (h/t xykademiqz in the comments--thanks!).

It's a person who interrupts and talks over me when I'm trying to explain a topic and keeps up a running, muttered commentary, even after I give her--yes, her--ample time to talk. I shut up to let her talk, and she shuts up. As soon as I start talking, she starts again, sometimes to herself and sometimes engaging someone else in the room.  It drives me batty.

I had already let her say all that she wanted to say. We had voted. Then as soon as I went onto the next topic, she started up again. I shut up and asked if she had additional thoughts. She shut up. Then she started again. In the meantime, everyone else is waiting to get on with it.

I'm afraid I pulled out the Terminator Glare and said "If we are all finished discussing X, perhaps we can move to the next item."

This isn't malicious on the natterer's part, I don't think. I've seen versions of this before in meetings and have chalked it up to some teachers not being able to relinquish the talking role in any room that they're in. Some people can't shut up. Or they don't know they're talking. Or maybe I'm just that annoying to listen to.

It reminds me of things I've seen in comedy routines, where partners talk over each other or start talking after a natural pause only to have the other person leap in again as if she hadn't finished. But I am not Keegan-Michael Key and she is not Jordan Peele, so it's annoying rather than entertaining.

And while I'd like to have meetings that are collegial and fun, sometimes it's fine to settle for productive and efficient.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Random bullets of December 1

  • First of all, look at "End of Semester Bingo" at You won't regret it.
  • Spending a month and thousands of dollars in travel taking care of--and trying to keep healthy via preventing them from smoking as part of that care--an elderly family member with multiple breathing-related illnesses and pneumonia drains your brain of energy and crowds out all writing juice. Then when they start smoking again the day after you leave, airily declaring that they're an adult and can do what they want, you realize that your efforts may have been well-meant but are ultimately futile, that the deadlines you blew by this action are now more pressing than ever, and that if you don't get your brain back to work instead of worrying, you'll be in worse shape than before.
  • That high-profile professors such as Jay Fliegelman and Franco Moretti have now been held to account in some way is good news. But (speaking rhetorically now) in how many cases has the perpetrator been allowed to quietly leave ("pass the trash"), or retire, or go on leave and then come back as if nothing had happened, with no information given to the community even about cases where the finding was that abuse had occurred? How often has time, like moss, been allowed to grow over the finding until the perpetrator is honored again because no one remembers what happened? How often have we (generic we) been cautioned not to bring up findings because of fears of retaliatory lawsuits or that they're not germane to the proceeding at hand?
  • But there are good things:
    • Another Facebook break. For those of you not on FB, it used to be 90% politics and 10% pictures of cute animals and funny stuff (as nature, God, and Zuckerberg intended); now it's about 45% fundraising for causes, 50% politics, and 5% cute animals. 
    • Decent weather.
    • Nearly the end of the semester, and the students and classes have been terrific.
    • No travel for a while.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Holding academia to account, Bingo version

You know those bingo cards that appear every so often on Twitter or Facebook? The one I usually see is for department meetings.

I wonder if we could have a scorecard with Bingo squares or points for the times we hear and see things like the following, either stated or implied:
  1. "He should still get the award, because his personal life has no bearing on the tremendous contribution he has made to scholarship. Aesthetics and the life of the mind is important; what happened to that grad student was beside the point. Besides, that incident was years ago."
  2. Woman faculty member is interrupted and talked over.
  3.  Woman makes a point,  and it's ignored; man makes the same point two minutes later, and it's brilliant.
  4. "It wasn't such a big deal. She should get over it." 
  5. Faculty of color asked to be on a zillion committees or outreach projects and then criticized for producing less scholarship.
  6. "He's going to retire soon, anyway. There's no point in pursuing it."
  7. "That's just how he acts; the bullying and yelling isn't about you personally. Stay out of his way and you'll be fine."
  8. "This whole process will be a lot easier if we just give Professor Y what he wants in terms of this time slot/this course assignment/this committee assignment/this candidate for admission. Otherwise, he'll pitch a fit and make our lives miserable. Professor X won't complain about teaching at 8 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. MWF, so let's give that schedule to her."
  9. "If he leaves the department, he'll take that big grant/that journal/that prestigious reputation to another university. He brings prestige, so we can't make waves."
  10. "[Women faculty] should be in their offices more, in case students need to talk to them; they need the emotional support.  As for me, I'm not going to the meeting. I have writing to do." 
 Any more for our scorecard?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Things that will make you feel better for a moment

  • Get fresh air. Run, walk, bike, or whatever in the fresh air. More fresh air. More nature. More beauty. More air. Give your brain something else to think about and some oxygen to help it do so.
  • Mueller time! Things are happening out there, so don't give up hope.
  • Check social media--well, FB--only for an hour every other week. That way, you can wish everyone happy birthday. Don't post anything, or you'll want to see what happens.
  • Skip over every single political outrage post, no matter how righteously angry it will make you and how virtuous you will feel to be on the right side of history. If you think this is irresponsible, it's not. You'll still see and do things. (I voted this week. I gave to Hurricane Maria relief.) But use your energy, money, votes, and power where they'll do some good. Facebook isn't it.
  • And those people pumping out political outrage who you know are bicycling through France on a holiday you can't afford? Unfollow them. Enough's enough. 
  • Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. If you don't get or don't want to watch the show, watch some videos. Parodies but hilariously true ones of song genres, like "Settle for Me" or "Greg's Drinking Song" or "Let's Generalize About Men" or a Gene Kelly-esque tap dance number whose title I can't print here.  They will make you feel better.  
  • Make up your own mental Bingo card for meetings and presentations. Call it the "Neoliberal University Assessment Intersectionality Excellence" card, or whatever five words (in random order) you hear the most at your university.
  • For a little while every day, if you can, read a book just because you want to, and leave the screens behind. No phones. No computers. It sounds impossible, but for 30 minutes at lunch, just try it. I used to read The Chronicle at lunch but realize that (1) we've all read these articles before, pretty much and (2) it wasn't exactly a break to read more stressful things about work. Some of you do yoga or meditation, so this is probably my version of that. 
What temporary measures make you feel better? 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Reading irritations for a Saturday morning

The good news about being an academic in the humanities--okay, literature--is that you get to read a lot.

The bad news about being an academic in the humanities is that you get to read a lot, and you don't always get to choose what you read but you have to find an interest if you're going to write about it.

Right now, this never-ending story of a piece that I am working on has me reading some things that are worthy, even brilliant, but are a little . . . trying. Here are some additional irritations to add to last year's post.
  • Religious doctrine, religious reflection--very important, I know, but reading this stuff is a slog for me.  "Be a good person, the end" is my medieval-peasant style level of understanding, if that's not an insult to medieval peasants.
  • Travel writing. I love the blog entries that you all post from travels in other countries, but straight travel writing, 19th-century style, reads sort of like this: "As we meandered down the [word in another language], we were greeted by the [ditto], with their charming [ditto] beside them as they [ditto] in happy expectation of our [ditto]," followed by a paragraph describing the local flora and fauna in exhaustive and exhausting detail. It's Mad Libs, international style.  I don't lose my will to live, but I do lose my will to read. 
  • Modernist texts that like to play hide the person's name, or the pronoun reference, or the central defining event of the book by mentioning it once in 400 pages. I understand why that's important and representationally sophisticated and the rest, but for trying to slog through, please give us a name. Please. 
  • Cruelty to animals and children. If they show up in a contemporary text, you need to look out, because often they won't last long and will be dispatched in highly unpleasant and lengthily described detail to prove that the author isn't "sentimental." I gave up on John Updike's Roger's Version because of this, and you have heard me rant before about Lolita. "But look at the wordplay and the language," I was told. "Lolita herself is just a girl, just incidental." Not to me, she's not. 
And now back to reading my religious-doctrine-centric book with lots of travel and name-hiding and, I fear, some animal cruelty coming up.

Edited to add: Nope--child cruelty and death. Modern fiction, you never disappoint in your predictability.

What kind of reading do you find tough to get through?

*Updated to add: The Man Booker Prize this year goes to George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo, which is by all accounts wonderful, and which I want to read--but it features #4 (Lincoln mourning his dead child) and #3 (a surreal, experimental style that one account said will leave you not understanding what's happening for chapters at a time). Just . . . leaving that out there.