Monday, November 24, 2014

Teaching: What's love got to do with it?

Xykademiqz has a good post and cartoon up about how teaching is valued at a research university (hint: aim for "decent") and What Now? has a good post about the tyranny of the online gradebook in which she discovers that her students haven't been reading comments on their returned papers but just checking their grades.

These struck a chord with me because they're examples of a slogan that gets repeated often, and cynically, over at the CHE discussion forums: "You can't care more than they do."

In Xykademiqz's case, the "they" would be administrators who care about grant dollars and researcher recognition, with adequate teaching being a baseline that, if you go above it, might indicate a lack of research seriousness, as a colleague of hers keeps insisting.

In What Now?'s case, the "they" could be students who care about the grades but not the comments.  She started putting the grades in later, so they'd have to look.  I did that, too, for a while, but then got lazy and posted the grades with the papers.  The result has been that I'm not sure whether they're reading the comments or not.

  In fact, I thought about putting in a secret word on the comments and then giving them an extra point on the paper if they could identify the word by writing it down in class. I didn't do it, because I don't want to treat grades as a game (and I "can't care more than they do," right?), but I was sorely tempted.  With the final paper, taking advice from all who chimed in on this blog, I wrote a little note saying that since they wouldn't have a chance to write another paper, I wouldn't be writing marginal comments but would be available for discussions about the paper if anyone wanted to talk.  The range of those who took me up on this was 0%-0%.

But here's the thing: can you live with yourself and are you happy if you approach teaching from an absolutely rational standpoint?  Xykademqz, for example, has more midterms because she knows it's pedagogically sound.  I write comments for the same reason and meet with students whenever I can to discuss their papers--that is, when they ask to see me (because "can't care . . ." etc.). Yes, I know that "minimal marking" has its adherents and is supported by research blah blah blah, but I think they deserve to know what's going on, especially when it's plain that they have no clue whatsoever why there's a checkmark in the margin beside a sentence.

Think about the tradeoffs that we might make if we really treat teaching rationally:

1. If you have a choice of teaching a class with a cap of 40-50, for which you have no grader but that you love, do you request that class or another that enrolls, say, 25?  How about a class that enrolls 100 for which you are well suited but that takes a lot of prep?

2. Do you eliminate one assignment or an exam, even if you think the students might need it, because of the time demands?

What other kinds of tradeoffs do we make?


Anonymous said...

I've been a very strong proponent of not caring more about the students' educations than they do. If a student is really trying, I will work with them for hours. But they have to show me something! Eventually I made the (for me) totally rational tradeoff of trading in my job for not having a job but living someplace better. I plan to never teach again!

heu mihi said...

Sort of a side point, maybe, but I'm teaching Developmental Writing this semester, and I've asked my students to write a short reflection essay about their writing--and the feedback that they get on writing--in all of their courses this semester. Quite a few express frustration that their other professors don't comment on their writing at all. I'd be willing to bet that none of these students has gone to a professor to request comments/feedback (the intimidation factor may be high, especially since they think that they're poor writers). Of course, I don't know whether they'd actually read comments, or even if they care as much as they tell me they do, but I just can't get myself to move away from at least SOME substantive comments on students' ideas and writing--because I really don't think that most of them are getting it outside of their English classes.

So I guess I do what feels ethical, even if they don't read the comments. And, in exchange, I've put approximately 9 hours into my research this semester. (In fairness, I'm teaching 13 hours plus chairing a department plus chairing a search plus raising a toddler....)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Minimal marking is BS, in my opinion. Students who don't know how to write aren't going to do anything with a checkmark in the margin other than wonder, "What the hell is that about? A checkmark must mean something positive, right?" I don't mark every single high-level grammar issue, but I do mark the very basics: agreement, misspelling, punctuation errors, etc. I spend a lot of time on that stuff, because I know that students don't learn from the checkmarks -- research or no research.

In my student evaluations, I am constantly thanked for such good feedback and students point out that it's rare to get any feedback at all. Now, if I were at a R1, my guess is that things would be very different, because I'd probably not be grading nearly as much as I am now.

I somehow manage to do research, though not as much as I'd like, while teaching a 4/4. But I never get the chance to dive into it with all my heart, because I'm too busy teaching. Even though I get lots of compliments on my teaching, thank you cards, and great evals, it feels like the least of the things I do, even at a "teaching university." I have no idea what these people value, apart from numbers.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

And by "numbers" I mean number of majors in each program and number of butts in seats overall.

Anonymous said...

When I gave extensive feedback on papers (I'm not in English either), students never used that feedback to improve their next paper. So I stopped.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

nicoleandmaggie - I'm grading Humanities papers right now that, while kind of boring, are actually much improved over the last lot, which were atrocious. So at least in this one anecdotal case, marking up and commenting on their papers made a difference. (The reason why they are boring papers is because they are [1] all on the same topic, and there's only so many times you can read on the same topic without being bored, and [2] on a topic that I find boring no matter how well people write about it. But that's how it goes in a team-taught class. You can't have them writing about your pet books all the time.) Pretty much every student I teach gets nailed on their writing the first time they write something for me. Their poor grades make them pay attention, and they try hard to do better. But then, that's just my anecdotal experience...

Anonymous said...

I am not for minimal marking but my students' papers are so bad generally that I have to focus on just one thing, one central issue to comment on; otherwise I would never finish.

I also have canceled assignments, although I am not for that, either, in an ideal world.

Anonymous said...

The other nicoleandmaggie (the one who is still teaching) provides detailed feedback on ungraded drafts. That actually seems to work for the most part.

What Now? said...

A colleague of mine has taken to taking 10 minutes in class when she hands back papers. She uses the same Schoology system I do, but at the start of class she has everyone pull up the essay with her comments on it; they then spend five minutes reading the comments and five minutes doing a free-write response to those comments. At first she worried that she didn't have the time to devote to this exercise, but then she decided that it was well worth the investment. I think I'm going to try this next term.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--I can't care *more*, but I can certainly meet them more than halfway if they're interested.

heu mihi, fie--this helps, if only because it confirms what I hear and see informally about their papers improving if they get comments on grammar as well as content. Anyway, how do people hand back a C or C- paper with nothing but a couple of check marks as explanation?

profacero--the advice is always to focus on one thing, so that sounds right. I notice that if a student can't write a sentence, I don't bother explaining MLA format at that particular moment. Choose your battles, right?

What Now--that sounds good and also pretty brave, since it could lead to a mass of complaining. It sounds as though the reflection paper does a great job of having them look and think about what they saw.