Thursday, December 28, 2017

Year's end post for 2017

A popular meme on Twitter these days is to state three things that you accomplished this year. Everyone is posting about prizes won, book contracts, degrees completed, and all that.

But nothing I could post would be on this order of magnitude. Here's what I really did:

1. Took care of people. What else can you call it when you cook, clean, buy groceries, do laundry, listen to stories, be patient, and provide care for children or the elderly? That's not an accomplishment, but it is definitely needed. It's invisible labor, all right, until somebody doesn't do it.

2. Wrote. Yet most of what I wrote was and is hard-fought words on a piece that I just could not seem to write--two pieces, actually. I finished one, and I'm seeing the finish line on another, with a third promised (why? WHY?). My main vow is never to agree to contribute a piece like this again. There's nothing wrong with the project; I just didn't click with it (or it with me), but having agreed to do it, I have had to carry it around with me every day, all year, instead of knocking it out as should have been the case. Probably 80% of the time was spent resisting writing and 20% writing.

3. Worked with collaborators on a large project. Taught (new) classes. Both were rewarding, but again: not quantifiable, and not in the service of the projects that I was so excited about last fall (2016).

4. Did what I could to fight against, endure, or ignore the current political dumpster fire. Actum est de republica, indeed.
5. On the plus side: Travel! Travel to archives, to conferences, and, if you want to count walking and hiking, engaging in what the Japanese call "forest bathing."  Reading good books. Seeing family. Getting excited about ideas. Shepherding administrative changes through various approval processes to do what Silicon Valley calls "making the world a better place." 

What about your year?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Experiments in grading? Maybe another time

Update 3/11/18: Jesse Stommel (below), in a thoughtful post, explains what he means by "ungrading": written evaluation and reflection throughout the semester; students assign their own final grades.

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. 

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.