Month: May 2015

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 2

I have issues with some of the advanced teaching strategies as I see them implemented in my department. (Flipped classroom, I am looking at you, and all other eggcellent paradigms.)

My main complaint is that the responsibility to sit down and understand the material and work until proficiency is achieved is being taken away from students and moved entirely to instructors. Instead of the students taking ownership for their own learning, we the instructors are supposed to devise lectures to be tutoring sessions (the flipped classroom model), so the students don’t have to think about the material alone at home… But working alone is the only way you really learn! Instead, we hold their hands while they work through problem sets, smoothing out the kinks as they go along, misleading the students into believing that the road to problem solving is easier than it really is. I have seen some pathetic products of flipped classroom instruction, as the students come to my class with an A in a prerequisite that was taught in a flipped format, and they can’t tell their a$$ from their face (because the class is all about a$$ vs face recognition, of course); they don’t understand anything, and they certainly can’t do any relevant problems that they hadn’t specifically seen before. We try to remove the natural and necessary discomfort that comes from learning, being challenged, being required to stretch beyond where we are. And this incessant insistence on everything being with other people, like flipped classrooms and group projects, is an introvert’s nightmare. Can’t we let people think in peace?

This is completely opposite to my own teaching philosophy. I, as the instructor, need to be there to help when help is needed, but the student has to think and grapple with the material alone FIRST; this is absolutely key. Ideally, this is the sequence: come to class, read the book (or the other way around); start on the homework early and on your own, do as much as you can on your own; then ask friend/come to discussion/come to office hours AFTER you have thought about the problems on your own really hard, because by then you will be sensitized to what you are missing and what you don’t know, and therefore much better at remembering explanations and clarifications. Instead, I see many students work in packs, with a pack leader who’s a strong student and the rest contributing little, but still feeling very good about their command of the material; studying in packs works well for their grades, as long as homework and projects carry a lot of weight. But in the setting such as the one I have for a core undergraduate course, it is all exam heavy and it shows how much each individual student knows, and the students can get surprised by how little that is. Yet, this class is important and I need them ALL to not only sort-of understand the material, but to actually know the material really well and to be able to calculate things.

{A related aspect that peeves me is students complaining that we somehow need to test their understanding only. I say that we test both understanding and proficiency. No, you don’t get to be just a concept thinker until you have demonstrated that you can actually do some basic problems, start to finish. [You should see the grumbling because I expect everyone to be able to, at all times, calculate the horribly complicated integrals of x^a (a\neq -1), sin x, cos x, 1/x, exp(a*x)].}

Another aspect that I am very tired of is students constantly asking that we only teach them the practical stuff that will get them a job and none of the useless abstract crap, presumably because at the tender age of 19 or 20 they know exactly what it is that they will or won’t ever use. Employers want what they want, and most don’t want to pay for it; they want a new graduate to come trained in all the minutiae that the employer (any employer!) could possibly want. The employers have no qualms about wanting the universities to act as trade schools, but they are not and they shouldn’t be.

Sure, we should provide training in the latest and greatest tools and techniques, because I agree that our students should be employable upon graduation. However, what peeves me is how joyously these kids rush towards becoming corporate cogs today, without stopping to think what will keep them employed 20-30 years from now. Why? Because the jobs that exist today didn’t exist 30 years ago. The only way you remain competitive for jobs over the long term is if you have a good, solid base in many basic sciences (for the physical sciences, that’s first and foremost math, then physics, chemistry, computer science, statistics…) as well as in writing and speaking. The stronger and wider your base, the better able you will be to change careers if needed.

I do my part, but I wish we collectively a did better job of communicating to our students that our job as educators is not to just ensure they get their first job out of college, but to give them the knowledge base and the self-study skills that will keep them nimble, growing, learning, and ultimately employable throughout their lives.

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 1

The spring semester is over! After months of heavy teaching and service, with a large helping of grant writing, I am now happily heading into 3.5 months of summer, which means a) frantically writing up and sending off several papers for publication, which had been sitting on my desk for longer than I care to admit; b) spending as much time as needed with some stuck graduate students, so they’d get unstuck and be able to move on with their projects; c) several complicated trips to conferences (no, it’s actually not glamorous or exciting), each with a jam-packed schedule of giving 2-3 talks at different meetings over the course of a week in order to maximize exposure per travel dollar.

This past spring, taught a large undergraduate class (of order 1 hecto-student) that is required for two majors; the people in one major appreciate it more than those in the other (who often consider it to be a cruel and unusual punishment). I hadn’t taught the course before, as the faculty who do research in a different area usually teach it, but I am perfectly competent to teach it and I found it fun and enjoyable for the most part. However, I had essentially no TA support, so I taught both the lecture and the discussion, and I graded all the exams myself, not to mention created all the course materials (including extensive solutions to weekly homework assignments).

This semester I also did an experiment. Since this is a core course, it is important to make sure everyone who passes it actually has not just sort-of an understanding of the material, but actual working knowledge that they would take into follow-on courses. I decided to teach and grade how I felt this course should be taught and graded, in order to actually teach them the material so that the vast majority of them are actually competent at the end.

This (bean-devouring leprechaun) means that many of the students, perhaps for the first time since starting college, got exposed the fact that they may not be quite as awesome as they always thought they were. People do not like being faced with this realization (which is, in fact, an inherent part of growing up).

If anyone thinks there is no grade inflation in K-12, I invite them to teach any large enrollment required course at a reasonably-to-highly selective institution. The GPAs required for enrollment are getting higher and higher (as are the GPAs required for the majors related to this particular course). Therefore, based on the GPA alone these are all spectacular students, smart and with great study habits. In reality, while I do believe that most of them are smart enough, many have exaggerated views of their abilities, and the vast majority are inadequately prepared in math (like algebra or pre-calculus) and actually have atrocious study habits, because high school was too easy. They were coddled and never properly challenged pre-college. Now, when faced with a really challenging class, they are bewildered, and in some cases (especially when a woman with a funny accent they can’t quite place shells out the challenge) they can become downright hostile. There was a kid this semester who spent the whole semester in seething rage, looking at me with flaming-hot hatred from somewhere in the back of the classroom; one really starts to worry about the ease with which people get access to guns.

No, people don’t like it when you show them that they are perhaps not as awesome as they always thought they were.

While all the exams had averages 70-80% and I had a nice distribution of grades, many felt the exams were too hard. Why? Because they all expect to get 90+% (being that they all had high grades in high school) and it’s my fault that the tests are not tailored to their individual level of preparation, rather than assuming responsibility for their own performance and pushing themselves to meet the requirements. The tests are designed precisely as they should be, and the fact that the students are not getting the grades they envision (because they all envision A’s without much sweat) means they do not actually have the understanding and proficiency that is required for that score, and they need to work more and come to office hours and discussion.

After the first test, many did get a wake-up call and started studying much more methodically, starting early on their assignments on their own, and attending office hours and discussions. They quickly realized that it’s certainly not impossible to get a good grade in my class, but you have to study and be smart about it. I am very proud of them and have told them as much; the material was hard, but they rose to the challenge.

The evaluations are back (a few years ago we went electronic) and while they are still plenty high (well above the department average and well above 4/5), there are a handful of kids who hate my guts. People say it can’t be avoided, bu it always bothers me a lot.

You know, when most kids say you are in the top 20% or next 20% of all teachers they’ve ever had, and one kid says you are in the bottom 20%.
Or when most kids “agree” or “strongly agree” that you are well prepared for class or that you are knowledgeable about the material, and then one kid “strongly disagrees”.
I wonder what the heck is wrong with these young haters. Do they grow up to expect the world to accommodate them and their preferences, and therefore spend the whole life disgruntled when that doesn’t happen?

I know I am supposed to focus on all the students whom I helped (there were many very good evaluations, and people saying they were inspired, and some wanting to specialize in this field, and students recognizing I cared about their success). However, as bad is apparently always stronger than good, what stays in my mind, at least short term, are the bad and especially nasty comments. If the student’s goal is to spoil my day, they are successful.

Why do I read the evaluations anyway? It’s not like I don’t have tenure, and plenty of faculty stop reading them sooner or later. I read them because I like reading the positive comments, I like to read the thoughtful and useful specific remarks about something that may be done differently; however, I so dislike reading the negative comments or seeing even an outlier negative vote, that perhaps I really should not read them at all.

More than anything, reading negative evaluations makes me wish I hadn’t spent quite as much time and effort on this course, trying to be available to as many and as often as I could. Many of my colleagues avoid teaching large-enrollment courses, have the bare minimum of exams (1 midterm, which I really think is not enough for undergrads), hold very few office hours, and generally attempt to get by with minimal effort. Instead, they focus their time and energy on research. And I feel stupid for basically sacrificing much of my semester to this very demanding class and then have some nastiness come out in the evaluations. Why the hell do I bother, I think?

I wish there were a way to extract how much of the negative is something I cannot fix — they dislike the fact that I am a woman and/or a foreigner, or whatever it is that I have that irritates some people as soon as I start speaking (being uppity for a woman/foreigner, perhaps). Although I am not sure that would make me feel better anyway.

But if this comment at nicoleandmaggie’s is any indication, my guess is that they mostly they don’t like being faced with their own inability to follow the class, their own poor preparation, and tough requirements, and they take it out on me.

Still. Knowing where the negativity comes from makes the evaluations no less infuriating in the short term, no matter how glowing the positive ones are.
(It probably doesn’t help that academic research, the other major part of my job, comes with a constant stream of criticism and rejection.)

What say you, blogosphere? How do you feel about teaching evaluations?


I really hate this type of statement, which is ubiquitous in the blogosphere:

“…I made a decision that is right for me…”

“You made a choice that is right for you and your family…”

“Make an informed choice to do what’s best for you.”

Of course people do stuff that is best for them. Who else are they best for? My aunt Muriel? I can assure you she doesn’t give a $hit, mostly because I don’t have an aunt Muriel.

Which brings me to the meaning of “judgmental.”

There are plenty of blog posts and articles about how people are judged for this, that, or the other. Sure, the usual suspects are there — judged for being fat, having/not having kids. But I have to say that I am puzzled as to what judged actually means. It seems to be overused to mean every type of disagreement. Many people state something that is right for them (*eyeroll*), only to quickly follow up how that doesn’t mean that the other choice is not valid or whatever.

I really don’t understand why everyone has to validate every opinion. There are plenty of choices that other people make that I think are wrong in the sense that I would never make them; I simply think my choice is better (for me, of course *eyeroll*). People make choices that I find boring, stupid, silly, ignorant, foolish, tasteless, and generally all sorts of idiotic. That doesn’t mean that those choices are necessarily (although they sometimes are) objectively wrong, or illegal, or that I think the people who make them are bad people (actually, there are some choices where I do really think those making them are bad people). But, for the most part, just because I think your choice is stupid doesn’t mean that you should care; I am sure many of my choices seem stupid or otherwise unfathomable to others, but so be it.

So what makes disagreeing with someone’s choice (as in, I like my choice better than your choice) judging them? I thought it’s reserved for “moral judgement” (you think that someone making a different choice is a bad person because of their choice), but it seems to spill over into the most banal of choices.


A few months ago, a reader asked me to comment on the pros and cons for having kids spaced more than the seemingly requisite 2 years.

Apparently I am all sorts of weird for where we live. I did several things “not by the book,” not because I had a grand master plan, but because some things unraveled how they did. For instance, even though I am a career woman, I had my first kid at 26 (almost 27) and not in mid-30s; female colleagues my age have kids the age of my youngest, women who have kids the age of my Eldest are considerably older than me.

Then I had large gaps between kids (7 and 4 years between successive kids). That seems to baffle pretty much everyone. Unlike “Where are you from?” which always pisses me off, I actually like the question about my kids’ ages; I am amused and not in the least bit irritated by people saying “Oh, that’s quite an age span!” or something else to the effect. I respond cheerfully “That’s academic spacing!” and say something about us both working and me traveling a lot, and my DH wanting to be able to stay with all of them without the stress being unbearable, which is true enough. In reality, after Eldest we were first too broke, we could barely cover daycare for 1 (both DH and I in grad school), then I graduated and DH and I lived in different states for 2 years, until we were finally in the same place again and having real salaries, at which point we had No 2, Middle Boy, right away. However, what I tell people is that I had No 2 after the first big grant (mid-tenure track), which is technically true, but doesn’t convey the intent and how things really went about, with being broke and all (and it probably shouldn’t anyway). Kid No 3 we had right after I got tenure; I tell people he was a present to myself for tenure, still technically true, but it only worked out that way because it took a while to get my husband on board, in part because he feared the stress of staying alone with two very little and one grade-school kid when I travel.

I think the greater age span helped financially: we only had 1 year with 2 kids in daycare. There are couples with 3 kids in daycare and I have no idea how they afford it; they all must make much more money than me. From the career standpoint, in my view it helps to not have two (or more) kids who are too young at the same time. (My female colleagues with multiple kids often hire nannies. I don’t trust myself not to hire an axe murdered and am much more comfortable with a daycare center (which also takes care of backup when the teachers are sick, etc.) We have been going to this daycare center for a long time.) Considering all my kids had recurrent ear infections, it would have really been hard to have several small kids at the same time. I think having kids spaced far apart helped me balance child responsibilities with my career; we are a dual career couple with no support network on this continent, so with multiple small kids at the same time, especially during the tenure track, I think things would have been much, much harder. (The thing is, when having a new baby, the older kids don’t actually go away — while caring for a newborn is hardest the first time around and gets better with experience, every subsequent time you have the newborn plus all the big kid(s) around to care for… And being older doesn’t help.)

Con for spacing the kids: they don’t play together as much as they might if they were closer in age. Eldest doesn’t care about Middle Boy at all, which saddens both MB and me. But MB and Smurf adore each other, and MB is a great older brother (although there is plenty of wrestling, smacking and kicking each other, and other rough play which is the boy version of cuddling). Eldest likes Smurf because Smurf is the most adorable creature to ever roam the earth, but treats him more as a pet than a brother. So I joke that we had a single child, and then we had two kids. Pro: Eldest can and does occasionally babysit.

In the mornings, I drop off Eldest before coming back to finish getting the Littles ready. Eldest’s former middle school and current high school are very close to one another, so I have already been driving there for 4 years ( 3 in middle school and 1 in high school). By the time he’s done and gone to college, I will have done it for 7 years. But then MB starts middle school, and then moves onto high school, and then Smurf. By the time they are all done, I will have driven that route for 18 years. *chills*

People think this one is a con, but I think it’s a pro: we have been having little kids in the home for 15 years. Little kids are awesome and I swear they get cuter and cuter as I get older.

What say you, blogosphere? If you have multiple kids, what are the pros/cons of the age difference?