New Year Reflection and Resolution, Part III: Academia, Yet Again

Okay, this post should do it for visiting the "academia" part of my life. After surely boring my audience with all of that technical stuff that focused heavily on the aspects of academia that don't really include teaching, I thought I'd write today about, you know, my teaching. And bore you in a slightly different way! (My purpose of these posts, of course, is really not to bore you. But since this blog is primarily for my own edification, and less about creating a "brand" or developing a fan base, I have to sometimes use these posts as a way of deducing where I stand on certain issues, ergo the last two posts.)

Finally, after approximately 10 years, I've become more satisfied and confident in my teaching abilities and methods. My biggest struggle has been, and continues to be, balancing the demands of an instructor with those of my personal/writing life. So I'll address that, now, as a way of segueing into the next post, which will (hopefully) concentrate on writing.

At Stuffolk, we don't "do" instructor evaluations, so the only ways to really garner student feedback about your courses are 1) through the formal observation process that occurs with tenure and promotion, where your current classes have a "conversation" with your academic chair and a peer about how things are going that semester and 2), which most academics agree is loathsome and generally a forum for your least skilled-at-expressing-themselves students to complain, exposing their lack of knowledge concerning spelling, grammar, or in extreme cases, basic human decency. 

Usually I find that the observation process doesn't give me much to work with in terms of student feedback -- on the whole, students are polite and considerate when speaking with my academic chair(s), which is wonderful considering I've been up for tenure and/or promotion at those times, but they've never really said anything that I could use as fodder for changing or adjusting my methods of teaching.

My "rating" on RateMyProfessors indicates that I'm generally well-liked, albeit resented and despised by students who I injured in some way, like by not responding to their emails two seconds after they sent them, or "not understanding" that they worked 40 hours a week in addition to taking 18 credits-worth of courses in a semester. (Dear Student: It's not that I don't know about your full-time work schedule and your full-time course load. It's just that I don't agree with it. Either go to school or go to work. Or, if work is a necessity, take school part-time. I am not to blame for your overestimation of your time and abilities, nor am I to blame for your current economic frustrations.) 

One aspect of my teaching that's come up consistently, though -- even in the good ratings -- is that I ask for a lot of work from my students and that I take a long time to hand back papers. This was never a surprising criticism to me -- I'm well aware that I'm constantly asking my students to be actively engaged in the course via assignments, and I'm also very aware (and not a little ashamed) at how long it takes for me to return assignments with feedback and/or grades.

I think it's important to note that feedback is not the same thing as a grade -- and now that I'm thinking of it, perhaps I shall add something like this paragraph into my course outlines at the beginning of the semester. I don't really value grades, myself. I value feedback that I can use constructively to improve my performance -- and I would say that at least 60% of my students, if not more, feel the same (despite the pressure they have on them to secure good grades -- pressure from their parents, from the financial aid office, from programs of study they wish to enter, and from colleges into which they hope to transfer). Good grades are important, yes -- but how useful is that "good grade" if you don't understand how you came to earn it? And similarly, how useful is the poor grade if you can't identify the areas where you need to improve?

I believe that students value the feedback I give them and that -- and here the math-challenged writing professor is going to throw at you that same wildly-guessed number -- at least 60% of the students to whom I give detailed feedback use it to make improvements in their performance. Since I teach writing classes -- both expository and creative writing -- this performance can be difficult to quantify, really, but is nonetheless apparent. (And this difficulty with "quantifying" student performance has led me to the use of a scoring chart for almost all of the assignments in my classes, apart from the creative writing ones like poetry, short stories or plays -- essays in creative writing classes are still returned graded via a scoring chart).

The scoring charts have enabled me to grade more honestly, more fairly, and more efficiently -- but I'm not entirely sure how much that efficiency has translated to a faster return rate on papers (even though it should). I guess I don't see much difference in the amount of time it takes to grade the papers, but I do see far more improvement in student performance after including a scoring chart, so for that reason alone I'm a Scoring Chart Advocate. 

So -- if I can't really justify (or even, realistically, put into practice) a significant reduction in the time I spend grading each paper or assignment, how then can I ensure that I manage to grade 70+ papers and/or assignments within a reasonable time frame of one to two weeks?

The answer would appear to be "collect fewer assignments." A.P. has noted that students don't learn any more when asked to write 6-8 papers over a semester than they would if they wrote 3-4 papers that are constructed methodically and with careful attention to revision on a global scale. In fact, they probably learn far more from such a process. And yet, teaching 4 writing classes (as I do, typically, in a semester) and assigning 4 papers (or equivalent projects, taking into account my creative writing classes) still means I collect around 280 papers over the course of 15 weeks -- and that's an extremely conservative number not accounting for the full number of students on my rosters -- with the expectation that at least 3/4 of those papers should have constructive feedback regarding areas that need improvement (the last paper, the 4th, would most likely take the place of a final and would not necessitate extensive feedback, as the course has practically come to a close).

This doesn't even take into account the quizzes I usually assign for each reading assignment -- because if teaching at a community college has taught me anything, it's that community college students prioritize their homework (and sometimes their attendance) around the answer to the question: Will there be a quiz? If the answer is no, the assigned reading often doesn't get done, and then I'm at a loss for how to conduct a class with students who are unfamiliar with the material. Again, I've been given the answer, "just lecture," but I would rather disembowel myself publicly than base an entire 15-week course around lecture absent of discussion. I truly believe disembowelment would be less painful.

I mean, look at how painful it is to read this rambling-masquerading-as-essay! Can you imagine being subjected to this for an hour and fifteen minutes twice a week for 15 weeks? And my fragile ego could not withstand the battery of talking for 75 minutes while students actively texted in front of me, yawned, slept, drew graffiti and obscenities over their notebooks, or had full-out conversations with classmates while I spoke. Hara kiri? I'll take two, please! Anything other than 100% lecturing!

Anyway. Where the hell was I?

Oh yeah. I haven't really figured anything out, have I? Should I cut the number of assignments even more? I may, actually, reduce the number of "small stake" assignments I collect (read: I'll still assign them, because I believe in their usefulness) --  but, ultimately, I'm 100% sure most of my students won't do the assignments if I don't collect them. (I'm such a numbers gal today!)

Actually, as I wrote that last paragraph, I may have experienced a slight epiphany. My wish to ensure the success of my students is very similar to what I discussed in yesterday's post, re: my wish to ensure the success of the Creative Writing Festival. Because I want that success, above all things, I am hard-put to relinquish control over all the small details. But retaining control -- whether it means accomplishing CW Festival tasks myself, or forcing my students to complete small stakes assignments  and then grading them, comes at a huge cost to my psyche, and is extremely difficult to maintain. Also, it makes my colleagues grumpy when I fuck up, and it makes my students resentful when I've collected their work and they don't see it again for a solid month.

Ahhhh. I am a genius. Really. *Snort*

I knew these posts would be useful. To me. Maybe not so much to the 2-3 people who will find this floating in their email accounts tomorrow. (Sorry, peeps!)

Okay -- so -- to sum up: Small-stakes assignments will most likely have to be completed in class in order to make sure they're completed, period. These assignments, however, won't be collected. I'll need to make sure I state their purpose loud and clear so that students know why the assignments are necessary, even if I'm not collecting them.

That will cut down on a lot of grading in my Freshman Composition classes. There is, of course, the chance that it may not make a huge dent in my overall grading during a given semester . . . but there's also the chance that it will. I think that's a chance I'm willing to take.

Of course, I won't really be able to see how this pans out until Fall 2013 -- but I thank you, dear reader, for your patience while I figure this all out now, before I deliver Vampire Baby, my mind devolves into complete mush, and I develop amnesia when it concerns What Happened at School Pre-Vampire Baby.

I will have these last three posts to refer to -- and hopefully they'll set me up for a more streamlined, effective semester than I've ever experienced before.

A girl can dream, can't she?


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