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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It was the best of semesters, it was the worst of semesters...

Seriously, it was a weird semester (or 'is', since it isn't technically over yet). On the very bright side, my upper-division writing class was wonderful - I think this was the first time in thirteen years of teaching that every student in a class completed every major assignment (I'll ignore a handful of minor, not-paper assignments but even those had a 95% completion rate). There were some that were a few days late but there are no ZEROs for papers in my gradebook. I don't know if that was because I scared the heck out of the students on the first day, warning them about the amount of work in the class (one of my students commented in his end-of-course evaluation that on the first day, he thought, "Wow, this lady is INTENSE"), or it was because many of the assignments required that student swap papers with someone else and they didn't want to let down their peers, or if this was simply a particularly responsible group of students. Given that I also had almost no whiny emails or office visits from this bunch, I tend to think I just got a great draw. But whatever the reason, it was a pleasure to work with them. The only 'problem' is that I always grade upper division classes on an absolute scale (i.e., I don't curve, either up or down), and the students all did solid work, so I'm a bit afraid my chair is going to give me a hard time because the average grade in the class is so high. But that's a problem I'm happy to live with.

On the other hand, the average grade in my Principles class, in the absence of a curve, would be the lowest average of any of my classes in a long time. Although I know I under-estimated the difficulty of the second midterm, the class performed quite poorly on all the exams in general. More disturbingly, they seemed to do a lot worse on the in-class clicker questions than past classes, and during class discussions, it was pulling teeth to get anyone to explain their logic. Prior to the last week of class, there were only three (!) students who came to see me for help with material, even after that horrible second midterm. But I had about the same number of emails and office visits to complain about grades or to ask admin questions I had already answered in class or on the website. One advantage of having taught the course almost exactly the same way for three previous semesters is that I feel fairly confident that the problem was the students and not me, though I was still somewhat comforted when a colleague in a different department mentioned that the average in his intro psych class was the lowest in several semesters as well.

It's just odd. I wonder if the younger students were more affected somehow by the budget cuts - for many freshmen and sophomores, it's hard enough to manage their time and workload without having to also worry about furlough days and classes being cut, or maybe they were working more outside of school. Unfortunately, whatever the reason, that class being so frustrating often overshadowed the joy of the other course this semester. For weeks now, I've been looking forward to the end of this semester, to just put it behind me and look ahead to next year. But I also know that in a few months, I will think about this semester and I'm sure it will be my upper-division class that I will remember.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Compliment, disrespect, or just "these kids these days"?

For those who don't know me personally, and haven't figured it out from my name, I am a Japanese-American woman. I'm closer to forty than to thirty but because of my genes, I look a lot younger than I am. So it's not uncommon, when people find out what I do, for the response to be something along the lines of, "Gee, you look more like a student than a professor!" It took me a long time to not be offended by this. I realize that most people consider it a compliment, that they are saying I look much younger than they now realize I must be, but no matter how many times I hear it, it's hard not to think that they are saying something about more than just my youthful looks. It feels like they are saying that I'm somehow not a "real" professor because I just don't look the part. And of course, when these comments come from students, I immediately worry that if they think I don't look like a professor, then they won't treat me like a professor and give me the appropriate respect.

This was a huge worry of mine in graduate school but I assumed/hoped it would simply get better with time. But I'm thinking about this today because I just happened to hear the "you don't look like a professor" comment, or variants thereof, from three different people in as many days this week (hmmm, now that I put that into writing, I'm thinking: maybe I'm just having a particularly good week?:-)). But on top of that - and this really is the real crux of my issue - I had a student who came to see me twice this week, for undergraduate advising, who kept calling me Jennifer. Now, I almost never have this problem with undergrads because if they are in one of my classes, they hear me say on the first day that they should call me Dr. or Professor Imazeki (and I spell it out phonetically for them), and I make it a point to sign my emails 'Professor Imazeki'. But this student only came to me in my role as an undergraduate advisor. Perhaps he doesn't realize that department advisors are professors (I know he had already talked to our central advising office, which is staffed with, well, staff, not faculty), but at the very least, he could have addressed me as Ms. Imazeki. I felt like it would be too obnoxious for me to ask him to call me Dr. or Professor, but really, every time he said Jennifer, I wanted to shake him and ask him who the heck said he could call me Jennifer?

I know I'm extra-sensitive about it. And the reality is that with one exception, I haven't actually had any students who treated me directly with disrespect (other than the usual stuff like falling asleep in class) or who have tried to take advantage of what they think is my youth. I think I have to partly credit that to my mother and aunts who have perfected that attitude and tone of voice that instantly communicates "don't mess me with me, young man/woman", which I think I learned by osmosis... And I know that lots of students call other professors by their first name (or, as a colleague mentioned, by just their last name, without even a 'Mr' in front), and that I should be happy that at least some students like me more because I seem young. Or maybe if I stop dying my hair, I won't have this problem...

[Update: I wrote this last night and specifically avoided saying anything about my gender being part of the reason that people think I don't "look like a professor" (I happen to think it IS a part of it but figured I'd just focus on the "young" aspect), but this morning, a colleague happened to point me to this article in the Chronicle. Ugh.]

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Alone or together?

I wrote a little while ago about how I don't actually like group work. But a recent post from the Teaching Professor made me think twice about how I 'privilege' working independently:
We were discussing small groups and what to do with those students who resist participating in groups. They’re those independent learners who participate in group activities reluctantly and almost always prefer to do it alone. Should we excuse them from group work when they want to go it alone? There were points made on both sides. If they don’t learn well in social contexts, then why should we place them in situations that compromise what they’re going to learn? But group work is expected in so many professional contexts. Aren’t we doing students a disservice if we don’t help them develop the skills they’ll need to function effectively in groups?

Then Professor Betsy Mudler made an interesting observation—something I’d never thought of before. We are concerned about whether we should “force” (maybe the word’s too strong, “require”) student participation in group work. But when we have students working individually, we aren’t in the same quandry about those learners who really do better when they are working with others... Professor Mudler’s point was that our lack of concern about individual work speaks to the strengths of those assumptions we make about value of working alone and figuring it out for yourself.

I, too, can say I have never thought about this before. Although I have often thought that it is unfair to some students to "make" them work in groups, I have certainly never thought that it might be equally "unfair" to other students to "make" them work alone. Although I'm not sure how much I want to go out of my way to cater to such students, it has occurred to me as I design the new course I will be teaching in the fall, perhaps it would be good to give students some options for working alone or together.