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Monday, November 1, 2010

Trade-offs stink

I have 135 students across two sections of my Data Analysis class, and 40 students in my other class, Economics for Teachers. This weekend, I graded a set of short (2-4 page) papers from the Econ for Teachers class and it took me about five hours, total, spread over a couple days - I have a basic rubric and I do not make very extensive comments because I feel like I simply don't have time, plus the papers were fairly straightforward and the writing was generally fine. Tomorrow, I will get a bunch of 3-4 page papers from my data students and I expect those to be much more difficult to grade, both because the content is more complex and the students generally don't know how to write like economists. So I'm sitting here doing the math and anticipating it will take me somewhere on the order of twenty hours (that's hopefully). And because of the other stuff I need to get done (mostly class prep), and the fact that I just can't grade for more than a few hours at a time, realistically, I know I should tell the students not to expect the papers to be graded for at least two weeks.

But the part of me that always wants to be Super-Prof is appalled at that. Aren't we supposed to give students useful and timely feedback? Two weeks doesn't seem very 'timely' to me. So I think, "Well, I could just hunker down over the weekend and try to knock out most of the grading so I can at least get them done within one week". But then the part of me that is desperate for better life balance responds, "Yeah, but what about L's birthday? And J is traveling for work all week so what about spending time with him when he gets back? And what about simply not wanting to kill yourself?"

And then there's the fact that I'm also trying to work out the Final Project for this class, which will be turned in at the end of the semester. Given that the class is supposed to be all about critical thinking and not just plug-and-chug statistics, I decided not to give a final exam but to have students do a data project instead; however, I haven't actually written up the assignment yet. So I'm trying to do that now and realizing that if I have the students do what I had originally wanted them to do, the result will have to be papers of at least 8-10 pages and I will be grading until New Year's. So I find myself wondering: what is the minimum I can have them do without feeling like I'm compromising their education too much? Or to put it the other way around, what is the most I can have them do without killing myself?

This isn't necessarily meant as an indictment of my teaching load - I realize that there are instructors out there who teach more sections and have more students, and are able to accomplish more with their students (right? You do exist, don't you?). I just know that given what I am expected to do for the rest of my job (i.e., research and service), and what I demand for my own happiness (i.e., at least a few hours a week when I can be NOT working), there are limits to what I can do as a teacher when I have this many students in upper-division courses. The economist in me is realistic enough to understand those trade-offs but the Super-Prof wannabe in me feels incredibly guilty. I know there's no such thing as a free lunch but why does it feel like either I or my students have to starve?

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