Archive for: December, 2010

Students do the darndest things.

Dec 22 2010 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

In the designated in-class review session for a final exam:

Student: Could you make a list for us of all the philosophers whose views we need to know for the final exam?

Me: I already did. It's called the syllabus.

* * * * *

In an email the weekend before the final exam:

Student: I had some questions on the final review sheet ...

Rather than actually asking any questions, the email simply reproduces items listed on the review sheet under "Important concepts and terminology" and "Questions about the reading" -- lots of them. I start to wonder if this email is meant as a clever way to get the professor to write the student's page of notes for the exam.

Me: Look at the discussion of [this question] in [this textbook chapter]. For [that concept], you'll want to reread [that reading in the course reader]. Hope that helps!

* * * * *

From the official guidelines for short "reading response" essays on my course website:

Reading responses are due at the beginning of lecture.  No late reading responses will be accepted.  Of the 5 reading responses assigned, your lowest grade will be dropped from the average.  (If you skip one, that will be the one that gets dropped.)

In my faculty mailbox, on the day of the final exam, with no prior consultation and no note of explanation:

Two way-past-due reading response essays from a student who had only handed in two of the five when they were due.

17 responses so far

Repost: The solstice (in a two-sphere cosmos).

As I'm still barricaded in the Cave of Grading, and as the Winter Solstice may be upon us before I can emerge, victorious, here's a seasonal post from last December:

Here in the Northern Hemisphere (of Earth), today marks the Winter Solstice. Most people have some understanding that this means today is the day of minimum sunlight, or the longest night of the year. Fewer people, I think, have a good astronomical sense of why that is the case.

So, in honor of the solstice, let's do some old school astronomy. Really old school.

Let's consider the two-sphere cosmos:


Continue Reading »

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Some quick observations on lectures and other aspects of college teaching.

Dec 09 2010 Published by under Academia, Teaching and learning

There is an interesting conversation going on in the comments on this post, focusing largely on various aspects of our current model of college teaching. Sadly, I've been too swamped to jump in (largely because of the demands of college teaching -- go figure!), but I'm going to offer a quick and necessarily incomplete set of observations that may be of interest in pushing the conversation someplace productive.

On the pedagogical advisability of large lecture courses:

  1. I don't like them either.
  2. Some students really like them (prefer them, actually, to smaller classes) and seem to have developed effective strategies for learning from them.
  3. I know of no large lecture classes in my department that consist of an instructor speaking for three hours at a time. Indeed, even in 75 minute class periods, the instructors who teach large lectures (even with 100+ students) are using all sorts of strategies (from asking questions to having students take turns presenting background material to running small group activities that return to a whole-class discussion) to get the students to engage with the material (and with each other).
  4. Of course, I'm not ruling out the possibility that there are instructors in other departments or other universities who do drone on to their students for the whole class period (and that it might amount to three hours of droning).
  5. Not all large classes are offered in colleges or universities where there is funding for teaching assistants (or even for graders).
  6. Not all large classes are offered in colleges or universities where teaching is a valued (or seriously evaluated) part of a faculty member's professional duties.
  7. At some universities where teaching is a valued (and seriously evaluated) part of a faculty member's professional duties, budgetary pressures push in the direction of larger classes rather than smaller ones (since you're paying fewer faculty to process the same number of students, and, apparently, since the people controlling the budget think that producing educated human beings is just like making widgets in a factory).

On online courses as a solution to the problems of large lectures (among other things):

  1. Some students really do have an easier time engaging with course material (and each other) in online courses. I've described some of this in a post of yore describing my experiences teaching online.
  2. Some students have a harder time engaging with course material (and each other) in online courses.
  3. The differences I've noticed in which students take to the environment of online courses and which do not seem not to be generational. Rather, they seem to have more to do with learning style.
  4. An online course, taught in a way that takes student engagement seriously, tends to involve more instructional work (not less) than does a class of the same size in a classroom.
  5. I haven't yet seen a sensible way to automate an online class that delivers serious college-level material and gives meaningful feedback to students on their work and on their questions with the material.

On the pedagogical issues more generally:

  1. University faculty are usually taught approximately nothing about things like "learning styles" in the course of their training to be university faculty.
  2. I reckon it's possible that college students are usually taught approximately nothing about things like "learning styles" as they approach the project of being successful in their college classes.
  3. It requires serious effort to teach course material effectively, especially to a group of students with different learning styles, abilities, and levels of interest in the course you are teaching them.
  4. It requires serious effort to learn course material effectively, especially when you are sharing an instructor with a group of students who may have different learning styles, abilities, and levels of interest in the course than yours.

There's more I could say, but I have to go teach a class. Discuss.

8 responses so far

An ambiguous instruction.

In one of my classrooms today, I found the following on the lectern:



Well, the first class I taught in that classroom today includes symbolic logic. In that class, we have distributed. We have also associated and commuted.

In the section of "Philosophy of Science" that follows in the same room, not so much.

2 responses so far

Professorial conundrum.

I usually work at home on Mondays (since it's easier to get in the 16 hours you need to work if you don't have to spend two of them operating a motor vehicle). But today, to accommodate a student who needed to make up a quiz, I came in to the office.

The student arrived about 20 minutes ahead of our prearranged time, but I was happy to let him get started.

About 15 minutes after that, a colleague asked if I could strategize with him about a collaborative project that will involve some serious grant-writing in the next six weeks. In order not to disturb my quiz-taker with our talking, we went to the department conference room, just down the hall. First, of course, I informed my student that I'd be just down the hall if he had any questions. He indicated his awareness of this information.

Maybe 12 minutes later, I returned to my office, whose door was still open. There was no sign of the student making up the quiz. Nor, for that matter, was there any sign of his quiz paper. However, there is a folder on the desk where he was sitting that appears to be his, and a set of earbuds on the floor near the chair in which I left him sitting.

So ... does this means that he abandoned his plan to make up the quiz? Or that he took a bathroom break only to meet with a bad end in the men's room? Or that he was abducted (or disintegrated) by aliens?

As a practical matter, how long ought I to remain in my office to see if he's actually going to return?

14 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: the new science unit in four panels.

The younger Free-Ride offspring's class is apparently just about to move on from sediment-related issues and start a new science unit. Indeed, this week they even did an experiment as a preview of the new unit, which the younger Free-Ride offspring recounts with these four panels:


"First, blow up a balloon and tie it."


"Then rub a wool cloth on it."


"Finally, rub it against a wood cabinet."


"And it stayes up."

* * * * *

So, clearly the experiment was about static electricity, and we can look forward to more content on electricity (and probably magnetism) in the coming unit. And, I'm hopeful that there will be detailed discussion of some of the underlying physical structure that leads to these fun regularities in nature.

For instance, it would be cool if they talked about why charging a balloon enough to get it to cling to the cabinet or wall seems to be easier in winter. Why should cold, dry weather be better for generating a charge separation than warm, wet weather?

Using the wool cloth (as opposed to the hair on your head, like we did when I was a kid) is pretty fancy. If they examine the permutations of wool cloths and silk cloths rubbing glass rods and rubber rods, dare I hope that there will be some discussion of why certain materials are better at grabbing up electrons and others are better at depositing them?

(And just now, I'm wondering whether it's a safe assumption that the fourth grade science class will even discuss electrons in the context of electricity.)

Also, why, in the fourth panel, does my childe spelle like Isaac Newton?

6 responses so far

Things observed while sitting in on colleagues' classes.

Dec 01 2010 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

One of our professional duties in my department is sitting in on colleagues' classes and writing peer-reviews of their teaching. This is almost always a useful activity, and I usually learn a teaching trick or two that I might be able to use in my own classes.

This semester, though, while sitting in on these classes, I've seen student behavior that, if not new, seems to have crossed a threshold where it is more prevalent and undisguised than I've seen before.

Those students who, from the front of the classroom, look all industrious on their laptops? Were playing games on Facebook, checking their friends' online photo albums, posting messages on what looked to be gaming discussion boards, checking TV listings (and possibly setting their DVRs remotely), buying shoes, scoping out concert tickets, watching a kung fu movie (with the sound muted), and checking in on online discussions for other classes. The one student who was using her laptop during lecture to complete peer reviews of classmates' papers (for another class) seemed like the model of diligence.

All of this, I should note, was on the quarter of the laptops in the classroom that I could easily see from my seat near the edge of the classroom. I cannot report with any authority on what was happening on the other 75% of the computers that were in use. Maybe someone was actually using one of them to take notes on the lecture.

I will confess to some relief that none of the screens in my line of sight were being used to view pornography. Perhaps this means that students are not quite as brazen as they might be in the classroom. Or maybe a 7:30 am class is just too early for porn.

Anyway, my problem now is returning to my own classes, where a fair number of laptops are fired up every week, with the full confidence that all of those are being used to take notes, consult the course website, and so forth. If there were a button at the front of the room that could block wifi reception in the classroom, it would be pretty tempting to use it.

56 responses so far

Blog note: resurfacing.

Dec 01 2010 Published by under Academia, Passing thoughts, Personal

You will have noticed (if you haven't given up on me altogether) that things have been very quiet here.

I have been slogging through the toughest semester of my academic life. I'm including in this consideration all 26 of the years I was a student and each and every one of my pre-tenure freak-out semesters here. When people ask how I'm doing, I've taken to replying that my job is trying to kill me, and I'm only joking a little when I say it (because I don't believe that my job itself actually has intentions).

I'm hopeful that things will get better, but honestly, it's hard to know. The increased workload doesn't show much sign of receding (because, you know, the state of California is still broke, so public employees should just be thrilled to have jobs rather than agitating for more resources, or for job demands that might allow them to sleep occasionally or spend a weekend day with their kids).

What I do know is that cutting out the blogging to try to stay on top of the work is not working for me. It feels like, for me, the blogging is a crucial mechanism for reflection. Without it, I feel like I don't have a sense of what I'm really accomplishing, or of why it matters, or of who I am as I'm hurtling though it. I feel stuck in my head in a tangle of chaos, and that's not making my stupid workload any easier to live through.

All of which is to say, I do not know when my blogging will "get back to normal" as far as the longer pieces on science and ethics that I used to write before work ate my brain, but I will be writing something here regularly, because it's the only way I know to survive this.

16 responses so far