Friday, January 21, 2011


We are at the end of the second week of the semester. Enrollment in classes has more or less evened out. The students who are coming to class have, more than likely, the intention of finishing out the semester. Whether they are able to do so successfully, though, will depend on any number of factors. Unfortunately, the majority of those factors are absolutely out of my control.

Yesterday we had our first quiz in one of my courses. First quizzes can be difficult. You don’t know how the instructor writes questions, what type of information they’re looking for, how to read the questions. In this particular course, I provide a study guide for my students in advance. I create the study guide from the actual quiz, making sure that I indicate the topics that will be covered.

I also allow students to use a note card - a ‘cheat sheet’ if you will - during the quiz. I don’t do this in my other courses. I question the wisdom of doing it in this course as well. I wonder if I’m being too easy on them, too indulgent. I justify my choice because of the fact that the material in this course is very foreign to many students and the textbooks are really written at the 3000/4000 level as opposed to the 2000 level where this course, of necessity, resides on our campus. Even with the study guide and the note card – many students average a solid ‘C’ on quizzes throughout the semester. In the past I have attributed this to the difficulty of the course material and the ‘newness’ of the topic to most of my students. Today I am questioning those assumptions.

After the class a student approached me to talk about the quizzes. He admitted he didn’t think he had done well on the first quiz – earning 6 out of 15. He is correct in his self-assessment. He asked whether the remaining quizzes would be as hard. I assured him that they would. I then went on to give him advice about how to study. My comments went something like this:

When you sit down to read the chapter, be sure to have the study guide with you. As you are reading, take notes on the concepts that are listed on the study guide, summarizing the ideas in your own words. Check off each item as you come to it, to make sure you don’t miss anything in the reading. Then, study the notes you’ve made on the study guide. After that, condense the ideas down into more concise wording to put the concepts on your notecard. If you do this, you should be pretty well prepared to do well on the next quiz.

This student looked at me as though I had grown a second head. His response was, “I don’t have time for that.”

My student asserted that he had other classes and life obligations and that he just wasn’t going to spend that much time on this. When I suggested that he should consider whether he should be taking the class this semester, that maybe 4 classes was too many for him, he was quick to assert that he wasn’t going to drop the course. He just doesn’t have the time to do the basic studying required. When I
reminded him that there were assignments other than the quizzes - group projects, papers – he simply repeated that he doesn’t have time for this.

It was a fascinating experience. I could literally see the magical thinking going on in this student’s head. I “shouldn’t” demand so much of him. I “shouldn’t” expect him to read or study. I “shouldn’t” advise him to reconsider his decision to take this course. I “should” change my standards and make my course easier. I “should” ask less. I “should” reduce the course expectations. He ‘should’ be able to get a good grade in the course without actually doing any reading, writing or studying.

So where does this thinking come from? Have we watered down our educational system so much that even the most basic expectations of reading and taking notes are now considered ‘too demanding?’ Is any expectation of prioritizing school, homework, and studying above socializing or personal life simply an archaic notion that doesn’t recognize modern life and its demands? Do we really expect that we can learn a new concept without any effort on our part? Do we really expect to have a college degree handed to us in exchange for a swipe of our credit card?

Maybe it’s the consumer mentality that has taken over much of academia. Maybe it’s the sense of entitlement that we hear talked of so much in reference to this particular generation. Maybe it’s simple, old-fashioned laziness. Whatever it is – the result for my student is grave disappointment. The quizzes won’t get any easier, the demands of the class won’t get any lighter. I’m sticking to that old-fashioned standard that you do have to read, you do have to write, you do have to study.

today’s image -

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


In December I was in conversation with a couple of my colleagues and the topic of technology came into the discussion. Both of these colleagues teach on-line, one entirely and one partially. They were making the point that I just didn’t understand the demands of such work – that they were forced to work more and harder in order to teach in that particular environment than I do in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. Hmmm.

I know that one of the difficulties of the working world is the comparisons. We have been raised in a competitive culture – where it is rewarded to do better than the person next to you. One of the things that engenders, then, is the tendency to compare ourselves to others. We look at others to make sure that they are working as hard as we are – putting in the same effort, the same time. I think that it is also human nature to assume at some level (perhaps unconscious) that we work harder, better, longer than others around us. It certainly is consistent with that tendency in perception that we teach in the Interpersonal classes – “we see ourselves in the best possible light.” I know that I succumb to this tendency as well. I think (hope) I’m just not quite so quick to say that thought out loud to one of my colleagues!

I admit that I didn’t react all that well. I suggested that we all work hard and I didn’t really believe that they worked any harder than the rest of us – they just worked ‘differently.’ One of them then asserted that I just didn’t understand the demands and expectations that have been put on them – answering emails at 3 am, for example. That’s where I really lost it. I asserted that they were feeding me a line of crap and that I didn’t believe a word of it! How’s that for direct? I told them very clearly that in my opinion they both needed to get a life and set some boundaries! (And yes, I know I could have said it a little more gently.) I answer student emails from home. I answer student emails on weekends. I do NOT answer student emails at 3 am. And, if any administrator ever tells me that I need to be answering student emails at 3 am, then it’s time for a chat with my union grievance representative!

This morning when I logged on to my Facebook page there was a posting from the college’s Humanities and Fine Arts page. It contained a link to an article in today’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on some of the latest technologies that can enhance our teaching. In this article, the author makes reference to a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who keeps his syllabi loaded on a hand-held device so that “when a student emails to ask about an assignment deadline while Mr. Parry is at the grocery store, he knows.”

Really? Now I’m expected to answer a student email while I’m at the grocery store?

Please don’t misunderstand. I believe in being available to my students to answer questions. If a student wants me to look at a rough draft or an outline, or has a question about a concept that they are trying to understand as they study for the next exam, I am more than happy to respond to those questions, even at home, even on the weekend. But carrying my syllabi around so that I can tell a student when a paper is due while I’m buying my groceries seems beyond a reasonable expectation to me. That student was given a copy of the syllabus when they enrolled for the course. They can just as easily look up that information as I can. Why on earth should I be responsible for taking charge of that student’s calendar or schedule? This hardly seems like helpful help to me. One of the skills we all need to learn is the ability to track and manage our own deadlines and responsibilities.

It seems to me that with this increasing encroachment of technology into all our lives we all need to be more diligent about setting some boundaries. You don’t have to answer your cell phone every time it rings. You don’t have to respond to a text message the moment it comes in. You don’t have to reply to an email at 3am. We all need down time – private time. We need time to breathe, time to think, time to relax, time to imagine. Not putting boundaries on the technology demands in our lives eats away at the margin- the white spaces in our lives that allow us to do that necessary regrouping.

So, we’re gearing up to start a new semester. I intend to be available to my students. I intend to be responsive and flexible. I intend to do my job well. I intend to do so with clear boundaries about where my work life ends and my personal life begins.

Today’s image comes from