Learning from Students

I’ve been thinking about the question of learning from our students (what do we learn and how do we learn it). I saw a post on Twitter that caught my attention.

3 students studyingDeanna Mascle posted a link to a blog post she wrote last year. However, as many blog posts, its relevance is not time limited. “What Can You Learn From and About Your Students?” talks about doing IRB approval for pedagogical research each semester. That is something I had not considered before.

Rhetoric of Academics: Making a Living

I’m thinking a lot today about the rhetoric we use in relationship to our profession. This has been brought on by a series of readings, mostly unrelated to each other in terms of clear point-by-point connections, but related to each other at least through my interest in them and that they have comments about how we speak (mostly) about the profession.

Won’t Make You Rich

William Pannapacker @pannapacker
Saying academe “won’t make you rich” obscures the reality that most academic workers are adjuncts making $2,700 per course on average.

My response to this was, who makes $2,700 per course? I know there are some places that pay $4,000 a course, (I believe it was University of Anchorage.) but Cost of Living there more than makes up for that difference.)

But this was actually a later post. His earlier post said this:

William Pannapacker @pannapacker
Think we need to stop telling students that going into academe “won’t make you rich,” as if material considerations were purely mercenary.

What about the mercenary material considerations?
My eldest son chose not to go into teaching, even though he is good at it and enjoys it, because “it’s twice the work for half the money.”

I think he would have been okay with twice the work or half the money, but not both.

What did Pannapacker mean by mercenary material considerations? Maybe he meant that we shouldn’t say “you won’t get rich” because students aren’t really concerned about being rich. If that is what he meant, then I definitely agree.

If Pannaker meant we shouldn’t talk about work in terms of finances, which I do not think was his point, then he would be way off track.

But his first post in the list (the later Twitter post) actually clarifies what he meant. Don’t tell your students they won’t get rich. Tell your students they will barely survive financially.

Why don’t students believe that?
So why would our students, who read as well as we do–and sometimes read more, believe us when we say academics don’t get rich? They know it’s not necessarily true.

People tend to dwell on the extremes. So the professor who sold the freshman calculus book and owns a multi-million dollar home in Canada is news as well as the full-time adjunct with a PhD who gets food stamps.

Students aren’t idiots. They know these are the extremes. They don’t expect to be on food stamps and they don’t expect to own a multi-million dollar home in Canada (or anywhere else).

What they do expect is to be in the middle. It’s the norm.

What is the middle?
My response to Panneker’s post, which probably did not appear particularly relevant, said:
They read. “study shows that at UC-Boulder tatt prof ave salary $103,513.teach & office hours ave 4.93 hrs/wk” –It was Twitter. I only had 140 characters.

I read the above statement just yesterday in the comments on an article about adjuncts, I believe. Yes, WNPR News: Adjuncts in Academia.

A study under way shows that at UC-Boulder tatt professors have an average salary – excluding a myriad of benefits – of $103,513. They teach and hold office hours for an average of 4.93 hours a week (and that’s for the 30-week academic year). They publish an average of 0.63 papers and 0.06 books a year; the median number of citations of their works is 3.35 per professor/year. In a word: the faculty at Boulder are paid high salaries for teaching 148 hours a year and for publishing works that are not only extraordinarily little in number but are demonstrably of almost no interest to their fellow academic.

The commenter’s point was that professors get paid too much to do too little.

This is what students think is the middle.

At My University
Even at my school, where ft tt professors make considerably less than their public school counterparts, there are professors making six figure incomes. Students may think, okay, I won’t make that starting out, but they do think that eventually they will get there. And they might–if they are teaching business or law.

What students at our college don’t realize is that those six figure incomes are the extremes here.

The university employs very few adjuncts (both percentage and in raw numbers) and most of those are truly part-time. They teach a class or two and they are rarely hired two semesters in a row. They cannot make a living on it, a fact true of most adjuncts anywhere, but there is not systemic abuse. This semester my department, the largest on campus, has 1 adjunct teaching 2 classes. I am fairly sure if a department were hiring multiple adjuncts for multiple classes it would be news on campus.

Students here know you can’t make a living as an adjunct. They haven’t even seen people try it, though they may have seen past graduate students cobbling a living together doing a combination of full- and part-time jobs. But they also know that there are plenty of people doing those full-time positions and living on that salary. They assume the part-time work is for love of the discipline—which it often is.

What happens when you tell students academia is a poor choice for a career?
Students don’t believe it. I think the number one reason they don’t believe it is because it is our career. We are the professors doing what they want to do and we are saying don’t do it. Normally that would make us an expert. In this case, though, I think it works against us.

They see the professors telling them they won’t survive surviving. They don’t see the loans, the unfixed floors, the vacations that are working trips funded by grants. They don’t even see our salaries, since we are private.

They may look at professors at public universities and think that is the norm and they look at the range of salaries and expect to be in the middle—not realizing that the range of salaries is dependent on both time in the field AND the field.

In the humanities, our students will start at the bottom—if they can find full-time work.

But students don’t believe that. No one believes that. Everyone always believes they are the exceptions.

Dr. Lee Skallerup @readywriting and I have had this conversation before. I have a ft-tt position. I was an adjunct for years. She has a ft, non-tt position. She was an adjunct for years. Our students see us having made it and they think that they will make it, too.

That’s why they don’t believe us.

Advice for Students on Missing Class

Dr. Lee Skallerup Bassett offers some good advice to students when they have missed or will miss a class.

I especially appreciated the “Before You Reach Out 1. Read the syllabus” section.

I will probably make this a link for my students on the next iteration of the syllabus, but considering that my students often don’t do what I specifically require them to, I probably won’t get a lot who go and read it. However, the better students and the more paranoid ones will read it and that will help educated them.

I think it would be particularly helpful for a freshman class, which I did not have this semester.

A Richer World

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, says that “the world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for” (268).

In this section Gladwell is talking about the fact that public education in the United States WORKS (255-260).

The public education system is actually quite effective. In our education system, Johnny and Jill can learn to read, if they are in school.

Based on fairly rigorous research by Karl Alexander, Gladwell says the real problem is our summer vacations. Over summer vacation wealthy students learn a lot. Students in poverty learn almost nothing. Over five years of summer vacation, they don’t even learn enough to raise their reading level a percent. Rich students raise their by 52% over the same amount of time.

I do not believe the answer is to reapportion wealth. But if we are seriously interested in equal opportunity in the United States, then we need to have summer school, at least for the lower SES students–not as a punishment but as a way of enabling them to keep up with the wealthier children.

Key to Becoming a Genius

In the section of Outliers dealing with KIPP and math, Gladwell says several things which, while they may seem unrelated here, seem to me to imply a quilting of implications.

Willingness to keep working?
First he said that being good at math is a function of success and willingness to keep working (246).

Students who are willing to keep working, trying to figure out what it is that needs to be done, are more likely to succeed. That success makes them more likely to be willing to work on a problem even longer the next time.

Math geniuses, like my eldest son, are folks who are willing to sit and fiddle with a math question for twenty or thirty minutes, trying to figure out how it should work. I know that my eldest does this. I have seen him do it.

What is Motivation?

According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, motivation comes from doing work that is complex, when you have autonomy, and there is a clear relationship between effort and reward (150).

How can I provide that in an English classroom?

If I adopted the five point rubric suggested in one of the articles I was reading recently, I might could do that. I need to consider it. Can I name the five without looking them up?

ideas
organization
sentence structure
wording
?

That’s not terrible, four of the five. I think identifying it as ideas, rather than content, which is what I do now, might be an improvement. I am far more likely to mark reasonable ideas as acceptable without thinking perhaps I should give it a superior. Content, on the other hand, is so general to me that I think if they put in only what applies and they did a decent job, perhaps it should receive more than acceptable.

Students Teaching Themselves

It is a scary thought. If my students can teach themselves, what will I do for a living?

I doubt it will impact my job situation (since I won’t be teaching in 25 years and education is slow to change), but it might impact others.

But I also see it as a positive and hopeful sign for the world at large.

Listen to Sugata Mitra’s LIFT talk on the Hole in the Wall Project, found at TED. He won the 2013 TED Prize.

Plagiarism Lament

Today I was thinking about a time when I was grading an excellent student’s essay. This was an assignment designed to not be plagiarizable. (I’m a PhD in English. I am the most qualified person to make up new words, don’t you think?)

This was the evaluation essay.

For this essay, the students took the commercial analysis they did as a group and wrote an evaluation of the commercial individually.

They had to discuss the commercial’s success or effectiveness in reaching the target audience and with the commercial’s argument, but other than that, they could choose their focus.

The evaluation essay, coming at the end of the semester when many other papers are due, was designed to be an easy assignment, as it built on four weeks’ worth of work the students had already done with their group.

But when I hit “ideologies of primitivism” in the paper, I knew this was probably not my student’s work. We haven’t discussed primitivism in class. So I searched for it, along with the commercial’s name, and found it right away. It’s a group post created for a different class.

I was so disappointed. Academic integrity fail.

Each semester I try to make my classes less plagiarizable and I still get experiences like this one. It is so frustrating, especially when it comes from a student who has been strong in the class previously. For some reason, when it is a weak student I find it less frustrating. I guess I figure they don’t want to fail and they have figured out their work isn’t up to par, so they go looking for work that is up to par.

Which also reminds me of the time that I had a student handing in consistently D level work and, after the fourth essay, I discovered all of them were plagiarized. Made me revise my syllabus once again–to allow for requirement to turn in previous assignments a second time. For a while I just collected all the essays from the semester during the final exam.

What Can You Do with a Graduate Degree?

Let’s take Klondike’s “Five Second Challenge to Glory.” Do something hard for five seconds. Brainstorm (that’s something we do well, right?) answers to the question: What can you do with a graduate degree in English? Go!

research– anything that needs it, even be a dramaturgue
write– analyze, evaluate, discuss: anything that needs to be long and involved, but could write shorter on demand
edit– excellent at finding the organizational or grammatical flaws in work already written
think– but not outside the box, perhaps at the edges of the box: a good thinker in an area where most of the work has been done and people are trying to finish it up
— also can come up with new reasons (interpretations) for things: This is someone who will not let the first word be the last. This can be useful to help others get out of their boxes.

I came to this challenge from a post on Why Grad School is a Trap, though it has been relabeled, and the statement that most intrigued me (as someone who escaped the trap and “made good” twice over):

But higher education is too formalized to be called pure learning. It is too geared towards the production of new knowledge, new scholars, new theoretical interventions to be a place where thinkers come to dialogue and to sit and converse in the garden.

Just thinking on the internet.