Friday, September 10, 2010


About an hour ago I said the following out loud: "The last thing I want to do with these papers is grade them, yet the grade is about the only thing many of the students want to get out of it."

"By 'grade,'" I clarified, "I mean rate. I want to respond to them. I wish I could just bring the students in and talk their papers over with them, hand them back, and be done with it, maybe after one or two more rounds of revision."

Maybe I'll do that, after all. Maybe I'll move to a portfolio-style grading system right now.

I don't know.

I'm feeling somewhat cynical about my job right now.

Is the 12-15 hours I'm likely to spend in responding to students' work this weekend worth the reward I'll get for it?

For the roughly 80% of my students who clearly take pride in their work and give it all that they can and are getting a great deal of out of the courses I'm guiding them through, sure: the reward I get from them is a feeling of fulfillment, acknowledgment that I'm doing my job well, and that they're holding up their end of the bargain.

For the other 20%? I'm not so sure about that.

I've received 52 completed "Clock Problems" (the first written assignment of the semester for the Calc I students). Of those, 40 of them clearly put a fair amount of effort into solving the central problem posed to them, applying (with varying degrees of carefulness and correctness) the methods we've developed in class together for the past two weeks. The others...not so much. Of these 12, maybe half of them have some inkling of what it will take to present a reasonable solution to the problem; the other half are clearly out in the cold and have gained little, if anything, from the work we've done in class for the past two weeks.

On these 12 solutions I'm writing "Please come and see me at once: you can do much better than this, and I want to help you do so." I plan on offering them a chance to revise, and strong encouragement to do that.

I feel like I'm talking in circles right now.

I spent the afternoon at the writing across the curriculum workshop my colleague Betty Lou (of nearby Montreat College) and I organized (it was originally scheduled to run in January but was canceled twice on account of weather). It was a wonderful little get-together bringing folks from four different campuses together under one roof. The very convening of this group of people was worthwhile, and the conversations were enlightening and engaging.

The discussions about writing-intensive courses I shared with my colleagues at the workshop helped me to realize how leviathan is the task I've set out for myself: in teaching both Calc I and Linear as though they are writing-intensive courses, I'm effectively teaching writing-intensive courses with an enrollment of 102 students right now.

It's no wonder I'm tired.

Would I be happier teaching at a school where I'd teach two courses per term, each capped at 20? I could make use of every problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, application-based learning, discovery-learning, writing-intensive, student-centered teaching technique I'd like to, and they'd all be effective, simply because the classes would be of manageably small size. And I wouldn't drive myself insane in teaching that way.

I'd find that sort of opportunity at Bucknell, or St. Olaf, or Carleton, or Harvey Mudd. And the students I'd be teaching wouldn't all be working 20-30 hours a week, would likely be more intrinsically motivated, and wouldn't need as much coaxing and cajoling to get them on board with my methods.

Then the populist in me kicks in and says "don't the students who can't afford to go to such schools deserve a crack at learning through the same techniques?"

And I am where I am again.

I feel like I'm just talking in circles again.

I'm going to stop for now, before I begin making even less sense.

I'm going to write "please come and see me" a few more times, and then relax for the night.

Here's to a more upbeat tomorrow.


Bret Benesh said...

This, too, shall pass.

You do a good job, and your students do a good job. Here is my advice: get some sleep. Don't worry about 'grading' tonight. If it is still bothering you tomorrow, then switch to portfolio grading.

DocTurtle said...

Good call.