Things I Do When I’m Angry

Students in my adjunct professor’s Congress class objected yesterday to doing a 7-9 page paper with the following requirements.

Choose a policy issue of interest to you that has pending legislative action in Congress. Your paper should 1) include a background of the issue, 2) key interest groups involved, 3) key political players involved, 4) where the pending legislation is currently at in the Congressional process, 4) who introduced and has co-sponsored the legislation, and 5) the possibility of congressional passage.

The students claimed they couldn’t fill up 7 pages on that assignment, and they’d have to add a lot of fluff to get there. Mind you these are sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

The possible causes of their reaction seem to be: a) they’re just not that smart; b) they’re just that lazy, c) they’re rationally pushing the adjunct to see how far they can get. Knowing some of the students involved, I’d say all three motivations are at work to varying degrees.

So I did the assignment myself. I began last night and completed it today. I have twelve full pages and (as I note in it) I skipped the element of discussing the key interest groups involved, so I don’t deserve an A on it. I’m going to talk to his class tomorrow to express my disappointment in them, hand them my paper as an example, and invite any of the political science majors who can’t complete a 7 page paper to change majors.

Part of this may in fact be my fault. I’ve traditionally asked for shorter papers because I’ve tried to focus on the process more than getting a big project done. But I now suspect that means I’ve not been demanding that they do as much research and as much synthesizing of what they uncover. (Of course part of my reason has been that reading a five page undergraduate paper can be a grueling experience, much less a 10-15 page example of the art of idiocy.) But I think I’m going to have to buck up and start demanding longer papers so that they damn well become accustomed to it. Of course it’s only in my 10-level class that I’ve ever asked for anything less than 7 pages, so that still doesn’t excuse them.

And while it’s rather strange that I would suddenly take time out of my schedule (grading be damned!) to write an undergraduate paper, it was a good reminder in how much a student can learn from actually doing the research for a lengthy paper. I now have a very clear understanding of the prospects of closing the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal to prevent Asian carp from potentially getting past the electric fence and migrating out of the Mississippi basin (where in some locales they constitute over 90% of the biomass) into the Great Lakes. The prospects in this legislative session are vanishingly remote, because none of the supporters are well positioned on committees or subcommittes to push it through, one Illinois congressman through whose district the Canal runs is well-positioned to block it, Republicans control the House of Representatives, and the President opposes closure.

Now aren’t you glad you know that?

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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18 Responses to Things I Do When I’m Angry

  1. D. C. Sessions says:

    I truly love evil professors. I had one who assigned a group project for most of the semester, with a pretty good scheme for compensating for the differences in individual contribution.

    Another assigned the usual small programming projects and told us that we would be graded on how maintainable they were (they all say that). And then later handed out the stuff we’d done and changed the specs so that I received someone else’s project and had to modify it. His grade on the first one depended on what I did with it, including how much I had to change.

  2. AMW says:

    7-9 pages is now considered long?

    I used to have to change my font and spacing to fit the text to the professors’ length criteria; but it was to fit all my ramblings in, not to fill them out.

    I guess that’s why I ended up a professor.

  3. Lance says:

    I feel your pain.

    I am teaching, for the first time, a math course at IUPUI that isn’t designed for science or engineering students.

    It is a 100 level “finite math” course, M118. It’s a kind of survey of mathematical topics, such as statistics, probability, matrix methods, etc. designed to give liberal arts majors a taste of the math that even non-scientist/engineers might be required to at least have heard of before being awarded a university degree.

    It is taught in one of those huge tiered lecture halls like the ones from the movie The paper Chase.

    I practically need a whip and a chair.

    There are some good students but I spend a fair amount of time telling people to shut up or put away their i-phones.

    Professor Hanley, maybe we’re just getting old.

  4. James Hanley says:

    AMW–I have had a few students like you. They’re always the brightest. For some I have purposely required them to use regular font and margins and given them a page limit, telling them I know they can write a very good lengthy paper, but now they need to learn to condense. I have a sophomore right now who’s allegedly about to turn in a 35 page paper for the introductory research methods class, which is at least 3 times the size of what I really want. And I’m desperately hoping I’ll be able to ding him for rambling and repeating himself, but I’m sure I wont’ be able to. Yeah, that’s why you became a professor.

    Lance–This is actually happening in a class populated mostly by majors, which is why I’m particularly distressed. But normally the non-majors classes are toughest. Fortunately I never have to teach a class larger than 45, and rarely that large. Mine are small enough that I can effectively eliminate texting in class by kicking them out out class. Or as I did this week, implying that it looks like they’re masturbating under the table. “What are you doing!? Oh, I saw your hands under the table and they were kind of [imitate shaking hand movement], so it kind of looked like….” That was a majors class, though. You have to know your audience before you pull that off.

    I have no idea what works in a public university with a really large class. 25 students in American government can be wearing enough when only about 3 seem to have any interest in the subject. Although, strangely, the class seems to have suddenly have become more interested these last couple of weeks, as the term winds down, which defies all expectations and previous experience. I should take a psych course in adolescent group dynamics–maybe then I’d understand these odd little primates who pay my salary.

  5. Lance says:

    Yeah, it would be disheartening to have a class full of non-freshman majors show that level of apathy and disinterest.

    I don’t think I’ll teach this class again. Being an adjunct myself I rarely get to teach anything but the lower level courses but at least when I teach to science and engineering majors I know that they should have an interest in the subject material because they will need the mathematics to succeed in their core classes.

    Sadly, even then a significant portion of the class usually phones it in.

    I think the advent of the computer and other hand held devices has lowered attention levels even more than that earlier attention span destroyer the TV.

    Also, I am literally shocked at how many recent high school grads think that I am being an asshole for asking them to put away their toys and not to talk to their classmates during class.

    One arrogant little punk actually told me that I needed to change my “teaching style” to accommodate people that wanted to talk to each other during class. It was all I could do to keep from telling him to fuck himself.

    Unlike you I’d be afraid to find out what is actually going on in their soft little heads.

    I am either going to finish my grad work and my thesis so I can dedicate more time to research and teaching actual physics majors or I’m going to quit teaching. I am tired of being a baby sitter.

  6. James Hanley says:

    One arrogant little punk actually told me that I needed to change my “teaching style” to accommodate people that wanted to talk to each other during class.

    Yeah, that’s when I give them the lecture about how they’re going to be outcompeted in the workforce by people who don’t text in meetings.

    I lectured this class mentioned above today, and hit them with what is, for them, the big guns. I asked how many of them were going to be wanting letters of recommendation from their profs someday, and when they all raised their hands, I said, “So are you going to ask for a letter of recommendation from him after this? Are you going to ask for a letter of recommendation from me?” Sometimes you can tell that you’ve really struck home–their eyes got wide. I also invited them to change majors to something different. Students are accustomed to having faculty encourage them into the major, not out of it.

    And I think now that I’m going to put an add-drop slip in my class notebook, so when a student complains I can just hand them the form. Words are fine, but we all know that actions speak louder. Credible commitment and all that. The biggest mistake some of us faculty make is actually engaging students when they complain, which immediately legitimizes the complaining, instead of taking actions that immediately delegitimizes it.

  7. Lance says:

    The biggest mistake some of us faculty make is actually engaging students when they complain, which immediately legitimizes the complaining, instead of taking actions that immediately delegitimizes it.

    This is excellent advice.

    After arguing with the talkative student I finally said. If you interrupt class again I am going to ask you to leave and only come back when you have met with your academic advisor to discuss the code of student conduct regarding disrupting class and have him or her sign a letter stating that you understand that this is unacceptable.

    The little twerp had the nerve to tell me that the only one that was bothered by his talking was me! I told him that what happened next was up to him, I had made myself clear.

    He walked off muttering “What ever!”

    I am going to print up a lettering for his advisor recounting his and my discussion and just hand it to him the next time he mouthes off in class. I will say exactly one word with the delivery.

    “Leave.”

  8. James Hanley says:

    Lance,

    Sounds like a good idea. That kind of thing is hard to do, at least at first, for most people. Academia self-selects more for passive-aggressive types than firm backbone, not intimidated by standing tough, types.

    Plus, it so often catches us off-guard that we’re not mentally prepared to respond in an effective way. But now that you’ve had the chance to prepare, I think your approach is good, and I hope it works. (In a California State University you wouldn’t be allowed to kick him out, no matter how disruptive, but I hope my home state is a little more sensible about such things.)

  9. D. C. Sessions says:

    If you’re evil enough, stop talking when your talkative student is engaged. Just stop, while watching the conversation. The fully self-absorbed will take approximately forever to notice, but pretty soon some other student will want to know what’s up — whereupon you announce that you were brought up to not interrupt others’ speech.

    Your speaker may not even notice then, but if she stops you can always ask her, “May I continue now, Ms. White?” I’ve never noticed the young to be so appreciative of subtlety that you need to be worried about overdoing the sarcasm.

    Obviously this works best when you’re in a final review for something like a quiz.

    However, I will note that I’ve used it on at least one occasion in a professional meeting with people a whole lot further up the ladder than I was. “By all means continue, Mr. Smith. I wouldn’t want to interrupt.” And I not only survived it but got a sincere apology from Mr. Smith.

  10. Lance says:

    I just talked to my “course coordinator”, effectively my boss, and she says the twerp has actually requested to meet with her Monday to discuss his issues with my conduct.

    After explaining the situation to her she says she has my back, but also said they may offer to move him to another class.

    What the fuck has the world come to when a college student that has been disrupting class is not only not rebuked or punished but is coddled and accommodated?

  11. James Hanley says:

    Ugh. With any luck they’ll move him to de-escalate the situation, but also tell him he was in the wrong. Hopefully he gets moved into a section taught by someone who’s a raging a**hole.

  12. DensityDuck says:

    And let me guess, in your day you had to walk to school! Uphill! Both ways! In the snow! After getting up at three AM to milk the hog!

    *****

    I figure I’m fortunate that I never found myself in a class where the teacher was so egotistical that “looking at the teacher” constituted part of my grade. I always got stuck with those simple, deluded fools who figured that graded class assignments and tests were the proper way to establish whether I had sufficient command of the material.

  13. James Hanley says:

    Density,

    It’s not about looking at the teacher, but about whether you’re distracting others. I once had the misfortune of sitting in a community college class where two girls in the back talked nonstop and the professor said nothing while I struggled to pay attention. They were stealing from me–I was making an investment in education and they were cutting into my return. When I finally turned and told them to shut up, I had a sizable number of other students thank me.

    I don’t care if a student has his eyes closed or looks out the window, as long as they’re not distracting other people.

    Do you really think caring about the other students in the class who are actually trying to learn something is egotistical?

  14. Lance says:

    James Hanley in reply to Density Duck,

    Do you really think caring about the other students in the class who are actually trying to learn something is egotistical?

    Exactly!

    My “teaching style” is very loose and permissive. I encourage class clowns and on topic outbursts by students.

    But I can’t keep my focus when there are three, or more, little cliques having their own little conversations.

    The first time I taught in one of these giant lecture halls I kept threatening to impose consequences on disruptive students with out actual imposing them.

    That is until I was sifting through the home work one evening and found an anonymous note that said,

    “Just kick the talking assholes out already! I paid for this course and I’m tired of them stealing my time.”

    The next class I walked up into the theater style class room and pointed at the two biggest loud mouths and said,

    “Thats it. Get out! And don’t come back until you have read the student code of conduct and had your academic advisor sign a letter stating that you understand the section on disrupting class.”

    Only one of them came back and when I demanded the letter they sheepishly said that they promised to be quiet, so I let them stay and they didn’t disrupt class again.

    And neither did anyone else.

    This latest incident is the first time since that incident, over ten years ago, that my subtle corrections, like “Do you have a question” or “Please hold your discussions for the part of class that I reserve for group interaction” have been ignored.

    The student met with my class coordinator and was told that he was not to talk during class. He protested that he was “just talking about math” and to my coordinators credit he was told that it didn’t matter what he was “talking” about it was disruptive and he must stop.

    He was relatively quiet yesterday and actually raised his hand to ask a pertinent question.

    Of course he talked to his “neighbors” a couple of times but since he seemed to be doing so covertly I figured he was trying to save face with his little clique and did my best to ignore it. He did seem to be more respectful and maybe it was an opportunity for him to grow up a bit so I tried to be respectful to him and not blast him in front of the class for the few times he did run his mouth while I was lecturing.

    I may still quit after this semester. As adjunct faculty I get paid less than one hundred dollars a week for each section of math I teach (after taxes, parking gas, etc.).

    I do it because I love math and science and seeing the “light” come on for people who also love these topics or even more for those that have had trouble understanding math and science before.

    This last semester there were damn few lights coming on and I took way too much shit for a lousy hundred bucks a week.

  15. DensityDuck says:

    “But I can’t keep my focus when there are three, or more, little cliques having their own little conversations.”

    At a design review last week, we had employees charging nearly three hundred thousand dollars of billable hours sitting in the room. There were at least two side conversations going on besides the main presentation. We managed.

    Maybe the problem here is not people who talk, but other people who are incapable of maintaining their focus.

  16. James Hanley says:

    Duck,

    You still ignore the issue of those students distracting others who’ve paid their money to receive an education. I have no qualms about protecting their interests against assholes who don’t care about getting an education. And if a student isn’t really interested in getting an education, there’s no point for them to be in the classroom.

    And in your scenario, I imagine if anyone responsible for making a decision had been unable to hear necessary parts of the presentation because of the side conversations, they sure as hell would have said something, right?

    You still haven’t made an argument for allowing students to be distracting to others in the classroom.

  17. Lance says:

    Duck,

    I am a very responsive and concerned instructor. I am responsible for imparting the primary information of the course to a large group of students that have payed reasonably high tuition to get that information.

    I listen to my students and scan the 56 students for signs that they have a question.

    When they do, I ask them to ask their question. I listen and try to respond.

    Last week a student in the back row over 75 feet away was trying to ask me a question but two dipshits in the second row who were only ten feet away from me wouldn’t shut the fuck up. They had been chatting away about American Fucking Idle for nearly ten minutes. I know this because despite my attempts to concentrate on the material and be responsive to the students that were paying attention I was subjected to their idiotic conversation.

    So according to you it’s my problem that I can’t hear the question from this person that is playing by the rules and trying to understand what I am actually lecturing on. That these dipshits somehow have the right to prattle on and giggle out loud about whatever off topic though pops into their immature minds.

    How about the other students near the pseudo-kinder? Often a question is asked by a bold student when many other students have the same question but are to timid to raise their hand. Should they learn to read fucking lips to hear both the question and my response? Should they have to hear the banal ramblings of two morons that are flunking the class and only come because the math department insists that I take attendance so that they won’t have to be automatically withdrawn and go see their academic advisor to get back in?

    Really, I want to hear your response.

  18. DensityDuck says:

    “You still ignore the issue of those students distracting others who’ve paid their money to receive an education.”

    What did *those* students say to the talkers? Anything? I mean, if they’re the ones who are paying for this deal, then presumably they can determine whether or not they’re getting their money’s worth.

    “Last week a student in the back row over 75 feet away was trying to ask me a question but two dipshits in the second row who were only ten feet away from me wouldn’t shut the fuck up.”

    This is not the situation that you were talking about before. If you’re going to say that an argument is invalid because it isn’t applicable to every possible scenario that you can present, then I guess we’re done.

    “Someone talking” is not an immediate disruption. “Someone playing with their phone” is not an immediate disruption. “Someone interfering with a teacher-student conversation” is a distruption.

    And if you’re concerned that students aren’t getting the lecture content due to class disruption, then maybe you need to find ways to provide that content beyond the mere knowledge-vomiting context of a large-class lecture. Provide printed lectures, put stuff online, expand your office hours, respond to emails. But that would be changing your teaching style and it’s obvious that you aren’t into any of that action.

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