Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Past Done

Past Done ... on with the Hols and the New Quarter

Grades were due at midnight last Friday. I turned mine in 23 hours early!!!! A new record, made possible by the fact that all my finals were early in the week and a couple of marathon grading sessions. Now, I can think about how my classes went.

First -- no more overloads if I can help it. Or more than two sections of the same prep unless they are all on the same schedule. It's far too confusing otherwise. Plus, I just couldn't prep as much as I would have liked. I don't think the students suffered -- Ancient/Medieval surveys are pretty much my "blindfolded with one arm tied behind my back" courses -- but as a whole, I want my courses to be more coherent.

Second, I don't know if it's me or what, but my grades were consistently lower this quarter. I worry that I don't get my expectations across, but then I look at the assignments and see that they are clearer than ever, with fairly precise steps, expected outcomes, and reasons for why the assignments should be important to the students and their learning. I also give the students copies of the grading matrices I've started to use, so that there are no surprises. Could this level of detail also mean that I must keep my grading standards at a certain place? I think so. It's amazing how a list of things like, "Essay states a thesis that answers the assigned questions," and "Thesis is supported by argument and interpretation," and even, "arguments and interpretations are supported by appropriate use of primary sources," can affect one's overall grades. I look at the matrix and realize that much of what I'm looking for is structural -- and should be easy for the students to do. Yet they don't. I do think that using the matrix and giving fair warning for what I expect not only makes it easier to grade on the same standard for all students, but makes me a harder grader. So the question is, do I change the matrix?

Third, in response to the question above. NO. History is about what happened and why we think things happened the way they did. Doing History is about learning to use sources and find the argument within them, I think. There's a horrible dichotomy here. I teach mostly surveys, the intro courses that are for many students check boxes on a list of required courses. I think they want and expect to learn History, but don't expect to have to learn to do History. It may be a problem with the field. In Math and Science courses, students have to learn how to do the work. In fact, much of what the students learn is necessarily method. That is not so true in History, in my experience. But why? Because a bunch of men decided it? No. I have just realized that I am espousing the Buffy theory of History. I am there to share my fabulous pseudo-Slayer powers -- which are not nearly as cool as real Slayer powers. What are those powers? Why, I can read primary sources and glean useful information from them! I can read secondary sources and identify the thesis and critique the arguments and use of evidence that support the thesis! I can remember basic chronology, people, places, etc.! I can construct an essay (and, by extension, an article or book) that holds water while arguing a point! I can transfer these skills to other realms of daily life, both academic and non! And I will give these powers to my students who want them.

The problem: students might not want these powers. Some students run screaming. Others drift away, saying, "but I don't know what I'm supposed to do ... there's so much work!" This, by the way is true. Students are supposed to prepare the readings in advance and bring answers to a set of questions to class. But the not knowing what to do part I don't get -- except that they don't want to believe me when I tell them I don't want them to read and synthesize -- I want them to read and pick apart, so we can synthesize in class. It's my biggest dilemma -- how to convey my wishes to the students when those wishes go against what the students think they are supposed to do. This quarter, the first assignment for the survey class will be to read Magna Carta. It's a little early for where the class starts, but I want them to see the difference between reading it and using it to illustrate arguments about individual rights that they've heard before (they will insist on doing this) and picking out things like scutage and saying, "there was something called scutage and I looked it up and it's like a kind of tax, I think ..." The former is not a learning experience, IMO. The latter leads to discussions about what kind of society this is, assumptions about taxation, tensions between different social cadres ...

That's one class. I think. Maybe two sections, but that's up in the air. Enrollmenst are down by 900 this quarter. According to our brilliant administration, this has nothing to do with the fact that we don't send out course schedules in the mail (the only CC in the area not to) and nothing to do with rising tuition and a policy of dropping people who don't pay by a certain date -- I assume there will be more adds as the quarter gets closer, since many students seem to wait for the holidays to be over to register. But then, many take the Winter quarter off to work at the ski areas to make money for Spring. SO, there's a good chance I'll be teaching one new prep I'm planning (a 19th c. course -- don't ask my why I thought that would be a good idea) and, if my surveys don't fill, one section of an online survey I've never taught before. I dread the online class, partially because my laast online class suffered 65% attrition. I think it's because I expect the students to function as an online community. Those who did, did well. Those who didn't, failed. Online presentations (3) and discussion of the readings made up 50% of the grade, yet over 45% of the students never participated in the discussions, and a few of those students still turned in the required essays, etc. I don't get it.

Oh well, three classes, three separate preps, two of them new. That means I have to be ultra-productive over break. Here's what I need to do:
  • Find a place to meet with other bloggers for the AHA
  • Get out the rest of the job apps due in January
  • Walk the dog every day
  • Do my Christmas shopping (online and late)
  • Write the book review that I've been putting off
  • Set up the Blackboard site for the 19th c class (hybrid)
  • Re-read the novels for the 19th c. class (Jude the Obscure and Fathers and Sons), which Norton has not yet got to me
  • Revise the Blackboard site for the hybrid survey I think will go (enrollment is in double-digits)
  • Wait with 'bated breath to see if I have to prep an all-new online survey or revise the other section of the survey I am supposed to teach -- not to mention, "What about a last minute book order?"
  • Bring some organization into my office
  • Finish commenting on a colleague's ms.

I keep thinking that one of the chief advantages of a T-T job must be getting paid through the summers so that more of the prep and writing can be done then. I do hope that, if you are reviewing my application, you do not see this as a lack of organization, but rather as an impressive list of goals and the ability to adapt to different academic situations.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

This is pretty tangential to the rest of your post, but actually t-t jobs are 9 months appointments, too, so technically not paid through the summer. Although most places will arrange for you to take the 9 months pay over 12 months, so you can continue to have paychecks, but you're not actually being paid for those months. (You probably know that, but I wasn't sure if that was what you meant or not.)

Anyway, congrats on being done! (with the grades, anyway.) The grade distribution is interesting - your comments about the possible effect of the rubric reminded me of how I've found that students do worse on exams when they get the questions ahead of time to study from. I think ironically the more info they get, the less effort they put in? But you're right too about the effect it has on grading - when they've review questions to study and the exam is going to come out of those questions, I figure I can expect something really good and detailed in a way I don't expect when the questions are completely new to them. Very interesting to see this play out in a different area.

Sharon said...

I'm sort of shocked to learn this, you know. Yes, there are 9-month contracts here, temporary posts filling in for people who've bagged research leave funding for a year; people may also be paid a fixed fee to teach a single course, or (this is usually PhD students!) hourly to take specific classes. And I have seen people designated as 'tutors' who are paid less than 'lecturers'(probably paid about 3/4 of a lecturer's salary, in fact... never done the sums). But all of these represent a small minority of teaching staff in history departments I know of. Even probationary new lecturers (I think nearly everyone these days has to start out with a probationary 3 years and do the dreaded/loathed teaching certificates) get the same salary and benefits as permanent staff. (OK, because they're starting out they're on the bottom pay scales so not quite comparable, but you know what I mean.)

And at the end of the horrors of t-t, from what I can see, a tenured professor in America has no more or less job security than a permanent lecturer in the UK. (BTW, is it true that tenured faculty can't belong to unions? I seem to have read this somewhere and couldn't quite believe it.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hi NK -- that is what I meant. I'm on a FT contract this year (9 month), and have my pay set up to give me a balloon at the beginning of the summer, which is how many people I know do it. Other places do have the option of payment over 12 months. What I meant was that a T-T or tenured job allows one the freedom of using that money to fund summers "off" to work on scholarly things and prep. As you know doubt know, contingent faculty often work in offices and restaurants during the summer, and have a very hard time doing any of the things that would help to get them T-T jobs.

Sharon -- Some tenured faculty belong to unions. I teach in a union shop, and I think it's pretty typical of Community Colleges (2-year, non-baccalaureate-granting) here. It can be a bit weird, too. I actually have a tenure committee, because the contract says that anyone on FT contract for more than a year has to have one, because tenure review comes up after 8 full-time quarters. We all know that I'm in a replacement position and that my contract will not be extended another year (at least, not full-time), becuase there's no justification for the position. But, the union contract says they have to act as though I were on T-T, just in case. Some 4-year institutions and even a few Research unis are unionized, but my impression is that this is mostly in state institutions and not for any of the big name places.

sepoy said...

My grades were harsher than I imagined as well. Making me wonder if I am grading too hard or not conveying my expectation. Although with all the prep and discussion of what I expected on the final research paper, I find that tough to believe. Writing a history paper is not THAT imposing a task, is it?
congrats on getting done though.
and I am looking forward to the AHA meetup.

Bernie said...

Great Job on your blog! I really like the writing so keep up the good work.

Check out my blog. This post should get you acquainted.


Rosa G. said...

Hi Another Damned,

I see that you're a CC instructor, and I wanted to invite you visit the Community College English blog at:


I realize that you're a History prof, but you might find it interesting to browse our site and see what we CC instructors have in common!

Anonymous said...

Grading rubrics and harsh-but-fair grading are good. We definitely need to get away from the 'you tried, you must get a B' grading that is so pervasive. But whenever anyone talks about the structure of an essay, I suggest reading this: