Hey folks, I made this entry "sticky" for a while because the comments it generated are so fascinating that I wanted to continue the conversation via comments.
Please remember that I'm adding new posts beneath this one and I'd love your ideas for those entries as well.
Here is an email I received recently asking for advice:
Dear Dr. McKinney,
As an avid reader of your blog and as newly-minted faculty member who just read over student evaluations of my Winter semester courses, I would be so interested in anything you could write/blog about course evaluations. Some questions flying around in my mind:
How do I make sense out of the fact that 90% of responding students think I'm a cool person who taught a great class and 10% think I'm boring, lazy pond scum?
Why do the comments from the nasty 10% stick with us (and sting), more so than the complimentary 90%? Was it necessary for that student to write about my hair?!
How does one make use of such disparate opinions?
My university has students provide their evaluations in an online process and many students simply fail to respond––the response rate is is less than 20% across the institution. Is it like this elsewhere? Would we faculty be better off encouraging students to respond...or saying nothing while hoping that the vipers among them keep their nasty thoughts to themselves?
I have one coaching client who NEVER gets ANY negative course evals.
Well, I'm exaggerating. The truth is that he gets *almost* no criticismwhatsoever. For example, in a decade of teaching, no one has ever gone to his chair and complained about anything.
He is also liked by *all* of his colleagues. Even though the department is highly polarized and contentious.
This sounds good, right? It sounds like you should learn his secret, right?
My dear client is so accommodating, and so worried about triggering confrontations, and so talented at pleasing people that he never offends or upsets anyone. This ability to stay on everyone's good side ends up being self-destructive. His accommodations backfire because he is so non-assertive that his colleagues walk all over him.
Fortunately, he is paid as well as his junior, tenure track peers (because his institution has a good union) but he has been stuck as a Contract Asst Prof for years and years. Theoretically, he could lose his job this year. He hasn't gotten a t-t position even though his department has hired new t-t faculty while he's been there, and even though he gets talked into doing more service work than anyone at his institution. I'm convinced that someone willing to make a few enemies would have tenure already.
Don't worry; he'll never get fired because he works so hard that he is indispensable! He always ends up doing the dirty work that none of his t-t peers want to do. Wouldn't you want to keep this type of fellow around? Be honest now -- of course you would -- even if you felt guilty about taking advantage of him.
Moral of the story: It is good to have a bi-modal distribution of evaluations with some negative comments. If you please EVERY student, even the entitled few who are primed to complain, you're not taking care of your own career.
Now do you feel better about those few snarky critiques you get at the end of the semester?
(And don't worry, my goal is to get this coaching client a t-t job this year -- he's being interviewed for an open rank tt position in his dept next week. Everyone keep your fingers crossed for him -- his dept knows that he'll stay even if they give the job to a less qualified outsider.)
Ever since my article about learning students' names I've been getting e-mails from professors sharing their methods for memorizing their students.
Here's one that I liked:
"In classes of twenty students I learn the names on the first day. I learn the first name. Then before learning the second name I repeat the first name. Before learning the third name I repeat the first and the second. By the end I'm repeating in order 19 or twenty names before learning the last one. Slow, but it works for me, and the students get into it, too. I apologize profusely if I get stuck. Then I go around the room backwards.
"I have also gone around the room asking students to introduce themselves, but before doing that they must recite all the previous names. Many do surprisingly well. I think the order, the repetition, and the shame of forgetting are what makes this work.
"This method also works for memorizing poetry, or really any list that is not too long--just break up longer lists."
I like the playfullness of this approach. But it would probably take too long when there are many students in the class.
In my article, I provided 18 tips for memorizing names - but the list could have been even longer. Do you have any interesting methods to add?
I've been thinking about this short report in Inside Higher Ed:
"A University of Memphis law professor has angered students by banning laptops from her classroom, the Associated Press reported. June Entman, the professor, told the AP that students were trying to transcribe everything she said, and that they would be more connected to the class intellectually if they listened and took noted with pen and paper. Students said that they take better notes with a laptop and have organized a petition drive against the rule."
Do any of your students bring laptops to class?
One of my coaching clients took a law course last semester. He was astounded by what he saw when he sat in the back of the room. Students sat with their laptops in the large lecture hall. But only a few of them took notes consistently. The majority were using the internet access to read the news, check their e-mail, and surf.
I taught a seminar of 12 grad students that semester. It was called Publish not Perish. We talked mostly about ways of getting ourselves to write, rewrite and send out articles on a regular, predictable basis. All 'assignments' were self-designed action plans that the graduate students developed in order to move their own projects forward. There was no required reading or tests. The class was pass/fail. Students passed if they attended the weekly meetings.
In the middle of the semester, one second year doctoral student began bringing his laptop to class. He'd always seemed rather bored and passive, but once he was lodged behind the computer, he stopped participating in any discussions. We stopped expecting him to contribute. There was no need to take class notes, so I assumed that he was doing other school work.
This student -- when he was still a member of the group -- had confessed that his biggest problem with procrastination was playing computer games and surfing on the web. The room didn't permit wireless access to the web so I assumed that some of his preferred time-wasting practices weren't available to him.
I was so surprised by the way he buried himself behind the laptop that I didn't say anything about it the first couple of weeks the computer appeared. His retreat behind his screen seemed disrespectful to me and rude to the other students, but I was so fascinated by the phenomenon that I decided to wait and watch. Would he bring it in each week? Should I confront him?
I'm not sure why, but I decided to do nothing. I became curious about what would happen if I ignored the situation. When students talked about the issues they'd faced each week, and we had brainstorming sessions to develop plans to attack their problems, he was left out of the loop. At the beginning of most classes, we went around the room reporting on what we'd accomplished during the previous week and noting what strategies had worked or been difficult. We celebrated when one member of the class defended her dissertation. We cheered when another member was offerred a job. We clapped when a student got a departmental fellowship that would pay her tuition for the semester.
Meanwhile, Computer Boy made no process on his disseration proposal. Nor did he make headway on the incomplete that was inteferring with his progress in his doctoral program. It was as though he had become invisible. His only contribution was the occasional tap, tap, tapping of his fingers on the keyboard. At the time, his laptop barrier and withdrawal from the group intrigued me. But as I think back to the class, I find myself mildly irritated by the memory of his withdrawal. I find myself feeling guilty for choosing not to intervene -- both because I missed the opportunity to help him and because I assume that my passivity in the face of his withdrawal probably had a negative impact on the rest of the class. I think that I was being lazy and mildly irresponsible.
What do you think? Do your students bring their laptops to class? How do you view the practice? What do you say or do about the phenomenon?
When I give presentations to faculty, I advise them to monitor and manage their e-mail exchanges so that they are not sucked dry by their suckling students seeking succor. For example, in response to one of my earlier posts, jo(e) commented that she handles class e-mail in the following way:
"I have a separate email account for students. And I only check it twice each week. I warn them this at the beginning of the semester. Since they have class with me three times each week, and I have office hours three times each week, and they can leave me phone messages, I really don't see the big need for them to send me emails. I would much prefer they talk to me before or after class."
Viva e-mail management!
But how should professors handle discussion boards associated with classes? When on-line discussions are part of the course, how should teachers keep from getting swamped? I received this question from a person who reads my e-newsletter Successful Academic News.
"I have a question -- any hints on balancing electronic communication w/students?
I teach 4 classes of 40-60 students each on semester system. All four classes have active online components, primarily discussion boards. In at least 3 of the classes -- and in a way this is a great success -- there are over 500 postings a week. I am being buried in postings. I know it's a great problem to have in one sense, but somehow each wants only me -- versus other students -- to respond to them. They are responding to each other too, but if I don't say something in each thread to each person, they say in class that they feel 'slighted', etc. And they are, for the most part, great discussions. There is SO much learning going on, I am so proud of them.
I type over 100 words a minute -- but still........How can I help them to not need my approval as much? And how do I keep up with all this as well as write for myself, etc.?"
Wow! I'm overwhelmed at the very thought of this on-line overload.
One of the professors I've coached, I'll call her Kate, started the first day of the new semester with a musical interlude. I liked her anecdote so much that I asked her permission to share it with you.
A couple of weeks ago, on the first day of class, as Kate's students filed in and sat down, they did it to the music of "Our New Orleans", the fabulous collection of Big Easy hits put together by some of n'awlins greatest musicians to benefit the victims of Katrina. (All proceeds of the CD go to Habitat for Humanity's rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast.)
While students listened to "Yes We Can" by Allen Toussaint, Kate handed out the class syllabi. They read the course requirements while tapping their feet to Edie Bo's version of "The Saints Go Marching In". And they filled out brief "student profiles" while swaying to "Prayer to New Orleans" sung by Charlie Miller.
While still playing the CD softly in the background, Kate explained how the album had been produced and why she was playing it for this particular class. She talked about ways the disaster and its aftermath provide examples of main themes of the course. (Katrina provides an appropriate case study for Kate's class -- but for pseudonomy's sake, I'll skip details that would give away her field.) The class spent much of the next hour discussing the effects of the Hurricane and how it related to themes they would be studying throughout the semester.
"The students got really involved in the topic," said Kate enthusiastically. "It was probably the best 'first-day-of-class' discussion I've ever led."