Monday, July 24, 2017

How much should you obsess over grades?

College grades cause an incredible amount of anxiety. Here are a few kinds of student I have had in my classes:

Laid-back until the last minute

I often have students who drift through the course doing ordinary work (or not quite that good), then at the last second they send me an email saying, "I am on academic probation, and I really need a B in this class. What can I do?" One fellow sent me this email on the first day of Finals Week. The only real answer, though I was too kind-hearted to say it, was "Buy a time machine and go back to the second week of class, then do all the work and hand it in on time." He needed to begin at the start of the semester (especially because he knew he was in trouble) and consistently apply pressure to himself to do better.

Wound too tight

At the other extreme is the student who never got anything under 100% totally perfect A++ in high school and is willing to get into a screaming match over three points in an 675-point course. I have several things to say to that student:
  • Really??? If your high school grades were that high, either you are a genius who doesn't need to obsess OR your high school teachers had low standards and you need to face the real world.
  • Are you here for the points or to learn something? Maybe you lost those three points because you didn't do something right and need to learn how to do it better.
  • College grades are a range. At Ashland the range for an A is 93% to 100%, which means that you can lose as many as 47 points in my English 101 course and still pull an A. (English 100 isn't really a graded course, so if your writing average is above 78%, you are good to go.)
By the way, that screaming match student really existed. The course had a total of 800 points, so she was desperate to grab 0.375% of her final grade. She said she had never lost a single point in her entire school career, and she needed total perfection to get into a good grad school. She was a mediocre student who chattered with her friends all through the class and did not know what I was asking for when I assigned them to write an outline. (I think there was a better route to good grades than screaming at the teacher. And no, grad schools do not require total perfection in freshman English grades.)

Always right

One student informed me that he had learned everything there is to know by the time he was 15. Another had been told by a high school English teacher that you insert a comma every time you take a breath, so the grammar handbook and I were quite wrong when we insisted that this fake rule doesn't work too well. (I could go on about this—do heavy smokers need more commas than Olympic distance runners?) She brought her father in to argue the point with the Dean. Some of these people have picked up the culture's lie that every authority figure is always wrong—and so is everyone who has studied deeply. Some have bought the foolish idea that the way to truth and knowledge is for an adolescent with no experience and education to just think things through. In any case, the "always right" crowd is wasting their time here: they are immune to any new knowledge, so there is no point in attending college.

Willing to cheat

In various forms, I always have at least one student who assumes that the only point of a college education is to get "the piece of paper" that is the key to a high-paying job. I have no respect for this attitude. College instructors are pretty good at catching cheaters, and when we do we have little mercy. At the start of your career, you should assume that total honesty on your part is the standard, and if you have questions about whether something is acceptable (for example, submitting a paper you have already used elsewhere), you must ask the instructor.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What professors are like

I have to start by saying that Ashland is not much like a huge university such as OSU (Apologies to outsiders who are reading this blog). When I was a freshman, my chemistry, history, and biology lectures all had 200+ students, and we had discussion/lab sections that were supervised by graduate students. That's pretty typical for a large university, but at Ashland, your history class is more likely to have 20 students. This means you have some hope of getting an answer to a question if the lecture has lost you.

I also have to say that those stupid movies like Animal House or Van Wilder (etc., etc.) are just plain wrong. They have almost nothing in common with real college life. They are about as accurate as a Groucho Marx movie.

A few differences between high school teachers and college teachers

There are some similarities: Almost nobody goes into either field for the money; we genuinely like our students and the content of the courses—that's why we do this. Having said that, there are a few distinctions:
  • College instructors are specialists in their field; high school teachers are specialists in education. To teach anything whatsoever in college, one must have at least a Master's in that field. The majority have doctorates. If you are taking a college course in English Composition, you are listening to someone who has spent several years specializing in English—my own work includes four years studying composition pedagogy. Your college instructor certainly knows what he/she is talking about, and has a passion for the subject, but may not have a lot of entertainment skills.
  • College instructors have a fair amount of academic freedom (at least at Ashland). We do have to follow a broad outline for each course, called the Master Syllabus, but we have a lot of leeway within that outline. One English 101 course might spend most of the semester on a book such as The Soloist, while another does a selection of readings on the environment, and another a set of readings designed to be examples of rhetoric and argument. (I have done all three in various 101 sections.)
  • College instructors don't really want to talk to your mother. If you are over 18 years old, it's actually illegal for me to discuss your grades with your mother unless you give me a signed waiver (Federal law). One of my students hauled her father into the Dean's office to protest that the grammar handbook and I disagreed with her high school English teacher on comma usage. She didn't get too far. Generally, we assume that our students are young adults who are in charge of their own lives.
  • We don't see you every day, but we do have office hours. Very few freshmen show up for office hours, and that's a shame. Every one of us has office hours posted on the door (it's part of our job description). You do not need an appointment or even a very good reason. Just knock on the door and you can chat with the teacher.