BREAKING THE SPIRIT

I usually don't let the day-to-day aspects of my job get me down. Academia, yes. That gets me down sometimes. But it's rare that I walk out of the classroom feeling bad about what I do for a living. Yet this semester (we are currently in finals), grading research papers has kinda broken me. Not completely, of course – I'm not out on the ledge or typing up my resignation letter – but I'm second guessing myself even more than usual and not feeling particularly good about it right now. Perhaps my fellow educators out there can appreciate reaching the end of a semester or year and dealing with the nagging feeling that your students did not actually learn a damn thing.

These papers, nearly 90 in all, are among the worst things I've ever graded. A few are outstanding. Some are pretty good. Some are decent. But most of them are terrible. I feel bad about this for two different reasons. First, I tend to blame myself first and foremost when things vaguely within my control are not successful. Of the students who approached me for help in advance of the due date – you know, the good students who were responsible enough to take some initiative and put a little effort into it – I feel like I did not do a good enough job of helping them. If they're working with me and the final product has flaws, that is at least partly my fault. I failed them and I failed myself, but I can live with it because I know that I'm not a perfect teacher and it's a useful reminder that I need to continue improving. It knocks me down a peg. That's a good thing.

Second, I feel bad because sometimes these end-of-semester assignments have a way of making me feel like I was wasting my time. You know that one student who asks when the final exam is even though you mentioned it in class 15 times and the date/time are on the syllabus? He makes you feel like you're wasting your time talking because he's not paying the slightest bit of attention to you. Now imagine that he's half of your class. Maybe even more than half. I must have gone over the basics of this assignment a dozen times. I walked through example after example. And it's really obvious that some of these people did not hear a single word of it. They might be in class, but they're staring at their laptops and I'm ultimately background noise. Consequently I can't help but question the value of what I do. It feels like there is none, bluntly. We could stick a board with a painted-on smiley face at the front of the room and play audio recordings of the Oliver North hearings and it would not change the amount that many of these students learn in their classes. I feel about as useful as a travel agent sometimes.

It's hard to feel good when I am forced to realize that A) there are things I didn't do well enough, B) an appreciable portion of these students lack even adequate high school-level writing skills, and C) not many of them are putting effort into their classes, paying any attention to me when I teach, or both. Oh, and it's even harder to feel good when you read "charter schools and home schooling are more effective because the pace of instruction is not slowed because of minority and disabled students" in a paper.

That's not the kind of thing one overcomes to have a good day.

Usually I have a half-decent and not-too-cheesy answer to the "Why do we do this?" question that educators so often ask themselves and one another. Today I don't. Today I'm unsure what, if anything, that 17 weeks of hard work accomplished.

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61 Responses to “BREAKING THE SPIRIT”

  1. blahedo Says:

    Man, have I ever been there. The most frustrating thing about grading is the number of papers/problems/programs I get where it was a great assignment—I know it was—and a huge chunk of the students got absolutely nowhere on it. I've found it personally valuable to identify early a couple students who A) have no background in the subject matter (i.e. they're not ringers) and B) pay attention and study. I can look at their work and know that I'm not losing my mind, that I really did teach something, that I really did lead them to some new understanding. (Conversely, if even they get something wrong, I need to back up and re-think things!)

    And that's in the courses that are geared to feed into the major (and even the upperlevel courses *in* the major). Gen-eds are a whole other ballgame.

  2. good test taker Says:

    One thing that is often overlooked is that people learn in different ways. One of the reasons that places like Japan have such high math scores is that they teach their kids that there are multiple approaches to solve the same problem. One kid may not comprehend the "standard" way to calculate a problem, but there might be an alternate way that really clicks for them.
    For instance, I suck the big one at learning via lecture. Thank god, there were no laptops in my day, because I wouldn't even have been able to feign interest in what the prof was saying. It is not an exaggeration to say that in four and a half years of college, I took a grand total of less than 25 pages of notes during lectures. I simply could not pay attention.
    On the other hand, I simply kill it when it comes to reading comprehension, and retention. My worst fear was Teachers that didn't teach from the text. If they did I was golden.
    I was also very lucky in that I am an excellent test taker. People don't realize that knowing how to take a test, particularly multiple choice tests, is actually a skill.
    Finally, I was very fortunate to grow up in an area that had one of the better public high schools in the country, and went to a parochial school with a tiny class size (8 in my graduating class) and teachers that hammered the basics of grammar and writing, giving kids a great foundation when it came to doing things like writing essays and reports. I still have occasional nightmares involving diagramming sentences.

    Also, be honest with yourself, how many classes that you took during your collegiate career actually interested you? Most classes I took, were taken not because I looked at the student handbook and said, that looks compelling, but because I needed them for my major, and thus my main goal was passing with a decent grade, and not learning.

  3. xynzee Says:

    Giving this some thought from the student's POV (I just finished additional formal study to expand my skill set).

    I just finished a subject with someone who was teaching for the first time. Teaching really is both an art *and* a skill.
    *However* unlike blow your mind creativity these can be developed with practice. Having the correct temperament – eg. patience in the face of that student who's needling you – is most important.

    Coming back to my point: This instructor knew his stuff. Really knew his stuff and was passionate about the subject. My understanding was the he did have a some experience in training, which is much different than teaching.

    He just wasn't used to complete newbies to the software and the subject, so he would speak from the assumed knowledge position, and we'd stare at him blankly.
    In a manner of speaking he would tell us to launch the application and we were still trying to figure out how to turn the computer on in the first place (not that bad, but you get the idea).

    The same question came up over and over again during his assignments (variations on the "I don't understand") and we got the same response, read the assignment. When you cannot see the trees for the forest doesn't help much. It also didn't help that most of the people in the course were ESL and even ETL.

    It was when he finally understood that what was necessary was to walk us through the assignment that the lights went on.
    For someone that has done something for years, it's easy to forget what appears obvious to you is not so to the neophyte. Personally I believe that once he starts breaking the early lessons down into the component parts, I think he'll do pretty good.

  4. Jon Says:

    If you ever take a teaching job in the Boston area, I'll be signing up. I won't be writing any papers, because I don't want to, but I love to listen and learn. If you need to quiz me and gauge my learning, it'll require a dimly lit bar and a couple of pitchers.

  5. quimby Says:

    I'll speak from the other end of things: I was a somewhat indifferent undergrad at a middle-tier southern school. I was perpetually late to class. Many of my papers were of the "here's a bunch of stuff that happened" variety. Particularly in my first semester, I showed up hung over, sleep deprived, and generally unprepared. But I had some good professors, and some of the things they said actually did sink in, even if it took some time to do so. I came in a pro-life Republican and left as a liberal leaning independent (it was a start). College was useful in a lot of ways, and what I learned in class unfortunately wasn't always reflected in my performance. I imagine there were professors who wrote me off as hopeless. So just keep in mind that it may take longer than a semester to change hearts and minds.

  6. Mudder Says:

    I'm a Water Resources Engineer. My job is to help cities and counties with discharge permits clean up their stormwater and maybe eventually clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the time, after 12-18 months of field work, water quality modeling, site assessments, and concept designs, we find enough projects to cut the pollution loads by ~10%. At the cost of millions of dollars that the taxpayers won't want to fund.

    Have I put in the effort? Yes. Have I done a good job? Yes. Have I made a difference? …. doesn't look like it, does it?

    I feel your pain. Maybe all jobs are futile except the ones that can be graded by how much money you made.

  7. Mudder Says:

    Botwat: In my business, the end of the project is the equivalent of the end of the semester. All those discussions you had with the client at the kickoff meeting about all the cool stuff you could do?

    All tossed aside in the grind of meeting the bare bones of the scope within the budget.

  8. Karlo Says:

    Wow, it's like I'm listening to my wife, all over. She taught in what was the Community College (2 yr) but which became the College (4 year because they offered one BA in something or other) and she taught Prep English. Five sections a semester. For no money. Well, not a living wage anyway – but I'm probably preaching to the choir. She had the same reaction you are having – my advice, which was finally listened to after we got over the male/female communication divide of me trying to fix stuff and she just wanting to vent – was that she could only help the students who wanted to be helped and she should be happy there were a few of those in each class each semester. Now she's teaching in law school and doesn't let the students use their laptops – claims she gets a better response.

  9. pkat Says:

    The real question is why can't a college student write a coherent sentence?

    My daughter is an adjunct professor and emails me the real howlers that she gets. She teaches a writing intensive course in a field that for the most part will require coherent writing skills at nearly every turn. These students are getting to graduate level courses without basic skills. (Skills I might add that I seem to remember aquiring in about third grade.)

    She spends an inordinate amount of time teaching writing skills as apposed to the skills they are supposed to be aquiring in her class. She is pulling her hair out and doing tequila shooters with her cat to get through grading term papers even as we speak.

    She asked one class how they got by in the supposed writing classes that they had to take to get this far in college and the response was "we didn't have to write anything."

    WTF. This is a wholesale failure of our education system. The majority of these kids are virtually illiterate in any meaningful sense of the word. They were ignorant and apathetic long before they got to your class and were "rewarded" for the same with "passing grades."

    My dad was a high school english teacher before teaching the tests came along and I guaran-damn-tee that no student would have left his class without the skill to construct a sentence that was coherent and gramatically correct.

  10. good test taker Says:

    Pkat. You think that your dad never let a kid leave his class without those skills, but I'm quite certain you are incorrect. I would say this not because your dad wasn't an excellent teacher, but because you can't fail all the kids that don't absorb everything you teach. Think how many times when writing you have to stop and think about whether or not your mixing tenses, if something is singular or plural etc.
    Plus, for whatever reason, in my freshman year of college I became the dorm floor proofreader, then later served the same function for many members of the lacrosse team. I was simply stunned at the wretched writing skills that I saw. It could not possibly have been because these kids all had crappy teachers. I think that the English language is very complicated, and there are many, many, strange rules that need to be followed. I certainly wouldn't want my former high school freshman English teacher, Mr. Bill, (that was his name, and it was right in the middle of SNL's heyday when he was my teacher) proofreading any of the work that I do for work, and for that stuff I actually attempt to be accurate from a grammar/ structure standpoint.

  11. arithmoquine Says:

    I hate to give practical advice that you've already received hundreds of times over or already know, but here are a couple of general things that help me survive. I teach philosophy, so maybe what I do won't work for you (and I'm not sure it really works for me, but I've learned to live with it at least most of the time).

    First, I make sure everything is written down. If it's in multiple places (syllabus, class schedule, etc.), students do not have to look much for it and are slightly less likely to ask. Most of them are just going to wait until the last minute to check the syllabus for the exam time anyway, and telling them does not accomplish very much. In general, telling students something works for a small percentage of the students each time you tell them but at least 20% are phased out whenever you say something, so repetition does get through to many over time. Then I simply practice patience when I tell them the same thing every day. I get through this by thinking of the students I did not have to tell twenty times rather than the ones I did.

    Second, I try to learn to let go. Students are responsible for their performance. All I can do is provide as many and as varied tools (and feedback) as I can so that they can take what I have given them and produce their own work with it. The most important thing I do is that I try to get them to be interested enough to think about and pursue the ideas. Then they can pursue the materials I have provided in writing (primarily). I do lecture, sort of, but I don't expect them to take away much factual information from the lecture. I make sure the factual information is available, but I try to get them to see how it all matters and try to teach them how to use that information effectively in their own thinking and writing. Lecture is really not a good way to provide information; its value is only its apparent efficiency in transmitting the information (since you provide it in parallel to a large number of people at the same time). So, I use class time to motivate students and get them to see why the readings that they have done and the additional material I have given them can relate to their own thinking on the issue.

    There's no way to teach conscientiously without blaming yourself to some degree when the students don't seem to learn even the most basic skills or information, but if you think about it as a collaborative effort with the students, and that you've done all that was practically possible given the unreasonable demands universities make on us, then it's a little easier to sleep at night.