If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Student Update

I've been blogging the saga of my undergraduate class this semester. Previously I've discussed my disappointment over what seemed like a disproportionate amount of slackers when I had been expecting a kick-ass class. I also vented my grading woes--filled with poor writing and plagiarism. Now I completely admit that my experience with undergraduates is minimal and I'm sure in a few more years this will all seem quite normal but this semester it still stings.

We have now passed the official last day that classes can be dropped without getting an F. I gave them their papers back 2 weeks ago while telling the entire class that a number of them were working hard at failing the class. I also explained the plagiarism--they all seemed quite shocked to hear that even if you include a citation, verbatim sentences need quotation marks. [Interestingly I was telling this story to our favorite bartender--yes we have enough bartenders in our life that we rate them--who happens to be a finishing his degree at my institution and is a mature and intelligent man and he didn't know that was considered plagiarism. In fact several people siting at the bar looked chagrined.] I then posted mid-term grades--with 3 Fs and several in the C- to D range--and strongly suggested they should assess whether they needed to drop the class.

The result? Two of the Fs dropped right away. Another tried desperately to hang-on because of financial aid issues. However before the week was over she exceeded my attendance policy and I was able to drop her regardless. Since an F in the class would have had the same financial aid results and ruined her GPA, I felt this was the kindest act. The ultimate result of coming down hard on papers, plagiarism, grades, and slackers in a public but appropriate manner was that the rest of the class seems much happier. It is amazing how much silent resentment builds when students notice slackers getting away with their behavior. Now mind you no one was disruptive, just unengaged. But others are highly engaged and working hard.

There are still some very low performing students left. Some I can tell are trying hard to get on board and others are hoping to ride it out. For the rest of the semester they are doing a lot of small group work and I'm trying the strategy of grouping most of these students together. My thought is they will either be forced to do the work or they'll fail.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is my doctoral methods class, which is totally amazing this year. It is my favorite type of methods to teach and I've come up with some interesting hands-on activities that have really worked well. We've also been reading and discussing some heady philosophy of science stuff. I'm nerdy enough to love sitting around talking about it but even the best of students usually can only take a class or two. These guys are totally digging it and we've really bonded as a group. This past week they organized ordering Thai food (its a 3 hour class that meets over lunchtime so we usually break to get crappy university food and then continue our discussion as we eat) that made the class seem almost festive.

Last night my Women and Gender Studies students put on a production of Jane: Abortion and the Underground. They've been working on it nonstop for weeks and its been taking quite a toll on them. They've had little sleep and lots of stress. They asked me to facilitate a discussion after the production and I was happy to oblige. Abortion is a topic I've discussed in many classes and it is always interesting to hear how the younger generation views the issues. I wasn't disappointed as they came up with quite sophisticated and passionate comments. One student even challenged me, respectfully, and was totally right. Unfortunately the play started at 8 pm and the discussion didn't start until 10:30--which on a Friday night is rather late for me to be in "teaching mode." I covet their energy.


life_of_a_fool said...

you know, the handling the slackers/plagiarizers publicly is really interesting to me. I sometimes give talks to the class about plagiarism, etc., but usually fall on the side of not doing too much publicly, in the interests of student privacy. Yet, I've also had students get frustrated (or really angry and resentful) by who they perceive to be slacker students (and they may or may not know what is happening between me and the slacker students). My response is typically to tell them to focus on themselves, not others. This never really works. It's a difficult thing to balance, and that resentment becomes a whole new problem on top of the slacker student problem. . .

So, that's just me thinking out loud; I'm not sure I really have a point.

Julie said...

I'm glad you put your foot down with the slackers. I remember an undergrad class where people openly cheated on tests. It made me so angry, because I worked for my A. A couple of us even confronted the teacher, and he acted as if he didn't know what was going on. Still, he did nothing. Eventually, all the good students avoided his class. It turned into a joke.

I'm not saying your class is like that. Far from it! I just went off on memory lane again...lol! I think you're doing the right thing by not pampering the low performers.