Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Every day is like Monday: fear of Professoring to know something about anything

I always wondered why Morrissey picked Sunday in the title of his song. Was it a particular Sunday? Is it because most stores are closed on Sunday? Every day is dismal and gray...

Anyway I am having a Mon-day of a Tuesday. Everything is getting on my nerves (well, most people are, anyway). We have a new faculty member doing a sabbatical in our lab, and she is asking me questions all the time. She is very sweet, but it's like having an undergrad.

Speaking of, I'm thinking about taking on a student to help me with repetitive stuff. I'm finally to a point where I think I could give a student stuff to do and be reasonably sure it would work. My last student was a real star, she was very conscientious and made very few mistakes because she was very alert and observant. I miss her!

But since I am having a not-so-great science day, I'm having those second thoughts again about how I'm going to fit into an educational system I don't like. Sometimes I can't wait to be a Professor, but other days all I want is a bunch of people working for me and to hell with the teaching classes bit. I was watching one of the grad students printing out powerpoint slides for the class she TAs. It's such crap, they have them memorizing details that will be outdated by next year, if they aren't factually wrong already. Nobody teaches concepts in Biology, it really makes me angry- and nauseous.

My advisor told me yesterday she has to set the mean for her course at a B, because it's like, University policy to inflate grades and graduate kids who know a lot less than they should, and not have that reflected in their grades. Or something.

Basically everybody hates you if you try to set the mean lower, she said.

I really have to wonder how I am ever going to be a professor. Much as I like research and teaching, and think learning is perhaps the most important thing in life, I am categorically opposed to grades, and if we have to give grades, then we should have them mean something , i.e. the mean should be set at a C.

How am I ever going to survive in academia with issues like this?? Aren't you supposed to buy in, hook-line-and-sinker?


At 10:23 AM, Anonymous OldMaleScientist said...

Yep, you have to buy into it hook, line and sinker. Or develop a clinical detachment from the junky stuff - like teaching minutae that will be useless in two years, etc. - while you're doing it. Morrissey would have made a splendid academic because he has the ironic detachment thing down pat. Onward!

At 7:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why should the mean be a C? Why can we presume that the mean should be static; why does that even matter? Your thinking has been tainted by the same attitude that drives others to teach facts rather than concepts (or better yet, the principles and skills that promote the discernment and connection of those concepts).

The grade should reflect student mastery - period. And it's the instructor's responsibility to devise ways to not only promote that mastery but to assess it honestly.

To do so requires that the instructor have a clear idea of the learning targets for his or her students. While post-docs and professors alike look upon primary and secondary teachers with disdain, they have come a lot further than most college-level instructors in this process. (The teachers of undergraduates are, by and large, untrained in and largely insensitive to the nuance of the learning process - though I blame their employers and their students more than I blame them. They manage to do well because their students are usually talented and driven.)

At 2:43 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

First off, I resent your saying anonymously that my thinking has been tainted . Those are some strong words, but you're apparently too spineless to sign your name to them.

And I disagree. The mean for college-level courses should be a C, because the exam should be hard enough that most people won't get every question right. You can't get a good spread if you set the mean too high, and if you make the test too easy, you're not challenging your students.

School should be challenging. Especially school that we pay for. I paid an average of $50 per hour for college. It better be damn hard for that price, and I want to come out of there feeling like I learned a helluva lot.

I think primary and secondary teachers are good at assessing 'mastery', as you put it, because they're not allowed to grade on a curve (at least, where I went to school). Here's how to design a test where most of the class will score ~ 90/100: just make it easy.

Most of what you learn in primary and secondary school you're going to forget. Concepts might be useful, but those are mostly being used in an unconscious way by the time you reach a postdoc position. So it's hard to see why we waste all this time memorizing useless facts and regurgitating them on tests. It doesn't matter that I got straight A's until about 7th grade, and then had a regular B+ in math because I was two years ahead of most of my peers and I liked it that way. I don't remember the stuff I learned in any of those classes, whether I got an A or not. I don't use the information, so I don't remember it.

So ultimately, all that time I spent in school was largely a waste.

But lets's be brutally honest: do I remember anything I learned in history class for fourth grade? Nope. Not a thing. How about government class from 12th grade? I might remember 10% of what we did, and only because it was more recent.

The fact is, I remember the concepts, and I don't think primary and secondary school classes can really assess learning at that level, the way the school system is set up right now.

Student mastery is irrelevent if the material has no staying power. Learning and doing well on tests in school are two totally different things. But I learned a lot more in the classes where I was challenged, and the mean was a C. That much I know for sure.

At 6:24 AM, Anonymous turducken said...

I'm not sure what the price of an education has to do with its difficulty. Students pay widely varying prices for the same education at the same institution. I was fortunate enough to pay $0 per hour as an undergraduate thanks to a scholarship; does that mean it shouldn't have been challenging for me, whereas a sticker-price student should have worked his proverbial butt off? One could equally argue it should be harder for the low-price student, so that everyone is paying in some way - make them earn those scholarships. I would prefer to make neither argument.

Frankly, I've personally found little relevance between the difficulty of its course and its value. Some of my difficult courses were what you are describing - challenging intellectually and at grading time. Others were difficult because the professors were disorganized and capricious. Then there were the courses I found easy but most of my classmates found hard, as well as vice-versa.

I think it's rather meaningless to argue about what the mean "should" be in some absolute, abstract way. Grades are a construct designed to show, as one poster said, student mastery, but also to rank students against each other. In that latter sense, the school and not the professor has the absolute and final right to set the grading scale in order to make those rank orders somewhat meaningful.


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