Sunday, May 15, 2005

Being a 'Red Queen' in a 'Rat Race'

Time to break the silence. Early on, when I decided to begin blogging again I thought it would be unfair to my students to do any blogging while their assignments and papers remained in limbo. So, I made a commitment to myself and my students (unbeknownst to them) that I would not blog until I had caught up and completed grading their written/e-documents.

What a fool!

Teaching two ~40 members classes with 3 written 1-2 page documents and 1 3-5 page research paper each is (I now admit) is ambitious at best. What made it worse was that I was too smart for my own good. I had each class submit their assignments on different days. The 'intention' was that I would complete grading the one class's assignment before the next classes assignment came due, so I would not be overwhelmed with a bolus of grading and leave each class waiting an inordinate amount of time before returning their written work (preferably returning it prior to the due date of the next assignment). For those of you who have done any teaching I'm certain you know where this is heading.... I sucked at this! The reality was that I ended up with ~ 3 assignments on my computer at any one time and a sense of learned helplessness set in. No matter how many papers/assignments I graded on any particular day, there was always many more that remained ungraded and and many more about to be submitted. I was in a classic 'Red Queen' scenario. No matter how much I graded, I never caught up and there was always more material coming in. For those who read this and have not taught university classes let me try and give you a sense of how this feels. I'm almost certain anyone who has not taught university courses will think/consider this explanation weak but it is a reality for any instructor who gives even the mildest damn about their students.

ooh! Professors have it sooo easy. They get up and teach a 50-90min course 2-3 days a week, what a tough life. They work, at best, 90 X 4 minutes a week. Well let me fill in the gap. First, there is class prep. I can not speak for anyone but myself but I worry/care that my students get an informative session of information. This means not only prepping a lecture but researching material and trying to think of ways to make it interesting. Second, I try to encourage my student to challenge me in whatever I say, which means I have to try and anticipate questions and research adequate answers (I'm not saying I do so adequately all the time but I at least try to anticipate what question are likely to come up). That in itself is a good 4-6 hours of work outside of any actual 'performance'. Then, of course, there are the inevitable post class questions/discussion that range from "could you tell me more about "X" to "what's my current grade". That tends to be about 1-1.5 hour/class/week. So, at a minimum I'm dealing with 26 hour/week for just class related material. Now comes the grading component. My original thinking on assignments and paper was that this would be easy. I was going to require all my students to submit their assignments electronically. No paper, save trees, use spell and grammar check, all the modern conveniences of the the electronic age. HAH! Sure assignments/papers are always legible and you don't tend to lose anything (assuming the HDD doesn't give out - (nod to Tim's recent trauma) but I've found that it is all too easy to spent 30 minutes on a one page document correcting typos, grammar, paragraph structure, idea/arguement flow. After all it's electronic and when you see an error just fix it and tell the student......... Did I mention I had ~40 students/class. When 1-2 page assignments are coming in every 3 weeks plus a 3-4 page paper this "benefit" of electronic submission all of a sudden starts to lose it's luster. When I graded hard copies I tended to comment on only the most egregious errors. Now I can fix even then minutia. And, of course, I do. So now we're at 26 hours/week + ((30*80)/3) hours/week.

Now it's time to mention that "brain" work is more taxing than manual work. I haven't got a good reference for this but if anyone would like one I sure I can dig one up, evaluating written work and prepping oral presentations is more stressful and draining than physical labour (notice the "U"- I'm Canadian). There is motivation, critical thinking skills, anticipatory anxiety, and on and on and on. This takes a toll on your ability to function. I concentrated hour of "brain work" I would argue is not equivalent to an hour of manual labour. Again, I don't wish to speak for anyone but myself, but I find these tasks exhausting, especially since I want to convey as much useful info to my student as possible so they actually learn something they will be able to benefit from beyond the specifics of the course material.

Now the rub. The sine qua non of this entry. My absence from blogging is a direct consequence of my utter lack of perspective and rationality. I was living in an ideal world and not a pragmatic one. As a result, I was in a constant state of course prep, question anticipation, assignment grading conundrum. I was grading as fast as I could just to stay abreast of current circumstances and the pay grade I received for my ideals was far less than it would be for someone teaching as a fulltime professor (did I mention I was an adjunct - esstentially part-time- professor paid/course?!). Oh yeah, it's also a state school. For those international readers, in the
U.S., this means that the pay is standardized and minimized (i.e., pay for course, no benefits, not pension plan, no nothin').

I teach my courses according to my ideals. I make no apologies for that. I probably put in way too much time and effort considering my monetary compensation. I do not begrudge this fact either. I could easily do less and still receive adequate course evaluations to maintain a position at my institution, but I choose to err on the side of my students. I guess the take home message from this rant it two-fold. First, I'm back and I've been saving blog topics for quite some time, so you will be able to read this blog regularly and get new "content" pretty much every day for quite some time (read, plenty of half baked ideas that have been percolating for many weeks). Second, I learned my lesson and about teaching and encourage others to avoid my idealistic mistakes and take a more pragmatic approach.

I'm Baaaaacccckkkkkk! :)


tim said...

Yay! Welcome back!

Correcting all errors electronically on student assignments is, well, quixotic. And funny to think about.... you must have felt absolutely buried!

If you ever get a chance, you ought to teach overseas - it's amazing to experience the cultural differences in learning. Here in Oz, it's especially noticeable in teaching Asian students - where the lecturer is expected to be an unquestioned font of knowledge. It's flattering from one perspective, but also intensely frustrating if you are trying to engender discussion.

Looking forward to reading more half-baked thoughts (after all, what else are blogs for??)...

DNA The Splice of Life said...

Quixotic does not really cover the extent of my OCD tendencies. It's just so easy on an indivudal electronic document to supply monstrous amounts of feedback. Unfortunately, you look up and 45 minutes have past. AAAAHHHH!

Part of my problem is that I'm genuinely interested in what my students have to say for two reasons. One, they are our future (insert preferred deity exclamations of dismay and requisite vomiting for cliche use here)! Second, it keeps me in contact with youth and idealism and possible future political trends. To do that I need to know what students mean and want to make sure they are expressing themsleves in ways I can understand.