Teaching Woes

November 2nd, 2006 by Potato

First off, a dig at Lost (with spoilers, for those of you who abhor that sort of thing): I’m also seriously wondering if there is an over-all story lurking in the background somewhere after all. I really thought there was, but then after setting off dynamite and imploding the hatch, with no sign of Ekko for weeks, he all of a sudden gets up, has some visions and a run in with the Cerberus(?) smoke-monster, and promptly dies. If they were writing him out of the show with practically no further contribution to the story, why not just leave him dead and buried/imploded in the hatch?

Anyhow, Halloween was really quiet. I’m told that’s because kids now trick-or-treat in the warmth of the local malls. It seems really, really wrong to me. Halloween’s usually the only time we actually go out and greet everyone in the neighbourhood…

Wait, that wasn’t what this post was going to be about. I was going to talk about teaching.

I like teaching. I think it’s an important part of the university experience: you usually get a much better understanding of your field when you have to explain it to someone who (in the case of Western students) is actively trying to misunderstand you. You also start to sympathize with the crappy job some of your other teachers have done when you see how very much effort even a mediocre attempt can take.

In my first year I had a chance to be a TA in the 1st year physics labs: perhaps the lowest of the low as far as teaching jobs go. The students there don’t really get the “point” of doing the experiments (indeed, many are “forced” to take physics in the first place), the class sizes are fairly large, most of the time in-class is spent baby-sitting, and the marking is pure hell (and usually took 14 hours on the weekend when we got paid for more like 3). Nonetheless, I liked it. I enjoyed trying to teach them decent lab techniques, and trying to cram the details of how to do the lab as well as the theory behind it into the 15 minute introductory talk.

I never got another TAship, largely because the physics department only resorted to hiring an outsider because of the massive influx of first year students after the double cohort; opportunities like that probably won’t surface again (and it was a crazy year: they were hiring new TAs right up through February, and I had burned through all my hours by March, so I didn’t need to proctor exams or anything).

This year an entirely different opportunity arose.

First, a quick bit of background info: our department has what are called “low level comprehensive exams.” Unlike the “comps” of other departments, ours are really really simple. Students are expected to write a thesis and know their own topic really well, but the department also wants them to be somewhat well-rounded, so at the end of their first year, they have a 15 minute oral exam on some topics outside their main focus. The department looks at all the topics of active research, and divvies them up into roughly 6 categories, then about 2 weeks before the exams assigns 2 categories (that are not your own) to each student. They don’t need to study too hard, just have a “Bill Nye” level of understanding of what’s going on in those areas. For years, it was a rubber-stamp administrative joke: spend a few hours studying one day and you were set. At worst, you’d be told to brush up on one area and asked to answer some harder questions by email.

Then last year, four students failed. This came as a bit of a shock, and even now nobody’s quite sure if the students heard it was a joke and didn’t prepare, or if the test got harder, or what the heck happened. So to combat this, we decided it might be best to hold an intensive ~4 hour prep seminar before the low levels. Since I’ve been looking for teaching experience, and since I’m easily the most well-rounded (scientifically), it made sense for my supervisor to pick me to run the thing and tutor the other students.

From there, it snowballed from a shortish, single-day session to a seminar series, and from there to a full-blown for-credit class that would not only serve as preparation for the low-levels, but also as a course to round out their various backgrounds so they could function in an interdisciplinary environment like ours.

Since then, it’s been an absolute nightmare. Despite the fact that teaching a class is a huge amount of work (not just lecturing, but also designing the curriculum, and creating and marking assignments), I’m not getting paid for teaching, which is pretty much a rant in its own right. There are only 3 people in the class, and I share an office with two of them, so they have absolutely no respect for me as a teacher. They fell like they were forced to take the course (and there was a certain amount of undue pressure put on them by our supervisor; though at the end of the day they were the ones who filled out their course enrollment sheet). They resent being there, and any homework they have to do (come on, it’s a for-credit master’s level course!), and constantly complain, bitch, whine, and send endless streams of emails. Some to me, some to our mutual supervisor, some to their parents, and others cast of randomly into the Ether, like wine bottles thrown from the shores of a deserted ocean atoll.

They complain about the assignments being too hard, since every last thing isn’t spelled out in class (they’re in research, they never heard of Google??). They complain about the assignments being too hard and taking too long (the longest one yet was just under 2 pages, and took me about an hour when I did it myself, and the only reason they took as long as they did is because they drastically and uncharacteristically over-thought the question, making a simple rote answer some weirdly complicated math issue), and not being at all applicable to the real world. The complaining is non-stop, and a sure sign that there is no respect there (sure, in Quantum Mechanics, we complained non-stop, but only to each other, only once, after much bravery was summoned, did we whine to the prof).

What they don’t seem to realize is that I can still fail them. (Well, not really, since my supervisor is technically the prof and I’m just an instructor, so he’s got to sign off on their marks; and he’s not about to fail his own students).

It got really bad over this past weekend as they whined and whined to our supervisor, and he actually sided with them: “The coursework shouldn’t take more than half an hour a week to do.” What the fuck? High school classes have more than half an hour a week of homework, that’s just a joke. Of course, he’s not coming from the point of view of having this actually be a real and useful course: he simply doesn’t want his research staff spending their time on coursework instead of labwork (and these kids don’t quite seem to get the “home” part of homework). Even then, the assignments I’ve given have been fairly straightforward, and shouldn’t be taking them as long as they are (is it my fault they’re slow?). The kicker is, he apparently convinced them to take the class by promising it would be that easy, yet this is the first I’d ever heard of that sort of nonsense.

Pushing her luck after that weekend victory, when I came into work I got nearly an hour of further bitching today from the more vocal part of the class. “How is this applicable?” “Seriously, this will take me 2 hours to do, and I have to prepare for a 10 minute presentation in 2 weeks, and that’s going to take me like 5 hours and I just don’t have time to deal with this now. I’m FLUSTERED!” “How is this going to help me on my low levels?” “When will I use this?”

I used that time to stare at the wall.

Towards the end, as she started with “constructive suggestions” such as devoting the last quarter or so of each class to explaining exactly how that days material would relate to the low level exam or where it might be used in real life within the next few hours, I had a very Scrubs-like moment as I drifted off. There was a very vivid vision of her sitting there in a high chair, and I was going “bbbbrrrrrrrrrmmmm, here comes the airplane!” and then she got applesauce all over her face. Poor baby, here, let me spoon feed you some more. God forbid I should cover more material in class, rather than slashing the curriculum to spend more time explaining exactly how it applies in every possible situation.

So I see now that the course is regressing from it’s “generally useful prep course” intent back to the “low level exam study session” where we started. I’ve put a lot of work into this so far, treating it like I was actually some kind of university instructor lecturing in a for-credit class. Each 2 hour class takes 10+ hours of prep time (and that’s assuming I only come in with a detailed lecture plan + slides, and didn’t take the extra few hours to actually practice my talk verbatim). But if they only have to put in ~30 minutes per week for credit, why should I do any more for free? Great opportunity to flesh out my CV or not, my supervisor essentially dumped this in my lap because he doesn’t care enough to bother trying to teach it himself (and I’ve taken his classes before: they involved a lot of catch-up readings that took way more than a few hours a week — less work for the students usually means more for the teachers, unless less is being learned), so if he’s not even going to stand behind my/our curriculum and teaching strategy, I don’t really see the point of trying so hard anymore.

As for the moritorium on homework, there’s really only one way around that: pop quizzes and/or tests. I think pop quizzes are the way to go, since tests usually require studying which eats even more time than just doing an equivalent assignment in the first place. So my Evil Plan ™ for tomorrow, the half-way class, is to spring a pop quiz on them at the end. Really, it’s the only way to ensure that they spend a half hour on the work. If I let them do the same assignment after class, they could very well zone out, fall half asleep, and spend half an hour just reading the questions.

Wayfare made a very good point before I could really get into my Evil Laugh: these kids are not the brightest bulbs in the bunch, and will likely complain about a pop quiz even more. To try to circumvent this, I’ve taken actual high school problems and made them easier. True, they’re technically OAC-level problems, so current high school standards might be just a bit lower, but everyone in this class is (barely) old enough to have gone through OAC.

One Response to “Teaching Woes”

  1. Netbug Says:

    And neither your prof nor your students know about your blog I take it?

    Perhaps they could find out about it? :)

    What’s an example of a question from the quiz your giving them? I’m curious.