[Editor’s note: Though we’re still all celebrating Fitzmas here (as even the Angry Biologist hates Blago—though perhaps if Rod were a little less like a pufferfish and a bit more amphibian in his appearance things would be…different), we’ve decided to take a break to express our ongoing anger at, well, everything. Don’t worry, if there’s breaking news about Blago, we’ll be right back to kicking that dog while he’s still down…or perhaps we’ll just throw a shoe! Anyway, without further ado, here’s MPA ranting about a topic near and dear to his heart:]

OK, I haven’t out and out ranted for a while, but it’s after the fall semester as the days get shorter, along with tempers. Of course, I’m not really going to rant, I’m going to lecture-rant, as is fitting and proper.

One of the joys of teaching a technical subject is the fact that it’s necessary to teach intro classes, far more than most people in higher education. I use “joy” completely sarcastically, these are something that most of us find about as pleasant as a root canal. I’ve never had a root canal and hope I never do. but I have had enough other notoriously painful medical procedures (e.g., traction), so I’ll extrapolate. All jobs have their pain and drudgery component and this is one of mine.

Kudos to people who do them well because they are hard. There are two big problems. First, unfortunately, the large lecture doesn’t match up with the personal characteristics for which the job otherwise selects, i.e., an ability and willingness to pick apart the details of things, an ability to concentrate on details for long periods of time, etc., all components of introversion. (My particular line of work frequently involves working and reworking mathematical proofs and derivations for hours on end, or doing the same with computer output. It’s like sudoku on steroids.) Running a small class is easy and some classes of highly motivated advanced students go on their own almost without the need for an instructor at all. Running a medium sized (15-20 person) class is a bit harder but well within the reach of most people with some practice. That I do very well (based on my efficiency ratings, not my opinion). The big class… ugh, there’s just too much “room” to cover, too many fragile egos—intro classes are taken by noobs (freshmen, first year grad students, etc.), after all—and so on, and given how students have been educated these days, the overwhelming sense of entitlement too many have. And sad to say, overly investing in noobs is dumb because a good percentage of them won’t be there in two years no matter what you do, often for their own good. Intro courses, especially ones with “objective” content like science and math, are used as weeders.

The second problem with classes like these is the fact that the students are very heterogeneous, so you can’t count on much background knowledge. (In a smaller class this can be remedied more easily one-on-one or by encouraging a peer “buddy system.”) Sadly these days, a fair number can’t even do algebra competently, regardless of what they claim to know. Some know how to buckle down to make it through class, and, most importantly, aren’t so afraid that when you say “do the homework and you’ll get it,” they do the homework and find out that, indeed, they get it. A small, vociferous minority of these always seem to want “big picture” or “conceptual” understanding of the material essentially for free (with a nice grade to go along, naturally), without any sweat equity in their own educations. Unfortunately, these are usually the ones with the least ability to comprehend the concepts and not happy when you tell them “Look, you have to learn the details before the big picture will make any sense and that comes from, you guessed it, doing the homework.” Worse yet, they need a lot of hand holding and many feel sufficiently entitled to expect you to drop whatever else it is you’re doing (e.g., your other classes, working with the too often horribly neglected advanced students, serving on academic committees, doing your research, trying not to go insane in the short days of December, etc.) to accommodate their schedules. Inevitably you end up trying to teach to the middle but because the class is so variable, you get wild-ass questions that translate to, essentially, “I already know all this, why do I have to take this course?” and “We’re going too fast, why can’t we do the material from two weeks ago again?”

If you’re a mathphobe and you hated math and science classes—something I hear all the time in conversation is, “I hated that course!” or “I’m hopeless at math!”—guess what? The feeling is mutual, both as regards your particular fragile psychology and the giant intro class we are both stuck in. Sit down, shut up, get to work and we’ll make the best of it.

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The totally bizarre thing is, like Dr. Johnson’s view of second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience hits again next semester. Fortunately there’s a good six weeks off between. Everyone needs it. 🙂

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ObBlago: Ah, to be the professor in his intro classes and be able to flunk his punk ass right out of Northwestern, which should be ashamed to have him as an alum. My messy office for a Tardis….

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