Friday, January 28, 2005

It's about 10 degrees and that actually feels - OK. Tonight it is supposed to be the coldest night ever? Since temperatures have been recorded? In my lifetime? In the past decade? So far this winter? Beats me, but I did hear some claim of that type on the television weather report.

I'm not sure what is up with students. You always hear from (most) older people that the younger generations are declining, in various ways. (I wrote most because Mimmie never said that to me, in fact she commented that young people really had not changed much in her opinion.) So I am not sure if Mimmie was right, and I am not remembering what my friends were like when I was an undergraduate, or if it is that I know people who are more self-reliant and motivated than the norm or what, because all of my favorite young people fit that description (and get snapped up for jobs right away after graduation).

This week, a bunch of students proudly shouted to me in class that they didn't do the reading, and it is my fault because (1) it isn't on the syllabus (it is); (2) I didn't announce in class that they had to read the article (I definitely did, but regardless, why should I have to do this?); and (3) the copy place screwed up and is selling the wrong course pack (I checked, and this is not true either).

I did something I rarely do, which is lose it. I yelled (yes, yelled, it is a 100 person lecture hall) as many nasty and threatening things as I could think up. Many looked scared, but some seemed impervious. Now, I don't usually do something like that, no matter how hard I am pushed. I avoid the necessity. Instead I do very structured exercises, with specific guidelines, where reporting out is part of the assignment. I rarely expect students to individually respond to questions I throw out, unless they are things that don't require much familiarity with the materials. I know from experience that most will say nothing. Often even students who do the reading are nervous about speaking, especially in the lecture centers. If the class does not cooperate, I fall back on chalk & talk, and go back to the drawing board for the next class. I generally have good results with this approach.

I rarely ask students if they did the reading when they don't raise their hands to participate, but I have found the GAs almost always fall back on this when they are confronted with a silent audience. The personal humiliation style of teaching is so common, and familiar, and I think that is the first thing in the GA's tool box.

However, I had to react in a very strong fashion. One of the undergraduate TAs decided to advocate for the complainers, right during class. This is a big no-no. I felt like slapping her. Since this is one of the GA-taught classes, I don't go to it every time it meets. I took the opporunity to make an impression so that the students don't disrespect the two new GAs when I am not around.

I don't meddle with the GA's experiments when in the classroom, since that would undermine their authority. I do make suggestions privately. But this week one of the GAs asked the fatal question to the blank stares, which sparked the student protests. And I couldn't risk letting that insubordination go unchecked.

Bob said he heard, or read somewhere about this latest crop having "helicopter parents." They are always hovering around, getting involved, fighting battles for their young adult kids. The college students whose families fit this description behave toward me as if I was in the parental role. In other words, when Dad said "be home by 11" and they sauntered in at 1 am, they whined "you didn't remind me" or "I tried calling but it was busy" or the old favorites "it isn't fair" and "it wasn't my fault." (I hear both a lot. "I know I missed some classes but it isn't fair I got a C since I tried hard" or "It isn't my fault I didn't hand in the assignment since I was on vacation.") Dad grumbled but immediately overlooked the infraction and did nothing. Or maybe Dad was absentee and didn't enforce rules ever.

If that is the case, I suspect yelling may not be very effective. The GAs will have to acquire a new tool -- learning how to "deliver content" that meets with student satisfaction, since letting the class out early every week is not an option. Kind of like the way the cafeterias have to cater to student demand for Starbucks, fast food and Coke or Pepsi. We had milk machines, dried out macaroni and cheese, and generic crap in vending rooms. The question of fairness wasn't part of the calculation.

And besides, we had to walk ten miles in the snow to get to those vending rooms.

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