Monday, July 28, 2008

Following Instructions

One of my colleagues who teaches developmental math courses is always dismayed when his students give him assignments. He tells them to put the assignments on graph paper. They don't. Never mind whether you like the look of graph paper or whether you understand the reason behind the assignment—the man with the red pen who is trying to decide whether to pass you has asked for something. Maybe it would be a good idea to give it to him.

Most of us in the teaching profession are used to students who can't follow the simplest instructions. I ask my students to use the MLA Page Format. I get fancy type, huge margins, and colored ink. I ask my students to choose between two essays to analyze. I get a discussion of a book I've never heard of. I ask for 1000 words minimum. I get 650.

Analyzing your audience

When you write something for Freshman Comp, the assignment may specify an audience, but you should always remember that the teacher is going to read this thing and try to decide what grade to give you. Don't tempt the teacher to say, "Here's a fool who can't follow the most basic instructions." Specifically:

  • Due date. Assume it's cast in concrete. Assume that you need to solve any problems that get in the way of meeting the deadline (computer ink, roommate disasters).

  • Assignment length. Assume that's also cast in concrete. A typical college assignment is more than 1000 words (that's more than 3 pages), and a typical freshman semester will assign about twenty pages of total writing. That's more than you have ever done in your life. Most of your high school essays were probably in the 250-500 word range (if they were that long). Take a deep breath. Visit the Writing Center, and assume that you really do need to meet the assigned length.

  • Topic and treatment. Some teachers allow latitude; some don't. If you really don't want to write the assigned topic, talk to the teacher and see if there's a possibility of changing things. Whatever you do, don't simply scan the assignment, pick up on one key word, and start inventing. You have to actually read the assignment!

  • Other stuff. Depending on the course and instructor, you may have to include a Works Cited page, a summary of reading, or some other extra material. Nobody will give you a good grade if you're simply too lazy or disorganized to do these things.

None of this guarantees a good grade; I've seen plenty of neat, pretty papers that fulfilled the assignment but were really insufficient quality. On the other hand, why on earth jeopardize your grade? This isn't (as I said about another issue) the deep magic. It's simply doing the basics.

More persuasion

Read your professor's assignment sheet or syllabus. I did a Google search for other professors' assignment statements. Here's an assortment:

  • Failure to conform to formatting requirements can result in return of the paper for corrections or mark deductions.

  • A warning: too many of my students in the past have treated this as a trivial assignment and have not executed it carefully. The impact on their final grade was less than trivial.

  • Read these instructions before you begin.
    Read them after you begin.
    Read them before you turn the paper in!
    Many students lose marks because they do not follow directions.

You get the idea. It's not just your teacher. All teachers have requirements that you are supposed to meet.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I NEED That Job!

Today, the minimum wage officially went up to $6.55 per hour. That's an awfully appealing number, and I know that a lot of my students (particularly in afternoon classes) will ditch class when the job demands their presence. A lot of them will get terrible grades.

Many of my students need to work. I did. Of the twelve years or so that I was in college, I only avoided having a job for one semester.

I know that when there's a conflict between job and school, the job always wins, at least nowadays.

Now let's think about this for a moment. Are there a lot of minimum wage jobs out there? If your McDonald's manager decides she doesn't need you, is that the last fast food job in town? Is there no job wiping tables, digging sewers, or planting trees? (All jobs I had while I was in school) On the other hand, if you miss English class are you cutting yourself out of a job that's better than minimum wage? Will you easily find another college if you flunk out of this one?


Say this slowly and carefully: "College IS my job right now!" Everything else is secondary. Or to put it another way, which of these is the supreme item that has a right to push everything else (including study) off your calendar?

  • Minimum wage job at a fast food place?
  • Counseling your loony roommate/girlfriend/other?
  • Family obligations?
  • Drinking and partying?
  • Social, political, or religious club?
  • Sex
  • Finding a spouse

Once you figure out what's number one (and there can really be only one number one), you know what's going to happen in your life. And if your priorities are (1) Parties, (2) Booze, (3) Sex, (4) Part-Time Job, and (5) College classwork, please don't complain when you only have enough time and mental resources to take care of numbers one through four and number five has to slide.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gatekeeper Courses

This is an ugly subject, and many educators will flatly deny that their colleges have "gatekeeper courses." But they do. Sixty years (or more) ago, we could assume several things. High schools were doing a good job of basic education, and for most people a high school diploma was their grandest achievement. (Take a look at this 8th grade final exam from Kansas in 1895). For the lucky few who managed to gain entrance to a college, everyone could assume a high level of preparation.

Not so any more.

Beginning in the 1960s, America engaged in an enormous educational experiment. Almost everyone who wants to can graduate high school. And almost everyone who wants to can get into college. EVERYONE!

This means that a lot of very unprepared people with very poor habits are in our freshman classes. One of my colleagues in the math department has to teach students how to convert a common fraction into a decimal. I often have to point out that the first person pronoun "I" is capitalized. Lots of stuff that should have been covered in the third or fourth grade just didn't get learned. My students are often surprised that they have to actually show up for every class. One informed me that his high school English teacher gave him a "C" because she knew how much he loved basketball and she didn't want him to be ineligible to play. Thus the need for gatekeeper courses: a filter to give everyone a chance, but weed out the ones who simply won't succeed as sophomores.

Characteristics of a Gatekeeper Course

  • Absolutely everyone has to take the course. Freshman English and math are good examples.

  • The stress is on skills that should have been learned a long time ago. Thus (again) English and math, but not necessarily art history.

  • Some of the requirements seem a little childish. When I was a freshman, my math homework had to be fastened together with one staple. Two staples would lose me points. When I teach a course, I take attendance every day and count it as a major component of the grade. Why all the trivia? Some people need to know that when a teacher (or supervisor at work) says to do something, it's really necessary to do it.

  • Lots of people fail. I'm known as a fairly easy teacher. Two thirds of my students can proceed to the next class. One third must repeat. I've seen failure rates as high as 75%.

What all this means to you

  • You have to take the course seriously. Chances are that someone is looking for a way to clean the deadwood out of the freshman class. Don't provide an opportunity.

  • This stuff isn't brain surgery. Showing up on time, shutting off the cell phone, and turning in homework on time aren't exactly the material for a course in "the deeper magic." If you never really did learn how to do basic arithmetic or basic sentence grammar, it's easy to find someone to help—and this material should have been in place by the time you were fourteen years old.

  • Some gatekeeper teachers hate doing this. Another inconvenient truth: these courses burn teachers out. If you provide more fuel for that burnout, don't be surprised if you are the one who suffers. On the other hand, a student who makes a real effort to do well and cooperate will often find a gatekeeper teacher to be a real friend.

A word about retention

One buzzword at public colleges is "retention." Can we keep the students? Colleges don't look good when a lot of people fail, so we'd love to hold on to the qualified ones. In no particular order, here are some of the reasons my students fail, and the college's attempt to remedy:

  • Immaturity. Students on athletic scholarships have to answer to their coaches if they are failing. I often send memos to coaches when students have problems attending. We send out midterm grades to all students who are failing.

  • Alcohol. Nationwide, about 25% of college freshmen have a drinking problem severe enough to interfere with their studies. All colleges now enforce rules against underage drinking. Almost all colleges have counseling services available to students concerned about their substance abuse.

  • Other personal issues. Whether the issue is depression, pregnancy, or simple homesickness, colleges have free (and confidential) counseling services for all students.

  • Lack of skills. Almost all English and math departments have tutoring labs (again, they are free). Sadly, few of my students (and almost none of the ones who need it most) can be persuaded to accept this form of help.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Is a Teacher Ever Right?

I'm doing my typical summer thing: getting material ready for the beginning of classes in late August. At one of my schools, we have an electronic grammar book, and we need to go to a special website to sign in.

It never works.

The problem is that our school has cut a deal with the publisher so that we get two years of access instead of one, but we have to use that special website to get in, not the general one everyone else uses.

I give the students a handout in class. I put a link on my website. I fire up the projector and show them how to do it.

And it doesn't work. A significant number, perhaps 20%, figure that I don't know what I'm talking about. They refuse to follow my instructions, and the general login site rejects them. They have to use the special one.

Which raises an interesting question:

What's the point of actually attending college? (Aside from the beer and sex, of course.) It would be much cheaper to simply buy the textbooks at an ordinary bookstore, hang out in a library, and read them. If messing about on the computer is your thing, it's a lot cheaper to go to one of those bread-and-salad restaurants that has free internet connection, buy lunch, and get online. The food would be better too.

As far as I can see, the only real reason to spend that money and time is that the college brings together a large number of people who know more than you do, all with the purpose of teaching and coaching you. And if your attitude is that these people are idiots—well—why bother?

Another view

A few years ago, one of my second-semester students informed me that he didn't actually need college for anything. He'd learned everything there was to know when he was in high school. He just needed the actual diploma so he could get more money. He was an engineer. Here's an e-mail he wrote to me after I had been out sick for two days:

just writting you to see how your doing and to yell at you i did my writing assinment last wensday to get it out of the way for friday and yep there was no class and then monday yep no class agian hehe im just kidding its just funny that the first time i do my work ahead of time is the only time i didnt have too. well im still working on my first wrighting assinment so i can make it better and if you could look over my grades and see if i have a chance of making a B+ that would be very helpfull i usally aim for the A but i think my first paper messed that up

I hope I never have to drive over a bridge he designed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Caring for Your Body

A surprising number of my students fail because of health issues. Of course, some things cannot be avoided, but you'd be amazed how many times student failure is simply a matter of poor self-care.

  • Don't engage in binge drinking. That means don't drink five or more beers/shots/glasses of wine in an evening. The number is four if you're a woman. Lots of bad stuff happens to binge drinkers: alcohol poisoning, broken bones, fist fights, car wrecks, unwelcome sex.

  • As a matter of fact, you should limit your drinking to Friday and Saturday night—not Thursday or Sunday. You need to go to class without a hangover.

  • Eat healthy. Pizza, pop, and Doritos are just fine once in a while, but that shouldn't be your daily diet. Find a way to work in some vegetables and fruits. Our campus food is finally working away from "Deep-fried paradise," but you need to actually choose good food. You mother isn't there to yell at you if you eat Oreos for breakfast.

  • Find a way to get some exercise. If you aren't an athlete, the campus gym is still available for such things as jogging and swimming. Walk briskly between classes. Use the stairs, not the elevator.

  • Build a lifestyle that includes at least eight hours of sleep a night. This means getting your assignments done early so you don't do the all-nighters (which usually produce terrible writing anyhow) and getting your roommate to shut up at midnight.

What happens if you don't?

  • The Freshman Fifteen (or twenty or thirty). Poor eating habits and lack of exercise mean that most freshmen gain 10% to 20% in body weight—all fat.

  • Sleeping in class. It's not just your physical body we want—your mind must be here too.

  • Depression. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, frustration with studies (because your body isn't allowing you to do a good job), and a poor body image all add up to a recipe for depression.

  • Sickness. If you aren't getting vitamins or sleep, and you're crammed into a tight space with other people, you will almost inevitably get colds, flu, and the like.

  • All the problems associated with drinking. It's not just the binge drinkers who have trouble with class. College freshman drinking (which is almost always illegal anyhow) isn't usually a polite glass of wine with supper. It's the stuff that destroys your academic career and your life: Tuesday hangovers, showing up for class plastered, trips to the emergency room, unwanted pregnancy and/or STDs, visits to the police station.

Consider college classes as your job. If you are habitually late or absent at a fast food job, you'll get fired. If you show up and you are physically unable to perform, you'll get fired. Same principle here: aim at zero absences and maximum health.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Do I HAVE to Read That?

The average freshman has to spend a fortune on books. You've already figured that out, and you're probably upset/angry/afraid. (Just to give you some numbers, my students will pay between $66 and $100 for books for our course, but that's only because I'm pretty conservative about ordering).

Do you have to actually read these things?

What an interesting question.

In high school classes, perhaps you would be assigned to read a section, then during class "discussions" parrot back the book's language when called upon. Trivia is great stuff for short answer quizzes: definition of a sestina, name of George Washington's horse. Some courses really need this kind of information. There's not much you can do with organic chemistry until you actually know how carbon atoms work. You'll do a lot better discussing Shakespeare's sonnets if you know how many lines a sonnet has and why they are grouped in a certain way. Many courses, though, don't do daily testing on trivia. The professors expect you to keep up with the reading because it's background information that will help you understand the lecture and/or material that will help you write a paper and/or material that will broaden your understanding of the subject.

But do you HAVE to read the textbook if you're not going to get tested on trivia? Well, no. It does seem a shame, though, to show up at college, pay the money for tuition and books, and make a point of staying ignorant.

Unless, of course, you are just here for the beer and sex.

Now for the rest of you:

Assuming you see more to higher education than just getting high, here's what one teacher thinks you should do with textbooks.

  • When you read a textbook, you get more than one teacher. It's me plus the textbook author. Even better, if you don't understand the textbook author, you can stop and grab a dictionary.

  • Tip of the iceberg. A one-hour lecture doesn't allow me to be as complete as a textbook chapter. The book has examples, illustrations, and even pictures. I'll explain points that seem to be difficult and answer questions raised by the text.

  • Disagreement: Sometimes I do differ from the textbook author, and I'll mention that. You need to see that some issues have more than one side.

  • Basic definitions and explanations. Why should I go into detail about nuts-and-bolts stuff that the textbook has covered very well? I assume you can read and that you've done it. That way I can build on your understanding.

And just because I live in a real world and know that my freshmen need to build a few good habits, I really will give brief reading quizzes, just to make sure you have cracked open the book.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Your Car is Your Friend

Even in these days of insane gasoline prices, many freshmen commute. Think of your car as an educational device, and make it part of your college strategy.
  • If you have a choice which car to drive to school (or if you're buying one for commuting), go for substance, not style. You want the gray Toyota Corolla, not the pimped-out ride. People steal things from the pimped-out rides. People back into your car in the lot. Probably the worst choice for a commuter car is the refugee from the Monster Truck Rally. A nine-foot-tall four wheel drive truck with off road lights, tires two feet wide, and a total length approaching 30 feet simply won't fit into most university parking.
  • The university cops really do mean every word they say, especially when they write parking regulations. They really will put a boot on your car if you don't have a sticker. They really will charge $300 to take it off.
  • Even if you have a rusted out beater car, take it to a mechanic and make sure it will start on a cold morning. Buy that new battery.
  • Learn to drive on snow.
  • You really do need tread on your tires, especially in bad weather.
  • Learn to drive in a parking garage. No, the speed limit isn't 40 mph.
  • Stock your car with spare stuff: pens, spiral notebooks, an energy bar. Some morning, you'll forget to put those things in your back pack.
  • Leave home early. Allow extra time.
  • Buy gas on the way home. You won't have time in the morning.
  • No, you can't use your car to move from one class to another, even on a really large campus. There are usually shuttle buses if it's too far to walk.
  • Do a test run the week before classes begin.
  • Relax. The first week of commuting is the worst. Nobody knows where they are going; twice as many cars are on campus; nothing seems to work right. It will get better.
  • Study the campus parking map to learn where else to park your car.
  • Try to find someone to walk with you if you have to return to your car after dark.
  • Allow time to walk from your car to your classes.
  • Don't do road rage.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Scheduling Classes

In one way, all colleges are the same. All ask you to come up with a schedule before you know a single thing about the college itself (physical layout of the campus or professors or requirements) or your own needs and desires. One other similarity seems to bind all colleges: students claim their academic advisers are useless.

In a spirit of avuncular advice (great word), here are a few scheduling basics (in no particular order).

Consider campus geography. Even a small campus such as Ashland University has classes in several different buildings. If you have a class in Bixler, there's no way you can get to over to Schar in less than ten minutes. A big place like Akron is, of course, much worse. To walk all the way from Olin to Polsky takes a minimum of 25 minutes (assuming that you're in good physical shape and hit the traffic lights right). The moral of the story: when you make your summer campus visit, walk the place and time yourself. Don't schedule things back-to-back unless they are in the same building.

Eight o'clocks. Recently I read a study which claimed that the older adolescent brain doesn't have the same circadian rhythm as an adult brain—and that "older adolescent" extends to 22 years old. This means that the college freshman's body wants to sleep from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. Nobody has told school administrators this one, so a LOT of freshman classes are scheduled for 8 a.m. (Sometimes even earlier!) Do your best to avoid these, even if you think you're an early bird. If you're stuck with eight o'clock classes, work really hard to be awake for them: allow at least 90 minutes for shower, food, and commute.

Speaking of commuting: If you've never driven in a rush hour, you don't realize that it takes twice as long to get there during a "rush." Most larger cities calm down by 9 a.m. and begin to get intense again around 4, so work around that schedule if you can.

What to take #1: Some courses are pretty much required for everyone (Freshman English is a good example). Others are pretty much required for everyone in a particular field (Engineers should just plan on taking calculus). You might as well study the college catalog and figure out what these "everyone" courses are and work on them from the beginning. You don't want to get caught at the end of your sophomore year needing basic courses so you can proceed.

What to take #2: "Prerequisite" means that you can't take course number two until you pass number one. You need to take these things seriously because the college will. Keep track of the courses you've taken and the requirements for your curriculum. You don't want to arrive at the end of four years and learn that you really needed a sophomore literature course.

What to take #3: It's a good idea to do a bit of detective work. There's nothing wrong with asking people whether they liked Professor Jones (but be aware that a lousy student will tell you that he hated everyone). There's certainly nothing wrong with visiting Professor Jones during his office hours and asking him what his course will be like next semester. When someone says that Professor Jones was a "good professor," ask what "good" means. Easy? Interesting? Thought-provoking?

When to schedule things. ASAP. Classes fill up. As soon as the computer will let you register, do it!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Only one thing is missing

It's happened again. Almost every time I teach a course, a student approaches me with the comment that this is the second time around. Usually the complaint is that the student was really wonderful—did all the work, got good grades, etc. Only one thing was fouled up, usually a major paper that was worth a lot of points. And of course, the previous teacher (who was, the student assures me, a real bastard) didn't have any mercy. With a missing paper that was worth 30% of the course and a pretty good average on the rest of the course, the student had a total average of 60% and failed. How unfair!

Now comes the punch line.

These students usually assume that they don't need to do anything for my course except the missing paper. They never attend, turn in homework, or anything like that. The next time I'll see them is on the last day of class. Then I fail them because their average is something like 30%.

How unfair!

I don't know how your high school worked grades, but in college it's not exactly like filling a tank of gasoline. If I have a 12-gallon tank on my car, there's really nothing wrong with putting in six gallons here, three at the next station, and three at the station after that. College courses are more like video games. Yesterday I was playing a Legos Star Wars game with a friend. Every time I fell in the hot lava, I had to begin that stage again. I didn't get to simply climb out of the hot lava—I had to go all the way back to the entrance to the cave and jump from one rock to the next, redoing all the work I had just done.

College is like that. Teachers don't forward their grade books and say, "Suzie Student did very well, but screwed up the last test, so if you will simply let her take that last test we can pass her." Nope. You have to do the whole course all over again. And if you don't choose to show up and do the work in my course, I'll fail you too.