Semester roundup: on evaluation

Another semester has closed. The narrative has found resolution. For me it’s always interesting the way things happen. Number one, students always surprise me. It’s always a mistake to judge early. “These students can’t write, read, or think their way out of a sitcom.” No, they typically can, if they do the work and take it seriously. Some do rise, some will have to try again.

I learned early that the best education is about teaching people to think for themselves, to face problems with confidence, and to act with self-possession and to initiate action deserving of respect. This is why all exams in British Lit are comprehensive: we learn Mill by aiming at Wollstonecraft; we draw from the Green Knight for insight into Paradise Lost. Yet, one of the attitudes I saw a lot of this semester had to do with students putting off for tomorrow what they could do today. I’ll get to “that” when I get to the four year, I hear them thinking. I teach at a community college. Problem is the courses I and my colleagues teach transfer to the four year school. Hence they are “university” courses. They are not preparatory for university; they’re preparatory for deeper study into similar content areas, the addressing of which will have to come at another institution. One of the unstated objectives of British Literature and Creative Writing is to maintain the integrity of the content. That’s one of my jobs. I want students not to “like” Eliot but to respect the work. I don’t want people to take my word for it, to trust in what I think is good description. So we read lots of examples and try to figure out what makes the description tick. Then we write self-generated work and hope it “exceeds” the examples. Do we “exceed”? Let’s keep trying is what I say. “As good” is a static ethic. I’ve seen too many students succeed to begin playing it safe.

I’m now what would be considered a “seasoned” teacher. I’ve been teaching for over 12 years, at three institutions. When I was in school I learned quick what I didn’t want to do for a living. I had the typical jobs: hotel dishwasher, factory worker, and others. I cleaned out the “professional’s” waste basket. Fine. But the image of this work, from my own perspective, gave me enough ambition to work through the trigonometry, an area of math that I still love, but didn’t then consider my bag. There were other bags, but cosine still made enough of an impact to generate topics of conversation over beer. I entered school as a computer science major but found the study confining at the time. I loved to write, so I figured I could always write about the science, and so English was a good path. Nobody told me that I had to write just about Wordsworth. Dr. Wren and others claimed that I acted like a “dedicated generalist.” I enjoy history, science, mathematics, programming, art, and games. Sounds like new media. “Dedicated generalist” sounded good and “is good.”

I know that competence matters, and so do a lot of the students at Tunxis or anywhere else. That’s what the Eastgate talk for the last week has been about. Some grades are about competence; others are about averages: A to start finished with D averages as pass, but what does it mean, really?. Can a student do the work? Do they do the work at the level of excellence. Part of the meaning of this word has to do with royalty, but we mean it in the sense of “to rise.” An excellent friend of mine, a teacher in the CC system of El Paso Texas once told me that “to want to be like” is an ethic of mediocrity, and I buy that as an exemplar worldview. Teachers have to think about “things that rise.” Do we have to be excellent? Of course not. But do we lose anything by doing the work, the reading, and completing what we started? No. Some of the students I’ve seen this semester actually worked hard at avoiding the work or concentrating on other things yet expecting to know what I asked them to consider on their own with some guidance from me. If they’d put the same amount of effort into completion and risk, they would’ve done just fine. Still others weren’t in the right place to complete because they had import things pressing against them, family matters, personal adjustments which competed for their attention. That’s fine too. But a student can’t expect an honest evaluation under duress. An honest evaluation can only come after honest attempts at learning what hadn’t been known or understood, which is always exciting.

Competency isn’t politics. But politics can strive to look like it. Currently, the officials are trying to close down military bases in Connecticut. They’ll make it sound like a reasoned decision, that it’ll save money. Easy waste is easier wasted. We just killed a madman in Connecticut knowing full well that he didn’t know a lot about life to give a damn either way. We’re not very good, still, at managing the proportions at large scales, which may be what the future looks like to some. It’s a continual struggle to know want from need.

Anyway, here’s what I learned this semester:

1. The directions are important. Students who followed them did better than those who didn’t or didn’t bother to try. (Note: following directions is not a measure of competence or of individuality in and of itself. I.e., you can be cool and edgy and still know when the deadlines are. There’s just something silly about not being able cite a source or turn in readable copy. I like as much edge as the next guy, but edge still needs texture and nuance.) I have lots of directions for online students. One of them is to submit papers through email with names and paper # in the file name. The majority of the students ignored this direction even after multiple reminders. Believe it or not, those who got it down were better at organization, authority, focus, and risk. To conform to ActionScript 2.0 I have to note my datatypes just like everyone else.

var sSoThere:String = “Okay, okay!”;

2. Organization really does work. Those people who kept to a semblance of organization knew where to go to look up the answer to a question. Good notes, systemic structures, and attention to details made for a marked improvement in finished work.

5 thoughts on “Semester roundup: on evaluation

  1. Katherine Nowakowski

    A truly great teacher is one that encourages their students to believe in themselves and their own thoughts and to always look beyond the lecture. This is why anyone who has had you for a teacher should consider themselves very fortunate as I have.

    Thank you for being one of the greats, Steve…

  2. jgt

    Well done.

    The biggest disappointment this semester was a student who, after doing nine writing assignments (warm-ups and exercises on certain structures and techniques) and nine quizzes (on terminology and their respective uses), blew the final (where she was expected to put everything together) because as she put “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

  3. Steve Post author

    Gee Thanks, K , this praise is very nice.

    But I still think it’s important that a student learn on their own to do this, which is sort of what Prof Timmons is aiming at in his comment. Encouragement is fine, but an honest to goodness human should be able to figure it out on their own power.

    This is the “essence” of learning. If you’re starving, you must figure out how to survive or you die.

    By the way, Katherine, you’re a great student. And I know of no better teacher than Timmons. Tunxis would crash without him. Trust me.

  4. Christopher

    I see it around me in my fellow students. Those who want everything put in front of them in nice little packages, nothing to challenge them, nothing to make them think. These students want tests where the answers are given out before and as they’ll most likely have skipped class that day, they’ll want those test answers repeated to them.

    Maybe it’s generational. Maybe it’s just my own cynicism kicking in. To me people who are in college need to take the time to soak up as much information as they can, about subject matter, the world, and themselves.

  5. Neha

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about “learning” for a while, and I think this semester, what I’ve thought has been said in so many ways. I’m just as cynical as CCE. College isn’t about being condescending to accomodate those who won’t rise up to meet the challenge. There are too many people who refuse to push themselves after repeated nudges because the class is “just a requirement” for the core. Infuriating.

    By the way, K’s right too. It’s easy to set high expectations for myself when I’ve managed to get through three of your classes and lived to tell the tale.

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