Monday, May 23, 2011

Outrageous and Nitpicky and Bulls*t. Oh My!

A Response to a Public Character Assassination

A student dropped in during my office hours Thursday for advising regarding graduation and his plans to attend law school. While I’m not a Philosophy advisor, I was happy to offer my best impromptu advice given his transcript and our departmental requirements. I was also willing to offer some advice on how to approach law school given that he seemed to need it.

This kid didn’t know me from adam (i.e., Hebrew, from any other human being). So when he asked my name, I was taken aback by his response. “Oh. I’ve heard you’re a really hard teacher.” I felt like I was talking with a high school kid at this point but couldn’t help asking, “So who told you that?” I guess I should have been ready for the answer:

I’d told myself I was not going to spend any more time there. But that sore tooth needed just one more round of chewing. So I went to the site. This latest entry is what I found:

Do NOT take him! Amount of work assigned was outrageous, even for an honors class. Grading on essays was nitpicky (liberal use of commas) and his only instructions for length were to write "as much as you need to"; my 6 page paper wasn't enough for him. The next time I wrote 12 and got an A. Most frustrating bullsh*t class I've taken to date.

In all fairness, I ought to be able to respond to this comment on the site where it was posted. And I would if I could. I’ve twice signed up as a faculty member with two different names and passwords. I have yet to be able to get into the site. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me, either.

Students think they’re a little slicker than they really are when they post these things. Of course, I knew immediately who this student was. The “nitpicky” reference to my comments on the writing on the first essay exam gave it away. This was the same student who, when confronted with the writing problems the essay presented, responded, “Don’t you think that’s just a little trivial?” Given that the student had only lost two points (out of 5) on the writing for improper use of punctuation, I did think it was trivial (hence only two points taken) but nonetheless in need of attention.

My evaluations from my three classes this term were generally quite good. That’s not surprising given that I cut the requirements in all three courses to bare bones. Of all of the students in the three classes, only this one showed up at to vent their spleen. Of course that ultimately says more about the function of the website and the character of the individuals it draws than anything about the instructors listed there. But it is a public site and, given its refusal to allow me to respond on site, I feel compelled to do so here. Lies unchallenged tend to take on lives of their own in cyberspace.

Let’s look at the post point by point:

• “Do NOT take him! –“

In all honesty, if the students who actually heed this advice are anything like the student who left it for them, they will do both of us a major favor. The student who brought this to my attention, for instance, simply accepted as gospel truth what he had read at the website, never a good sign. Moreover, it’s clear he has bought into the belief system that an instructor who is reported to be “hard” must be avoided if the GPA and Play plan is to continue. Students like this are not good candidates for a class that actually requires preparation, engagement and critical thought. So, if that is a student’s modus operandi, do us both a favor and take the advice seriously – Do NOT take him!

• “Amount of work assigned was outrageous, even for an honors class. – “
 A little context is needed here. At the beginning of the term I predicted I would get this comment. The total number of students who take classes from me at the Burnett Honors College had dropped over the past few semesters. Word came to me from college administrators last semester that “Harry is scaring them off.” Translation: They think he demands too much work, too much critical thought and they aren’t sure they’ll automatically get an A in his course.

I wrestled all Christmas break with this question: What is particularly respectable – much less honorable - about this?

When I came back for the spring semester, my response was to simply slash my courses to the bone. In the class in question, all the prep work required in previous semesters were cut. That included the short critical precis papers and literature review exercises required to be completed before class to insure students came to class with something to say worth hearing. The observation/analysis field work I always require of world religions students was cut. I enlisted six different guest speakers to tell about their religions including both a Protestant and a Catholic minister, this to deal with concerns from previous classes who found the consideration of their own religious understandings in the critical light of academic scrutiny discomforting.

So what was left?

• Reading – a total of 1002 pages. If distributed evenly over the 43 class days, that comes out to 23 pages a class. If one uses a high school average reading speed of 2 pages per minute, that comes out to 33 hours for the entire semester, or about 45 minutes per class, two hours and 15 minutes per week.

• Exams – The three exams covering a third of the material each contained a multiple choice objective portion (50 questions) and an essay portion. Students were given the day off from class when the objective portion was due and could take it online anywhere (and use their books to cheat, as some clearly did on the third exam). Students report spending about six hours on each exam - which is probably more than a student who has already read the material actually needs – thus a total of 18 hours for all three exams.
 • Total Time - If you add 33 hours of reading to the 18 hours of test time, that comes out to 51 total hours for the entire semester or about an hour and 10 minutes outside of class for every class hour including tests.

These minimal demands are what this student saw as outrageous. And if one is accustomed to using to select GPA and Play instructors who reward minimal effort with maximal grades, it may seem outrageous. But let’s put this into perspective.

Two Hours Prep/One Hour Class

The Carnegie Unit began to be used in the early 20th CE to standardize college credits thus making transfers and transcript evaluations possible. The Carnegie Unit was based in the premise that every class hour credited to students would be matched by either an hour and a half in a lab or two hours study outside the class or both. In a 43 class hour class like this, that average reasonably expectable prep time would be 86 hours. The time required for this course was 51 hours, 35 hours short of average.

In comparison to the requirements of earlier versions of this course in which an observation exercise and daily prep work was required, even at a high school reading speed the entire time required for an ordinary class was only 77 total hours, still 9 hours shy of the average 86. This term’s stripped down class required 26 hours less than the ordinary requirements of this class.

But to put this into bold perspective, the total possible a student could earn in an ordinary class was 700 points. This stripped down version totaled only 400.

This is the outrageous work load of which this student complains. I had predicted at the beginning of the term that no matter how much I cut, students would still complain about workload. Looks like I was right. My students have trained me well.


This brings me to the comment about “even for an honors class.” It seems that the majority of students I’ve encountered in this Honors College do not anticipate that the GEP courses taught there will be honors classes in anything more than title and, of course, credit. Anything beyond that is resented.

This was well articulated by a classmate of the student whose response to an exam question - which asked student to compare the honors college code of ethics to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (“of those to whom much is given, much is expected”) - was startling in its vehemence:

And how often was it said during my Honors orientation that “Honors courses are not designed to be more difficult”? Several times that day at least, and several times since. Yet we students are constantly faced with teachers whose ideologies directly contradict this statement—who believe that Honors-level=harder. We were at the start into believing that we were being invited into a community in which we could learn whatever we pleased, our values respected and our struggles understood. Instead, we are faced with a community that, like the rest of the university, means to force us into courses we do not truly want taught by teachers who feel they have a responsibility to make our lives difficult, ignoring almost entirely the possibility that we have numerous other classes with equal or greater demands on our time.

In my experience, this is how most honors students actually see these classes – maximal grade (80% of these students reported on their End of Term Survey that they came into the class expecting at least an A-) for minimal work (85% report spending an hour and a half or less per class hour in any of their classes). And when they are actually required to do more (or perceive they are being required to do more, as was the case in this class), they complain that it is “outrageous.”

Again, I keep trying to see any sense in which this approach to higher education is particularly respectable – much less worthy of the term “honor.”

• “Grading on essays was nitpicky (liberal use of commas) – “

Clearly, it’s possible to ignore students using punctuation any way they desire. But when such usage begins to affect the readability of an essay answer on an exam, it’s hardly nit picking to point that out and to take two points off. Pedagogically, the idea is that bringing the problem to the student’s attention early on allows them to correct it over the course of the semester, as, in fact, did occur here, as I note below.

• “his only instructions for length were to write "as much as you need to"; my 6 page paper wasn't enough for him. The next time I wrote 12 and got an A.”

This is a good example of why student evaluations are not terribly informative and should not be taken seriously by grownups. Asking undergraduate students who have never actually taught a college course to evaluate the teaching of a graduate educated professional is a risky bet on a good day. It reinforces their mistaken impression that they are consumers with no obligations to their own educational process. Moreover, such evaluations also rarely produce much an instructor can actually use to improve his/her course. This comment is a good example.

To begin with, it evidences a confusion of quantity with quality. It is certainly possible to write an A paper in six pages. But it’s not terribly common. The exam included grades for content, support for their answers and originality. Mere repetition of the text or the class notes was insufficient. I tell students I want to know what they know, not what the textbook author (or a website) has to say.

While this student complained loudly about the two points lost for writing, they actually lost the most points on that first exam (4 out of 50) for failure to fully explain and support an answer provided. The student also lost an additional two points for a lack of originality. More than 10% quoted from other sources costs them a single point, more than 15%– as was the case here – costs them two points.

Thus, the problem with the first exam was not length or quantity. Rather it was the quality of what was submitted. So, it’s not surprising – though not necessarily a given - that the student’s second exam, which was twice as long, got a higher grade. On that exam, the student’s originality and support for the answers to both questions were both graded excellent and received full credit.

In all honesty, given the improvement from Exam I to Exam II, it looks like the student actually learned something in this exchange though clearly they would be unwilling to recognize this or credit their instructor for actually having done his job here. Indeed, this same student wrote on the faculty evaluation that everything they learned in the class came from reading the text alone - this in a class taught by a Fulbright scholar!

Again, what is particularly honorable about this pattern of performance?

• “Most frustrating bullsh*t class I've taken to date.”

Clearly the student’s improvement in the ability to articulate ideas had a limited shelf life. But it’s not terribly surprising given the pattern of performance – or lack thereof – of this particular student.

Were there a site which allowed instructors to publicly humiliate their students like, this student could be in serious trouble. My observation is that this student has a fairly decent level of native intelligence but that this is rarely tapped. Indeed, it’s hard to tell whether this student’s defining feature is laziness or the capacity and willingness to whine. This student rarely engaged the course throughout most of the semester, sat silently scowling through most of the class sessions and a couple of times when called upon in discussion simply said they had not read the assigned text. (For the record, this response is precisely the reason I created the prep assignments in the first place.)

But what is more troubling about this student is a nearly total lack of insight. The comment about writing 6 pages and the instructor gave the student a B followed by the student earning an A for simply doubling the amount of writing is both simplistic and a classic example of the Fundamental Attribution Error at work: The teacher gave me a B v. I earned an A. Clearly it’s possible this student will mature in time. But the chances of that are not looking that great at the moment.

Were I asked to provide a recommendation on this student, it would read something like this: Until this student matures and develops a bit more insight, they are not a good bet for graduate work or employment in any profession requiring an adult work ethic and the ability to think critically. While I clearly will not have the pleasure of this student’s company in any of my classes in the future - for which I am grateful - I pity the instructor who has the temerity to actually demand that this student prepare for class, write at the college level, engage the class discussions and perform at a level beyond a B on exams. Get ready for the howling.

This student should be glad that we instructors are bound by law and by ethics not to reveal their actual identity in a public forum. While this student ought to be ashamed of themselves for such a stunt, my guess is that they probably wouldn’t be even if confronted. And while I probably wouldn’t return this student’s poorly considered bashing at with the critical assessment above in a manner which publicly identified the student, it certainly would be fair play.

Thank G-d all the students at the honors college are not alike. For the other side of the coin, please continue on to my next post.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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