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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Because Reality Isn't Boring Enough

When I come downstairs for breakfast in the morning, I usually turn on ESPN's SportsCenter loop. I like to have some sort of background noise more or less all the time (it's probably an extrovert thing), and I like sports highlights, so it works pretty well.

This morning, for the third or fourth day running, they were running a "simulated press conference" (I'd link to something, but a site search returns "There are no articles on 'simulated press conference' on"). Some guy named Steve Phillips was up on a podium pretending to be the GM of some boring baseball team or another, and a whole host of minor ESPN personalities were pretending to be reporters asking him questions, which he pretended to answer with a big stack of sports cliches.

What in hell is this crap? Sports press conferences are just about the most useless thing in the world when they're real (unless Bob Knight is involved). What mental defective decided that we needed fake sports press conferences?

I think I may need to find a new source of background noise during breakfast.

If you'd like soms livelier unreality, by the way, there's a string theory catfight going on in the comments over at Cosmic Variance. I was going to post something serious about this when I first saw it, but I was busy with other things, and the comments very quickly degenerated to the point where I don't really want to be associated with any of the partisans. A pox on all their houses. And the hotels, top hat, and little dog, too.

Posted at 9:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Syllabus Styles, or the Saga of My Homework Policy

In the previous post about teaching, I cited a couple of articles at Confessions of a Community College Dean and The Chronicles of Dr. Crazy (with a bonus follow-up post), talking about teaching styles and classroom assignments.

Both of them were concerned about how to get students to actually do reading on a regular basis, and both hit upon the same solution: frequent short quizzes. Quoth Dr. Crazy:

The best example is the quizzing example. I give ridiculous quizzes to my lower-division classes in which they have to answer multiple choice and true-false questions about basic content of the reading. These quizzes are given randomly, and together they end up equalling 10% of the grade. Before beginning this job, I had never quizzed my students. At Fancy Research University where I attended graduate school, they were entirely unnecessary. The students did the reading. Sometimes they even did extra reading. And, ultimately, I am philosophically opposed to reducing a great work of literature to multiple choice and true-false questions. That is not how the study of literature works, nor does doing well on these quizzes demonstrate any real sophisticated mastery of the material. But do you know what it does do? It gives students credit for keeping up with the reading. If I don't do that, they don't read. Period.

It's interesting to me, in a "Two Cultures" sort of way, that there's a moderate amount of angst in both of those entries about the very idea of giving in-class quizzes on reading. Again, I teach in a discipline that's largely based around the transmission of specific factual knowledge, which means that quizzes are almost a given.

In broad terms, though, my experience has been similar. In the intro classes I teach, I get the best results from giving frequent short assignments, and lots of in-class quizzes. Since I've adopted that system, my students have stayed more on top of the material, and I've gotten better scores on the all-important teaching evaluations.

I didn't start out with this arrangement, of course. My first term or two, I gave very few in-class quizzes, and assigned homework on a weekly basis-- 10-15 problems a week. That was a disaster, because the students all waited until the night before the assignment was due to start the problems, and then complained about the length of the assignment. Pointing out that they'd had a whole week to start the problems didn't really help anything...

From there, I went to assigning 3-5 problems every night, and collecting everything. That was also a disaster, because I wound up with huge stacks of papers all over my office, and could never keep up with the grading.

The current arrangement, which I'm very happy with, is a two-part system. I assign a small number of problems (3-5) each Friday, due the following Friday, and collect and grade all of them. I also assign 3-5 problems each class, due the next class, that I don't collect at all. I do, however, choose quiz questions from this set of homework-- roughly half of the quizzes in a given term are taken verbatim from the nightly homework assignments.

This system works out pretty well. Grading the weekly homework assignments isn't unduly difficult, and the assignments are short enough that the students don't feel overly burdened (even though I generally assign more homework than I did under the weekly problem set approach). The nightly homework assignments are designed to help them keep up with the material (we try to pack a semester's worth of intro mechanics into ten weeks, so we move at a pretty good clip), and the quizzes provide just enough incentive to keep most of the students doing the homework, even though I don't collect and grade it.

In this system, I also give a large number of quizzes during the term-- nine in ten weeks of class. Those are split roughly evenly between conceptual multiple-choice questions and short problems taken off the nightly homework. I drop the lowest four quiz grades, which helps in two ways: it keeps the students from getting overly stressed out over a single bad quiz, and, more importantly, it means I don't have to give make-up quizzes. Students who miss class the day of a quiz take a zero on it, but it ends up being dropped (unless they miss more than four quiz days in a term, but if they're absent that often, they've usually got bigger problems).

I'm pretty happy with this arrangement, and it's survived more-or-less unchanged for four terms now. As for why it works, I don't think it's so much a matter of providing incentive for the students to keep up-- introductory physics classes, by their nature, tend to provide a clear link between doing the homework and success in the course. Instead, I think it's a matter of helping students compensate for poor time management skills-- without the nightly/weekly split, they tend to put things off, and end up getting crushed right before the due date. I know, because I did the same thing when I was a student, and spent many long nights working through problem sets that probably would've gone more smoothly had I started them earlier. Splitting the assignments up forces them to do things the "right" way, and it works out better for everyone.

The other useful policy that I've adopted recently is the "If the Class Ended Today" grade. When I hand back major pieces of work-- mid-term exams or lab reports-- I put a letter grade on the paper to indicate where each student stands in the class (it's not much extra work, because I've already got the grades in a spreadsheet). This produces a dramatic reduction in the number of C students who expect to get A's, and occasionally helps provide a much-needed kick in the ass for some of the slackers. The students end up with a clearer understanding of where they stand in the course, which again helps keep everybody happy.

And while I wouldn't say that the college is really in the business of keeping the students happy (let alone the faculty), the actual business of teaching and learning goes a whole lot more smmothly when people aren't stressed and confused.

Posted at 6:22 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Two-Minute Blog Post

I'm suffering through a collision between seasonal allergies and end-of-term malaise, so I don't have much energy for lengthy, substantive blogging. For that reason, here's a quick two-minute post:

The Exhaustive List of Things I Care Less About Than What Terrell Owens Is Doing

Thank you, and good night.

(College hoops season can't get here soon enough...)

Posted at 9:09 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Introverted Reciprocity

Over at Calpundit Monthly, Kevin Drum resurrects the introvert/ extrovert thing. In a comment to the previous post, jim invokes the same idea:

It may, of course, be that those of us who are naturally introverted are more aware of the effort we make (whether in the classroom or elsewhere) to project ourselves.

Glancing back over the original article, I have two comments. The first is just to note that introvert/extrovert is a continuum, not a pair of discrete states. Or, put another way, if you think I'm a pure extrovert, you've obviously never met my father. Or my uncles. Or anybody in my mother's family. I'm the shy, retiring one in the family. Ask Kate-- she'll back me up on this.

More importantly, looking back at the article made me realize what bugged me about it, back when I first saw it. It's nicely expressed by the final set of "Caring for Your Introvert" instructions:

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it's not a choice. It's not a lifestyle. It's an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don't say "What's the matter?" or "Are you all right?"

Third, don't say anything else, either.

That's nice, and all, but it fails to take into account one crucial fact: "Extrovert" isn't a lifestyle choice, either.

Kate's much more of a classic introvert than I am, and I'm aware that there are many circumstances in which she really doesn't want to talk, and my talking kind of drives her crazy. And I can't help it. If you put me in a car with one other person who's not interested in talking, within an hour I'll be babbling like an idiot. I really can't stand it-- I get all tense and twitchy when I'm with other people and there's no conversation.

(Honestly, if Dick Cheney ever decides that I have critical national security information, he can dispense with the thumbscrews. Just lock me in a small room with a silent and imperturbable agent, and before long, I'll tell him everything I know, just to hear somebody talking....)

So, to the introverts out there: it's not that I don't recognize that you're wired differently, and just want to be alone and not asked lots of idiotic questions. But you need to recognize in turn that I don't really have the power to stop asking them.

Posted at 6:54 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Respect My Authoritah!!!

In a weird moment of synchronicity, I spent a good deal of Friday's faculty happy hour discussing teaching practices and evaluations on the same day that I noticed posts from The Little Professor, Confessions of a Community College Dean, and The Chronicles of Dr. Crazy regarding teaching strategies and evaluation. I love it when life imitates blogdom.

"Dr. Crazy" and "Dean Dad" both comment on some specific strategies that they use in designing their courses, that fit pretty well with some of the things I've found effective. I'll talk about that stuff later (probably tomorrow), but first, I want to focus on another aspect. Both "Dr. Crazy" and Miriam Burstein of The Little Professor talk about the importance of a teaching persona. Burstein is more concise (in fact this is almost the entire post):

On Wednesday, I gave my intro to grad studies students the lecture on in-class presentations--the usual types, the dos and please-do-nots, and so forth. About two-thirds of the way through the lecture, I realized that graduate student presentations often falter because the students haven't yet developed a teaching persona; that is, they put themselves in front of the classroom, naked to those other graduate student eyes (or, given the number of swing courses we have, undergraduate eyes). And so they deliver a presentation as though their own personalities are under the microscope. Obviously, there are other things that graduate students eventually have to learn about speaking in front of a group--how to speak from notes instead of reading from a script, how to make eye contact, how to emphasize key points. But the instructor's confidence and authority are bound up in her persona--"Professor Burstein," as opposed to "Miriam"--and that persona doesn't exist outside the classroom.

"Dr. Crazy" doesn't approach the question as directly, but she (at least, from the picture, I'm guessing "she" is the appropriate pronoun), too, seems concerned with projecting a particular persona in the classroom. The central concern really has to do with authority, and several of the comments on those posts discuss it in those terms.

This strikes me as odd and noteworthy, because I'm not aware of a separate classroom persona that I only use when teaching. I'm definitely aware of some things that I do when I'm in "teaching mode" that are different from my usual mode of speaking-- I raise the pitch of my voice slightly, I speak in a slightly more rhythmic cadence, I use even more hand gestures than usual-- but I don't consciously project a different personality. In fact, I've rejected some past suggestions that I should do things in the classroom that aren't really consistent with my regular personality.

I'm not sure what the difference is, here. It might be a displinary thing-- I'm not a regular reader of "Dr. Crazy" (though it looks like a good blog, and I may add it to the list), but I believe both authors are English faculty. It may be that, working in a subject where classes are much more about transmission of factual information than discussion and reaction, I am automatically presumed to have more authority (as the possessor of the facts to be imparted) than a colleague in English would.

It may also be a gender issue-- as a fairly large man (I jokingly point out that I'm just about the same height and weight as Michael Strahan, though the weight is distributed a little differently...), I may benefit from a different sort of presumption of authority. Even though I'm a total sap, I may unconsciously project an authoritative image by virtue of being large and loud.

Or it may be that I do have a different classroom persona, and I'm just not aware of it. It can't be all that different, though, because I'd like to think I'd notice that...

Whatever's going on personality-wise, I don't really give a great deal of thought to the question of classroom authority. I'm fairly comfortable with the way I run my classes, and I rarely have any trouble. I have the occasional sleeper, but in the lecture-format classes I usually teach, that's not much of a problem, and most of the students who start talking in class are easily dealt with by pretending they asked me a question that I didn't quite hear. I have no problems joking around with the class from day one-- in fact, I almost have to, in order for them to pick up on the fact that I'm joking later on.

Anyway, given the importance that Drs. Burstein and Crazy place on these issues, I wonder if there's something going on that I'm missing. I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on the questions of teaching personae and classroom authority. Do other science types feel that they need to work at projecting a different persona in the classroom? Am I just lucky in this, or is it just that I have the self-awareness of a turnip?

Posted at 2:22 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

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