And so it begins (again)

So a new semester has begun (actually we’re wrapping up our third week, but the blog was on hiatus when the semester actually started). It’s a very weird feeling meeting your new classes for the first time. In my case, I’ve taught this same class four times already. I can practically recite it from memory. So there isn’t any anxiety over my ability to handle the material, but there is always anxiety over the students. Yes, I’ve been teaching at the same school for a while, so I sort of know what to expect. The problem is figuring out which student is which. I know by now there are certain types who pop up over and over again, but the kids don’t walk in with signs on their neck telling me which type they are. I’ve learned some markers which should be strong indicators mean nothing in the end. Kids in Greek organizations are sometimes very studious and sweet. Athletes are sometimes incredibly smart and serious about their studies. As much as I complain about business majors, two of the best students I’ve ever had were in the business school.

So for the first few weeks of school, I will have no idea who is who. Gradually I will learn their names and what type of students they are, but right now I’m teaching to a room full of undifferentiated faces. But I know that among the sixty students I am teaching this semester:

-At least one will meet with me to discuss a paper grade and it will become abundantly clear the real complaint is, “But I wanted an A”

-At least five will perform notably below his/her capabilities

-At least one will work his/her butt off and just never get it

-At least two will concoct transparent stories to excuse absences/late papers

-At least one will complain about something stupid

-At least one will experience a genuine tragedy or serious illness

-At least five will ask to leave my class early to attend Greek events and be shocked when I say it will impact their attendance records

-At least one will make me sweary and stabby

-At least one will genuinely make me think about something in a new way

-At least one will make me laugh at something inappropriate

-At least one will have enough background in the subject matter so as to be hopelessly bored by the low level of the class

-At least three will make it clear they are too good for my class (but will be mistaken)

-At least one will excel at the material and not care because the subject matter isn’t legitimate enough

-At least one will break my heart in some way (not romantically speaking)

-And hopefully, at least one will remind me why I put myself through this for what amounts to less than minimum wage

In Which Kristy Faces her Greatest Fear

Thursday I will face one of my greatest fears. Well… one of my greatest fears that isn’t alligators or crocodiles. (Don’t judge. Those things are relics of an earlier world. Much like Balrogs. And just as evil.) No, Thursday, for the first time, I will substitute teach.

I have a lot of teaching experience. I’ve taught high school. Middle school. I’ve taught middle school curriculum to overachieving eight year olds. I’ve adjuncted at the community college level and I’ve been a graduate teaching assistant. But I have never been a substitute. There are reasons for that.

Mostly because I remember how awful kids are to substitute teachers. Okay, at the end of the day, kids are awful to all teachers. But whereas with full time teachers they’re constantly testing the limits with subs they tend to assume there are none. I’d like to believe that it won’t be so bad since these will be college students, but I’m not holding my breath. Teaching any classroom full of undergraduates who aren’t majoring in the subject at hand is always hard. But with my own students I learn to read them. Thursday will be like the first day of class again, only without the benefit of ever moving beyond it.

Add to all the student bullshit the lingering feeling I’m going to screw up what I’m supposed to teach and ruin the curriculum for the rest of the semester. After all, I’m not going to be the one grading them. I won’t be there when they all get the same thing wrong to sit there and say, “Oh, you know what? That’s because I said XYZ.”

And the real reason I’ve never subbed before is this: you don’t even get paid well for it. At the secondary level subs tend to get paid about minimum wage. I’ll be getting paid in nothing but good karma and fudge.

Though to be fair… fudge is fudge. And I’m a broke grad student, contractually obligated to do most anything for free food. And I’m going to need the karma in a couple weeks. So heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to someone else’s work I will go.

‘Tis the Season (Time Vampire)

I’m late again with my post.  But I have an appropriate excuse.  I was delayed by this week’s Time Vampire!

It’s that season again.  No, not the holidays.  When and academic says, “’Tis the season” it generally refers to that final end of semester crunch.  That time when we’re inundated with grading as well as our own work and our students suddenly realize that slacking off all semester is going to have consequences.  My students’ final projects were due this week, which meant that I was bombarded by emails all week asking desperate questions.

I honestly wouldn’t mind that much.  Yes, it takes time, but that’s my job.  And I’m happy they’re asking questions rather than wondering in silence (as my students tend to do because apparently I’m scary).  What bothers me is that a huge chunk of the questions have already been answered.  On the assignment sheet itself, in an explanation I gave in class, via an email announcement.  Often all three.  Apparently these kids think I print out two page assignment sheets because I like killing trees.  C’mon, even I don’t hate nature that much.  But they don’t read the assignments.  It doesn’t occur to them they should read the assignments.  A couple weeks ago a student questioned a policy on something and I told her it was explained on the syllabus.  She looked at my blankly and asked, “What syllabus?” When I reminded her of the syllabus we handed out at the beginning of the semester she looked at me like I was insane and said, “Oh… I didn’t keep that.”

So yes, my week was filled with emails essentially saying, “Hey, can you explain that thing that you already explained twice in class and sent out an email about?  Because I’m a special snowflake who was super busy texting when you went over it before.”

I also have been getting a lot of emails about attendance records which essentially say, “Hey, I was thinking of skipping class tomorrow—will that affect my grade?”

Then there are the ones that tell me they were only halfway paying attention because they heard something I very definitely did not say.  For example, I told my students that if they used photos in their final papers it wouldn’t count towards page count.  Because in a previous assignment several of them printed full page photos and counted that as a page of their paper. I received an email on Wednesday night saying, “Hey, I know you said we couldn’t use pictures, but I can’t figure out how to write my paper without them.”  No, you don’t know what I said.  Maybe if you absolutely can’t make yourself listen in class you could try reading my emails at the very least, since they also explained that.

Sigh.

The good news is that although this season is followed by “students bitch about how the B you gave them is ruining their lives” season, that season if followed by “I don’t have to see any of these kids for two weeks season.”  We all need something to look forward to.

Convert’s Zeal

I think I’ve discussed the meaning of the word “myth” on this blog before.  Despite the common contemporary usage of the word “myth” to mean “something that is not true”, as folklorists use the term it kind of means the opposite.  We define “myth” roughly as a narrative which is believed a particular group to be sacred and true.  And we don’t really go further than that.  We don’t get into discussions of whether a particular story actually is true—we leave that to theologists, philosophers and scientists.  All we care about is what people believe is true and what that tells us about their culture.

So I teach introductory folklore courses and we do a small unit on myth.  The big assignment from this unit consists of giving the students a packet of creation myths and making them analyze two of them in terms of what they suggests about a particular folk group’s worldview.  This packet includes, among other myths, the Genesis creation story and a telling of the Big Bang Theory. Every semester I wait for the Christian and Jewish students to freak out about us calling the Genesis creation story a myth.  But it’s never happened.  Apparently they are actually getting the message that just calling the story a myth is not challenging its validity.  Maybe they privately resent it, but they don’t bring that attitude into class and they don’t express it in their papers.  It’s a big relief.

Who causes the problems with this assignment?  The atheists.  First, there’s contention over whether the Big Bang Theory can be classified as a myth.  As we discuss in class, I freely admit it doesn’t necessarily fit nicely into the rubric we generally set for myths.  On the other hand, it does fit a lot of the characteristics.  And if we really believed things could be easily sorted into set categories we’d be anthropologists.  We put the Big Bang Theory into the packet of myths deliberately to problematize that rubric.  And upon analysis, it becomes immediately clear that it does reveal a lot about contemporary secular worldview in much the same way as myths.  At any rate, discussion I’m fine with.  Debate I encourage.

Using a person’s lack of religious belief as an excuse to write a crappy analysis?  That will result in a crappy grade.

To be fair, I don’t poll my students on their religious affiliations, but I’m sure I have many atheist and agnostic students who write wonderful analyses.  But without fail, every semester, I get a handful of analyses from out and proud atheists whose analyses consist of “This myth reveals that the worldview of X people is ignorant.  This is clear because believing in myths is stupid.”  In what world is this a college level analysis?  It’s annoying.

I’ve spent years arguing that religious parents who don’t want their children exposed to concepts such as evolution or the Big Bang Theory in science class should find an alternative to public schools.  The job of science classes is to teach science and anyone who is that against learning should simply get out.  I suppose perhaps the same is true for courses that cover mythology.  If you can’t handle hearing about myths and discussing them in an analytical fashion, perhaps you should find another course to take.

To be fair, I think this is at least as attributable to my students’ age as it is to their religious creed/lack of creed.  I do realize that a lot of college aged atheists are either newly out as atheists or have only recently discovered atheism.  I do think in some ways this is just a matter of convert’s zeal.  It seems new atheists are subject to many of the same foibles as new Christians.  And in my class it can be just as detrimental to their grades.

Awkward Moments

Since my very first teaching gig, every time I go out somewhere there’s this little fear of running into one of my students.   As previously stated on this blog, I don’t really embarrass easily.  But I’ve run into students while I’m dressed in funny costumes and it just kind of makes things… a little awkward.

Well Friday I ran into one of my students outside the classroom.  But I’m not the one for whom things are now awkward.

Context:  My university has this spring tradition which is basically an excuse for kids to get drunk and make bad decisions.  Now I know you’re thinking, “Doesn’t every college have a tradition like that?”  Not on this scale.  At least no other college I’ve attended has.  I’ve been around my share of drunken parties in my life, but I have never seen anything that approximates the large scale public drunkenness of this event.  Think New Orleans at Mardi Gras.  Then imagine the people around you are a little younger and a lot more annoying.  And handle their liquor worse.  In perhaps the most disturbing display of how open the debauchery is one of the waxing salons I drive by was running a special on Brazilians in honor of the event.  Yeah.  Don’t think about it.

Students miss entire weeks of classes for this one.  And act shocked when professors don’t cancel classes.  Or expect assignments due.  I’ve had students use up their “free” absences early in the semester then come to me all concerned because they needed to miss class for this.  Professors tend to respond to this with one extreme or the other:  either they cancel class or they have major tests/projects due.  I didn’t do either, though there was a super easy class that nearly everyone got 100 on.

Friday I was driving across campus on my way back from a meeting and I looked beside me to see a small sedan with about eight large frat boy stereotypes crammed inside.  I was only a little surprised to notice that one of the guys in the passenger seat was one of my students.  Suddenly he and the guy on his lap both noticed me looking at them and called out, “Hey, what’s up baby?”  I smiled and looked back at the road because the light had turned green.  And that’s when I heard, “Oh fuck!  That’s my TEACHER!”  Perhaps it’s the way his voice suddenly went falsetto on the word “teacher.”  Perhaps it was picturing the expression on his face Monday morning.  But it is hands down one of my most amusing student interactions ever.

(For the record, he came in slightly late on Monday and avoided eye contact as he signed in)

Survival tip for college drunkenness:  Make sure that chick you’re catcalling is not responsible for determining your grade.

Pondering Youth and Cell Phones

My friend calls me the “texting Nazi” because I’m such a stickler about letting students use cell phones during my classes. If I see you using a cell phone in my class you get a zero for the day no matter what else you did in class that day.  In my opinion in rude, disrespectful and distracting.  My students don’t get it.  Though I’m not willing to adjust my teaching to match, I’ve come to realize that cell phones are such a constant attachment to my students’ hands that they honestly don’t realize why it’s so rude to pull it out at certain moments.  I don’t like it, I do everything possible to discourage it, but I have somewhat accepted it as reality.

But something happened this week that gave me a whole new appreciation (and horror) for these kids’ complete lack of understanding of propriety with cell phones . And perhaps indicates something even darker about one of my students.  It happened on Monday and I’m still kind of shaken by it.

Week before last one of my students emailed me that his grandfather had passed away.  He wanted to work out a way to make up a quiz he would miss and I was happy to help.  I also let him know that I could excuse the absence if he got me documentation.  Now I hate asking for documentation when it’s because of a death in the family, but the fact is that people do take advantage of that excuse and at the end of the day it’s not even my rule.  I told him I’m really lenient about what I’ll accept as documentation and suggested an obituary, bulletin from the funeral, prayer card or even a note from his mom.

On Monday he approached me at the beginning of class with his cell phone and said, “I thought I’d just take a picture.”  I glanced up, not even knowing what he was referencing, and saw a photo of his grandfather’s corpse.  Startled I just stammered, “um… okay.”  It took a few minutes for the horror of the moment to sink in.

What has me so shaken is not that I saw a photo of a dead body.  I’ve seen them before.  There’s a long cultural precedent for it.  Back in the day taking photos of the corpse was standard procedure.  What bothers me is imagining the moment in which this photo was taken.  The knowledge that there was a moment at either the funeral or wake when this kid whipped out his cell phone to take a photo.  Did the rest of the family see it?  What did they think of it?  I can tell you how that would go over with my family.

Part of me is cynical enough to wonder if it even was what he said it was.  Or if he was just mad I asked for documentation and found a photo online.  I haven’t done an image search because I have no desire to look through photos of dead bodies.  I think I just want to believe this rather than the alternative.

And I wonder if it’s just this kid, or if there are a lot of kids his age who think it’s acceptable behavior.  I’m not sure I want to know.

Kids these days…

Responses I’d like to make #2

Why have my posts been irregular and abbreviated lately?  End of semester.  Writing my own papers like mad while grading papers for sixty obnoxious undergrads.  And answering their obnoxious emails.  And I do mean obnoxious.  I used to teach at a community college and I thought those kids were bad.  My current students are so much more entitled.  And did I mention obnoxious?

Now I make sure to stay professional and respond to even the most idiotic inquiries.  But here are a few of those complaints along with the responses I would have made if I didn’t need my job.

Complaint 1:  I noticed you marked down my participation grade.  I participated all the time, you just couldn’t tell because I didn’t talk.

Answer:   Ah, I see.  You participated via telepathy.  I’m fairly certain the use of telepathy in the classroom is a gray area in the university’s academic honesty.  Unfortunately, it is my duty as your instructor to report you.  No hard feelings.

Complaint 2:  It’s ridiculous that a folklore class is more difficult than a business class.

Answer:  I actually agree with you.  We should contact the business school and advise them of this.  This class is really damn easy.  And you’re a senior business major.  So if your business classes are easier than this one?  There’s a problem.  And it’s not with me.  Also, why don’t you insult my discipline again and ask me to raise your grade.

Complaint 3:  I don’t think the assignments were supposed to be places for you to take off points.  They were supposed to be fun.

Answer:  I’m not sure you understand how much fun a C can be.

Complaint 4:  How did you calculate our participation grade?

Answer:  I sent you an email explaining it.  I know you got the email, because this one is a reply to it.

Complaint 5:  I really think the tests should count more.

Answer:  … you do understand you didn’t do that well on the tests?  And doing so would bring down your grade.  I can do that if you want. For you only.

Complain:  I really wanted and A.

Answer:  It’s a shame you didn’t do the work you would have needed to get an A.

Complaint 6: It’s not fair!

Answer:  Life isn’t fair.  Look, I taught you something!

Complaint:  But I’m a business major! (alternately applying to the buseas scool

Snarking on the Inside

One of the worst parts of being a teacher is that you can’t often say what you really want to.  Telling students what you really think of them is quick and easy way to get fired.  And I’m a good girl.  I always respond to them politely and sympathetically.  But here are a few samples of replies I’d like to make to them:

To a student who once argued with me for fifteen minutes about her grade on a paper with her only argument being, “But I always get As!”

My internal reply?  “Not this time!”

To the student who asked if I knew any psychics, saying, “But I thought since you were a folklorist, you’d probably know some here in town.”

My internal reply?  “Yes, you’re right.  Once you become a folklorist they automatically give you the numbers to all the freaky people in town.”

To the student who wrote me an email saying he couldn’t come to class or turn in his paper because he had been whitening his teeth and the white strips made his gums sore.

My reply?  This is what we call the wages of vanity.  So sorry.

To the student who called me at 7am to complain about her grade on a plagiarized assignment.

My reply?  Fuck you.  Read the email I sent you before calling.

To the girl who texts nonstop during class and thinks I can’t tell because she has her phone under the table.

My reply?  You better hope I know you’re texting.  Otherwise what do you think it looks like when you have your hands fiddling around in your crotch all through class?

To the student who couldn’t come to class because someone was knocking on the door to the room next to his at 5am.

My reply?  Yeah… that sucks, but the absence still isn’t excused.

More Balls than an Avid Home Canner

(How’s that for an obscure reference?)

This year, along with maintaining my full graduate school load and running two student organizations, I have returned to teaching.  Before starting my PhD I spent two years as a de facto full-time adjunct professor at a community college (the gist there is I was working full time hours for no benefits) teaching composition and American Literature.  I also spent one disastrous year as a high school Spanish teacher.  The truth is, unlike a lot of professors and aspiring professors, I actually like teaching.  It’s not just something I can do with my degree while I continue my research (don’t get me wrong, I love my research too); it’s the job I want (at least until my career as a multi-media mogul takes off).

One thing that continues to amaze me, semester after semester, is the audacity of my students.  The general ignorance astounds from time to time (I was once asked if non-Americans had human rights; no one in the room understood what was wrong with that question), but generally I can cope with that.  The overall failings of the US secondary education system, compounded with the current trend for anti-intellectualism, make me sad, but again, whatever.  But the sheer nerve of kids these days…

Let me tell you, my students have balls.  Giant, problematic, brass ones.

A few recent examples:

Student explaining why his paper was late (it was due at 11:15):  My alarm decided not to go off this morning.  You can’t expect me to have any control over that.”

Another student explaining why he was 23 minutes late to a fifty minute long class:  Yeah… I have a lot to do this week.” (I wanted to respond, “As long as you understand my giving you a zero.  I’m having a crazy semester myself”)

But the things they say are far outweighed by their actions for sheer ballsiness.  No, I’m not talking about little things, like the fact that in Monday’s lecture section I had to scold four different students for text messaging.  No, no, they have much more audacity than that.  Examples:

In my second year teaching one student, in a class of twenty, was not only texting, she was holding her phone way up in the air because it got a better signal.

I also had a student plagiarize a paper (I’ve had a lot of students plagiarize, this one was particularly amazing because); she plagiarized it off a pop culture website.  How did I figure it out?  Because she forgot to remove the profanity.  It was the repeated use of the word “twat” in the paper.

Another student who plagiarized a paper for my class two years ago, just wrote to me asking me if I would write her a recommendation.  After I candidly and politely pointed out that I would be a bad choice for this since I would feel compelled to be honest.  She then replied with, “Oh, I guess I can understand that.  Will you read my personal statement and help me edit it?”

And I could go on.  I won’t, because I can’t seem to keep my eyes open, but I could.  So remember the next time you hear someone on television or in your life ranting about all the things that are wrong with “kids these days”.  Just inform whoever it is, yes, but at least they have balls.