Saturday, March 13, 2010

Teaching Sucks

Man, I am getting more and more fed up with teaching, and thinking more and more seriously about doing something else.
The proximate cause of my ire right now is grading. In particular--and ignoring the other twenty or thirty things I could complain about--it irks the **** out of me that I am basically forced to give students higher grades than they deserve.

My students can't write, in part because they can't read. Oh, they can kind of read textbooks, which, of course, pre-digest the material for them. And they can kinda sorta write. The problem is--or the problem that's bugging me right now, anyway, is--that they are apparently being given 'A's and 'B's in their other classes for writing sentences that only approximate actual English.
(Um...and, I'm not actually a stickler for proper style, at least in casual writing...) At any rate, perhaps I should also note that my institution, though non-stellar, is reputed to be far better than the average American university.

We recently read an essay by a fellow named Leiser, who
holds (sensibly) that the term 'unnatural' is ambiguous. He disambiguates the term, generating five fairly reasonable definitions, then plugs each one of the definitions into the unnaturalness argument against homosexuality and argues that the argument is unsound no matter which definition we choose.

Now, if I ask my students to explain what we've read, many of them will produce sentences like the following:

"He thinks the definition is ambiguous and he comes out with the different definitions to show that they are all immoral."

If I try to explain to them that it is not the
definition that Leiser believes to be ambiguous, but, rather, the term...or that it's not a good idea to write that he "comes out with" "the different definitions" when one ought to say that he disambiguated the term...or that no one anywhere thinks that the definitions are immoral, but that Leiser holds that each definition generates a false premise when substituted for the term 'unnatural' in the argument...the students will look at me as if I am insane. And possibly evil. They seem to think that I'm fishing for reasons to impugn their writing. They often think--and sometimes go so far as to openly suggest--that I am demanding of them something so absurd, so out of step with what their other professors are demanding, so alien that it might as well be madness. None of their other teachers have ever corrected them on such points. Who am I to do so?

Among the many things that piss me off about teaching, perhaps the thing that pisses me off the most is this: if you actually try to help the students, actually try to show them what they need to know if they are to avoid being idiots for the rest of their lives, a large proportion of them will conclude that you are basically some kind of nut who is out to get them. 'B's, in their eyes, are 'C's, and 'C's are 'F's. Give them a grade that's even roughly commensurate with their actual ability and performance, and you are a bad person. Then you get to deal with a classroom full of students who are not only poorly-educated, but surly to boot.

Maybe teaching is just something one ought not try to do for more than ten or so years at a time...


Blogger lovable liberal said...

You mean some of those illogical, low comprehension fools and buffoons who are proud of their ignorance, as displayed in newspaper comment threads, are actually college graduates - and not 15-year-olds in Mom's basement! Yeah, unfortunately.

Young writers think writing is all style, that style is a deeply personal window on their souls, and therefore that their style is unassailable as a Constitutional right. The truth they haven't seen yet is that they don't know enough and don't have enough control to have their own style. What they have is a pastiche of affectations they've picked up here and there. (ZOMG! LOL.)

My sister, who teaches writing and literature at a public university somewhat less well reputed than yours, complains, too. The administration keeps piling more and more students into writing classes to improve their productivity metrics for the Lege, and writing is pretty hard to improve without intensive, iterative refinement of specific pieces.

You want to teach your students to think and to express their thoughts in writing. The two go hand in hand, no surprise there.

Your task, Mr. Phelps, will require that you spend a lot of time with them - and the most time of all with the least rewarding students. The sentence you quoted has huge opportunities to start a taxonomy of bad writing. Give it a bad grade.

But then, as your job is not merely to winnow, tell the student how to raise his grade. (I'm guessing on sex; a young woman would try harder to dress up the stupidity.) Then help him.

Oh, as for being insane, you are. You are the enemy. You are Mr. Strickland in Back to the Future. At least, they'd think so if they were old enough to have seen those movies.

Deal with it! Heh.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wise man once told me, "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It won't work, and it annoys the pig."

5:55 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, on a hopefully slightly more helpful note:

For every ten or twenty morons who slip through your class without learning anything, there's one or two people whose lives are genuinely changed by your words. It's probably hard to remember what life was like when you, too, were an 18 year old idiot, but just look at your life now and look at their lives. You can see the difference philosophy makes, and the fact that you're helping others to see that is really important, IMHO.

Like any other job, I imagine teaching can be trying after a while, as its negative facets start to really grate on you, but that's kind of a general life challenge, isn't it? We all have to learn to keep our minds well conditioned and out of negativity death spirals. You, I think, are fortunate enough to have a job where the benefits do truly, objectively outweigh the crappiness. Others (such as myself) are significantly less fortunate in the job department.

So, I know it sucks, and I feel your pain, but my guess is that you're in a pretty optimal place, job-wise, when it comes to reclaiming your conscience from frustration and despair.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Spencer said...

If it makes you feel any better, I feel like my life was fundamentally (and positively) altered by taking your classes. And an important part of that was your intensive grading and commenting.

1:06 AM  

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