Always mistaken for a student December 7, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, work.
Tags: computers, license, software, students
A week or two ago, I commented that I get mistaken for a student a lot. There’s another way this happens, and it has nothing to do with my appearance. It has to do with the fact that my work email ends with .edu.
I work for a university, hence the appendage on my email. Many vendors, but particularly those who sell software, give educational discounts on their software. The problem is that I work in a center that does a lot of work with commercial interests, thus requiring we have commercial licenses on our software and any other equipment we need to buy.
This is not a big deal except when it comes to getting support or information from the vendors. That little appendage on my email means certain doom. The assumption is that, because I am at a university, I must be a student and don’t have the right to get support from the vendor. There are also those vendors who won’t call back to give prices, likely for a similar reason: I’m probably a student who doesn’t have any money to spend.
While I really like where I work, this is one of the more frustrating aspects of the job. I would like to say it’s a fluke, but it happens to my colleagues and myself on such a regular basis that I know it’s not someone just having a bad day. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for an actual student.
The calm before the storm November 25, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, engineering, teaching.
Tags: office hours, programming, students, teaching
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I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This past week was Thanksgiving, so I obviously had a bit of a dilemma. I don’t like getting the classes out of synch because that means I have two different preps to complete. The obvious solution, therefore, is to just cancel class during the week of Thanksgiving, and that is exactly what I did.
However, I’ve changed one of the assignments in the class from optional to required. You may remember that last year, I talked about Engineers Who Don’t Like to Program. I discovered that the majority of my students would rather do a presentation than learn how to program. I decided this year to change that. Instead of having two optional programming assignments, I moved some things around so that there is one assignment, very scaled back from what I had expected last year, and it was required to pass the class.
I had a lot of intimidated students, but I think cutting the length back significantly made them less afraid. I chose to have two weeks in the computer lab to work on the assignment. They ended up being the week before Thanksgiving and the week after. In the meantime, I decided to add an extra office hour during one of the cancelled classes so that students could come and ask me questions.
Not surprisingly, no one showed up. I’ll have to remind them of this when I have an flurry of requests from students needing extra help right before the assignment is due.
A clause for pause November 9, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, societal commentary, teaching.
Tags: behavior, grades, rules, students, syllabus
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I got into a discussion with a colleague where I mentioned that, when necessary, a student’s behavior will be a consideration when it comes time to assign final grades. This colleague said I couldn’t do that because the grade should be based solely on their coursework.
What this colleague doesn’t understand is that almost every semester, I have had one or two students who felt that they were ‘in charge’ and could tell me what I could and could not do in the class. The most egregious examples were students showing up drunk, who felt like they could start yelling at me, or felt like they were entitled to argue with me endlessly once I had made a decision on something. Every. Semester.
A couple years ago, I began adding a ‘behavioral expectations’ to my syllabus, stating that students needed to treat other students and the instructor respectfully. I also outlined behaviors that students frequently have questions about. (No, I don’t mind if you eat or drink during class. You don’t need to ask me to go to the bathroom. If you come in late, don’t disrupt the class, etc.) I needed students to realize there were basic expectations, and more importantly, that I am not a pushover.
This isn’t me attempting to micromanage their behavior. The idea was to get across that I could tell them they were done with my class if they started being very oppositional, disruptive, or even threatening. I got very tired of students who felt it was acceptable to badger me until they got the grade they wanted. All of these scenarios have occurred at one time or another, and I, for a long time, felt powerless to do anything about it.
What I find questionable is giving a student an A, which many people take as a stamp of approval, when the student fought tooth and nail to avoid meeting the minimum qualifications of getting that grade or has created a difficult learning environment for those around them. I’m not a conformist, but I do believe in showing people basic respect. If they cannot do that, then they have not met my requirements to receive a grade that essentially says I strongly approve of how they have performed in my class.
Unwarranted weeding October 16, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
Tags: advising, majors, students, switching majors, weeding
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Sadly, this isn’t a post on gardening whatever you may think of the title.
It’s advising week, meaning students must check in with their advisors and get permission for their courses next semester. I usually have a couple students who come to me for help either because their advisor isn’t familiar with all the requirements or because they aren’t terribly helpful.
This week, however, I had another interesting reason for a student needing extra help: their advisor was basically trying to talk them into switching majors. I thought this interesting because this student hasn’t even completed their first semester yet, and from my observation, they are a pretty good student. So why would their advisor tell them to start thinking about alternative career paths?
Once I started talking to this student, they explained that they were in precalc instead of calc, so the argument was that they were going to be behind because they wouldn’t be able to start taking some of their major classes by the second semester of their sophomore year. This seemed like a weak argument, so I began discussing things with the student further. Unfortunately, that just made me more upset.
The student was in precalc because, on the math placement exam, they were one point short of being placed into calculus. The test has a hard cut-off. This is a different scenario in my mind than a student who placed into precalc versus trig (the next class down) by one point. Second, this student knows a bit about engineering because both parents are also engineers.
Probably what upset me the most was that this student is not your typical 18-year-old white male that represents about 90% of the students I have. I don’t know that this played into the discussion (as in, I honestly think that the only consideration prompting this discussion was the student’s math placement), but I would think that there would actually be more of an effort to retain such a student.
My personal feeling is that student placement is, at least in part, due to circumstances of their schooling. ”Weeding” students out based on that parameter is not a smart idea as there are a lot of bright kids who come from rural schools and don’t have either advanced classes or highly competent teachers. If a student gets to college and is really struggling in their courses after a semester or two, that’s a different story, and then I think it might be healthy to talk with the student about switching majors. Or maybe they will decide to change majors of their own accord. Either way, I think they need the opportunity to prove that they’re capable before you try to push them out. You may lose a lot of students who don’t belong in the program, but you’re also going to push out some people who are very bright and capable.
I’m being used for target practice… September 27, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
Tags: favoritism, frustration, incoming freshman, students, target, teaching
Have you ever had a student who felt like they were above doing the homework for a class?
I have the problem frequently because my class is required for all incoming freshman. Somehow, there will be one or two that will fall through the cracks and end up taking it as an upperclassman. Or maybe they come in as a transfer student and someone thinks it’s a good idea for them to take the class. This is never a good situation as most of what I have to tell them, they may have already learned by trial and error. However, in fairness to the other students, I have to make them jump through all the same hoops that they do.
Many times I get the question, “Do you really expect me to do this?”
Yes. I do.
At which point they roll their eyes. And tell me they want an A in the class.
The problem, which they don’t seem to realize, is that I have set out standards to which everyone needs to adhere to pass the class. Everyone has to contract for a grade, so it is abundantly clear what’s expected from them at the very beginning. If I let the standards slip for them, then I can get called on favoritism. On the other hand, the assignments are relatively easy that I don’t understand why they don’t just do them and turn them in. What’s wrong with having an easy class now and again? Some of these students put more effort into getting out of the assignments than they would if they actually just sat down and did them.
To some extent, I can understand it. There’s this notion that freshman need this class to succeed. If they’ve survived for two years already, it’s not unrealistic to think they don’t need the class. But someone puts them in there, and they claim they can’t get out. This leaves me stuck with treating them like trained monkeys, and I can understand the resentment. It does seem like it makes a little bit more sense to have transfers take it, but they don’t resent it any less.
I think the real problem is that they just don’t want to be there, and I’m the only person handy as a target for their frustration.
Students finding their direction June 23, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geology, geophysics, physics, research, teaching.
Tags: engineering, physics, math, geophysics, students, majors
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The younger son’s birthday was this week, and we opted to host a pool party at a local hotel. (IMO, pool parties are the best for the elementary school age group: they keep themselves busy and then go home exhausted.) I was checking in when I noticed a young man standing at the other end of the counter. He looked familiar, so I asked if I knew him.
“I took your class last fall.”
“Oh great! How did the rest of the school year go for you?”
“Great. I actually switched to business and am really liking it.”
“Really? Why did you switch?”
“I just figured I liked business a lot better.”
“That’s why they have you take those early major classes – so that you find out you don’t like it before you get too far into it.”
I think the poor kid thought I would be mad that he had switched. But I wasn’t mad at all. If he feels like he’d be better off in a different major, then he ought to go for it. And that is part of what I’m trying to set out in the class – this is what engineers do. If it doesn’t look fun, then you ought to think about a different major. That’s a perfectly valid choice, and no one should judge a student for it.
(Yeah, I know…I sit here and wring my hands because older son gets these obnoxiously high scores in math and science but wants to be a writer…I’m one to talk.)
But seriously, I actually think it’s sort of silly to make students choose a major really early on in school. I think it’s a good idea to try to take a lot of classes in different fields before you really choose. I say this as someone who major hopped a lot during undergrad. I spent some time in physics, chemistry, journalism, and graphic arts. I finally decided that I liked physics after all, but what got me excited was geophysics. I happened to take a geology class when I was at Caltech because I had to take a lab course, and everyone told me geology was the easiest. Turns out, I really liked it and did very well in the course. (Of course, later on, I found that geology feels too qualitative and prefer geophysics, so it all worked out. On the other hand, I think I would’ve liked geology better if it had all been field courses.) :-)
I have run into people who got upset with me for this type of thing. I was doing research with a professor in undergrad, but I felt like the research wasn’t going well and got sort of excited about a math project that I’d seen a professor give a talk about. I talked to that professor to see if he’d be interested in having me as a student, which he was. When I told the other professor that I was going to work with the math professor, all hell broke loose. (I still think I made the right choice, though, especially since the first project really never did go anywhere.) I have yet to figure out why the first professor got upset, though, and did some petty stuff, like kicking me out of the student office (despite no one needing a spot) and having the secretary take away my mailbox. (This was silly, BTW, as I was president of the Society of Physics Students, so she ended up giving it back to me a month later so I could get SPS mail.)
And what did this do? Certainly reinforced that I didn’t want to work with this person, but I could also see it making a student feel like this person is representative of a particular field. Wouldn’t you wonder if a student would not want to go into a major because of the way the professors treat him or her? I can (and did!), and it just shows how ridiculous the whole thing was.
No, students need some time to explore their interests and getting mad at them for not doing what you think they should do is silly. They are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of their choices, and if a student takes my class and decides they don’t want to spend the next five to ten years of their life studying engineering, then I think they’ve learned something very important and just as valid as anything else I have to teach them.
The care and feeding of minions February 9, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, research, work.
Tags: minion, students
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Shortly after seeing the movie Despicable Me, the younger son asked Mike if the people who worked for him were minions (like the little yellow guys in the movie) or henchmen (presumably from some other movie he’d seen). When I was in the lab one day, I asked a couple such individuals which they preferred. The one who’d graduated said he preferred henchman, while the undergrad liked minion. After that, we determined that we’d call all the undergrads minions, and once they graduate, they become henchmen.
It turns out that we’ve had one minion who started as a freshman and is the only undergrad working for my husband right now. Because we’re both doing electromagnetics work, I would sometimes get the minion on loan. One of these episodes was during the development of the Widget. I came up with the idea and did a variety of simulations. Once I got to a point where I didn’t feel we could progress much using the simulations, I had the Minion build up some prototypes and test them out. He’s far
less concerned about losing brain cells from nasty chemicals more adept in the lab than I am, so despite the fact that what I asked him to do involved a lot of drudgery, he was very willing. What he didn’t realize is that he would make something and test it…then I’d go back and ask him to modify it and test again…and repeat that ad nauseum.
I really hate giving him all the ‘boring’ work but I have to admit that without his help, the project would have gone much more slowly. He was put as second author on the Widget paper, and has also been lead author on a couple other papers as they were his own projects. Now, he will apparently get a bit of publicity for his role as an undergrad who has had an opportunity to do some research. He deserves this as he’s one of those people who you can hand stuff to and rely on them to do a good job and get it done quickly.
In fact, he’s so dedicated to his work, that he’s even willing to risk his own health!
But seriously, thanks for everything, Layne. We’re glad to have you around.
Evals! Oh happy day! February 6, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
Tags: evaluations, students, teaching
I had to make a run down to campus and, while there, I picked up my evals from last semester. Apparently there were no comments on the evals because I just received a sheet for each class summarizing my ‘grades’.
I had been dreading this day for quite a while. I had a couple of cranky students at the end of last semester. I was also worried. When teaching geology labs, it seemed like I got some very pissed off students who left simply nasty evals. (I discussed this on my old blog a couple times.) Compared to some of the other TAs, my evals usually came out worse. A lot of this had to do with the perception that I was a harder grader. In reality, I graded more easily on labs and more harshly on exams, so my averages were about the same as everyone else. But that’s not what the students think.
Anyway, so I sat down with my numbers and discovered that some classes had better or worse perception than others. For instance, my first Thursday class gave me the lowest scores (3.6 out of 5 for a couple questions) while the class right after that gave me the highest scores (4.5 of 5). My Tuesday classes were somewhere in between. The smallest class was the happiest, but the largest class wasn’t the unhappiest. I’m not sure what happened with that one Thursday class, though, as it was a lot lower than the others. Maybe I need to make sure to regale future students with my huge stack of nerdy science jokes.
They said the average for the department was around 4.2…but I realized that they were talking about the University Studies department, not engineering. (The class is listed under University Studies, but some departments choose to have their own teachers for the class, as was the case for the sections I taught.) I’m actually relieved that my scores were on par with the rest of the University Studies department given I heard many complaints about how much more work my students had to do relative to other sections (which weren’t being run by engineering). Despite the fact I “worked them to death,” they were still okay with it.
That’s good because it’s not going to get any easier for them.
It’s looking,therefore, like last semester went as well as could be expected, especially given it was my first time teaching it and the whole thing was an experiment. I wish there was some way to see if the kids really did get anything out of it to help with their long-term academic goals, though.
Why are the women so good? January 21, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
Tags: feminism, sexism, sexist comments, students, teaching, women in engineering
I’d been thinking about writing this post last semester. However, it slipped my mind until some trollish comments showed up on EngineerBlogs today. I think that Chris, Gears and Katie gave the troll a good smackdown, but one comment bothers me:
few women are capable of handling these kind of demanding environment.
I’ve heard this before (pretty much since I started as an undergrad). However, after teaching my class last semester, I have to wonder what the hell these people are talking about.
I had 90 students last semester, 5 of whom were women. All five of those women were easily in the top 25% of the class and were more likely in the top 10% of the class. They were the students who repeatedly handed in assignments on time and seldom (if ever) had to redo any of them. I will say that none of them chose to do the programming – but that is likely because they had turned in all the optional assignments required for an A before the matlab assignments were given.
If anything, what I saw was puzzling to me. The women seemed the most prepared to meet the demands of a college class, were able to communicate well both in written and verbal form (and one of them was a non-native English speaker), and contributed well and frequently to the class. It was almost strange how they were on top of things when the majority of their male classmates were struggling.
I’ve heard it argued that the women most likely to be in engineering are generally those who are in the top of their classes. Women who may be good at math but not outright brilliant will be swayed to go into other careers. From what I could see, this was true.
If you listen to trolls on the internet, you get the impression that women are incompetent engineers, however. The women in my class were some of the most competent and motivated students, but I admit that they were more passive than the male students, which I still think leads the male students (and probably later on, male professors) to believe that the female students don’t know anything. But it’s interesting to hear this comments after witnessing the exact opposite of what everybody “knows to be true”. I can only think that people who make these comments are really overestimating their own abilities or wrongly judging what it takes to be a good engineer. Maybe both.
The Crying Game December 14, 2011Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, science, societal commentary.
Tags: emotions, students, teaching
You know that stereotype about girls always being the ones to cry in the professor’s office?
I’ve had two criers this semester, and both of them were men. I’m getting more comfortable with this. If a woman cries, you offer her a tissue, empathize a bit, and then set down what needs to be done. Most of the female students were relieved that I didn’t blow up at them for something or another, although I think I had one who despised me for noticing. However, with the male students, I’ve learned that they don’t want you looking at them when they’re about to have an emotional breakdown. They remind me of ostriches, looking for a way to hide themselves, but lacking one, can only refuse to make eye contact with you. Worse yet is acknowledging that this is happening in any way, shape, or form. Best to just pretend things are fine and talk about how to deal with the problem at hand. And did I mention not to look at them?
I wish these things were confined to crying, but they’re not. In general, I seem to get more emotional behavior from male students than female, although the most extreme behavior seems to be representative of the gender distribution of the class. In one particularly bad year, I had a student who gouged out her hand during class and another (male) who had a series of offensive behavior, including showing up drunk to a make-up lab. The chair of the department asked me why I get all of the difficult students.
The student who was the hardest to deal with, however, was one who I caught cheating more than once. One day he came to my office, and the way he started yelling at me made me wonder if he was going to get violent. I was particularly happy my officemate and the prof next door were both in. This student kept it up for an hour, going from trying to intimidate me to giving me a sob story.
The worst thing about dealing with this student is that it became apparent that his really obnoxious behavior was confined to me. I was a TA for the class, but there was one other TA and the instructor, both of whom were male. When these problems got to the point where they were impossible, he was switched to the other TA’s section and had to deal with the instructor. He was immediately caught cheating again, but when confronted by the other TA and, later, the instructor, his attitude was completely different. There was no hint of belligerence in his interactions with them.
It’s made me realize that a lot of students are apparently more comfortable around me than my male counterparts, and thus feel it is alright to be more emotional in my presence. I think it doesn’t matter if the emotion is frustration, sadness/depression, or anger: whatever filter they put in place for other people, particularly if those people are male, seem to disappear when dealing with me. Not that I’m saying they know this; I suspect most of them don’t realize there is a difference in their behavior.
This semester has been one of my better semesters as far as dealing with emotional students. I can handle a couple of students who are obviously having a tough time, especially when there are medical issues involved or other situations where the students are dealing with stressors that are out of their control. I do sort of wonder, however, if I’ll manage to get through one semester without some sort of emotional outburst.