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Check, please! May 6, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in work.
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Today I had one of the more bizarre experiences that I’ve had at work.  It’s not that the experience is bizarre, but having it at work is.

I was chatting with my student when she off-handedly mentioned to me that she’d felt a tickling on her skin and found a spider crawling on her.  In fact, she said, it’s still there on the ground.

I looked…very closely.  It wasn’t a spider.  It was worse.

It was a very sizable wood tick.

My student is from Malaysia and, in her four years here, had apparently never encountered a tick.  I, on the other hand, have had more experience with ticks than I really care to have had.  Of course, any experience with a tick is more than I really care to have.

I grabbed a piece of scotch tape, grabbed the tick, wrapped it up and threw it in the garbage.  Tape is awesome for immobilizing ticks.  Then I proceeded to explain that ticks are blood-sucking parasites that burrow into your skin.  She mentioned that she keeps her apartment very clean, so I had to explain that it likely was a hitchhiker who grabbed onto her as she was walking past a bush or tall grass.  After recalling several other horrible facts about them and explaining the proper way to remove them, I suggested that she have a roommate check her over, especially her hair.

I think I must’ve made her really panicked.

“Would you check my hair?”

You really can’t say no in a situation like this.  You certainly can’t say something like, “I’m sorry, but professional etiquette makes it impossible for me to make you feel better now that I’ve scared the crap out of you.”  I was amused, though, because the previous students I’ve worked with were all male.  I could easily see them saying something like, “That’s okay.  I’ll go home and die from lyme disease,” before they’d ask me to do a hair check on them.  Unless, of course, we’d been on a geology field trip together.

I spent the next twenty minutes sifting through her hair, which was incredibly thick and ebony in color.  It occurred to me at this point that blonde Scandinavians have a distinct survival advantage in this type of situation given a dark tick will stick out like a sore thumb.  On this particular student, you could’ve hidden a whole nest of them and it would be hard to find a single one because they would’ve blended in so well.

The good news is that she didn’t appear to have any other unwelcome friends. And the good news for me is that no one walked in and made me explain something that I’m sure would’ve looked very odd in an electronics lab.

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Responsive regardless April 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, research, work.
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NPR did an overview of a study showing that there is a bias in academia against minorities and women.  The study looked at response rates by professors to solicitations by potential students to meet.  The letters were identical except for the names attached.  They found that women and minorities received a different response rate than names that appeared to belong to white males.  They also found that the bias was greater when the faculty were at prestigious private schools or in fields that are more financially lucrative.

My response: “Well, Duh!”

In the comments to the article, some people were complaining about how many letters they get, particularly from Indian and Chinese students.  How could they be expected to answer every. single. one?!

While I admit I’m not inundated with such letters, I have gotten several.  As one of the other commenters mentioned, form letters are great for dealing with these, and I pretty much do that.  I also use an additional filter: “I currently don’t have funding for an additional student, but if you want to discuss what you’re interested in, we could look into avenues to fund such a project.”

It’s amazing how I never hear anything back.

But you know, I always do respond.  And I am hoping one of these days that I get a response back.

 

Curriculum litmus test February 14, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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litmus

 

I received the written comments back on my student evals from last semester.  I had a number of students who were very annoyed with the final project.  The previous two years, the final project consisted of a Matlab project.  After thinking about what a pain that was, I decided to change to a new project: a paper of 10-15 pages that has each student discuss their goals for getting through college.  The general consensus among those who commented was that the project required too much work for a 1 credit class.  There were several comments about how most of the other sections of this class don’t require as much work as I do, but the paper was just too much.

I’m sort of used to the comments about how much work my class is.  I state up front that they can expect 2-3 hours of homework each week…for a 1 credit class (that is, we meet once per week for an hour).  I also figure they had better get used to it, given the expectations of many of my colleagues.

I did find the comments slightly disturbing, however, because the implication seems to be that what I’m asking them to do is a lot of busy work.  In a lot of classes, many students feel that they’re spending a lot of time doing things that they will never do again outside of college.  They’re right, in a lot of cases.  I took a ton of math as an undergrad, and Mike likes to tell people that I’ve forgotten more math than he ever learned.  Sadly, the longer time goes on, the more I think he may be right.

The class I teach, however, is an academic skills class.  This means I am teaching them how to get through school, particularly in the engineering curriculum.  Do you know how to take notes?  What are the key things that are important?  Can you write a lab report?  Do you even know what area of engineering you’re going into?!

These are the things I’m trying to teach them.  My goal isn’t even to get them through the engineering curriculum, though a lot of the things I assign may be geared that way.  I simply want them to get through school and graduate.  I tell them this.  It perplexes me, therefore, how they can view setting goals as a waste of time.

I really have put a lot of thought into my assignments.  I want this class to be useful, and so I ask myself if each activity is something that will help them learn a skill they’ll need to get through school.  In a lot of ways, I’m at an advantage: college is a very constrained environment, and I can tell what skills are useful until they graduate.  After they graduate and get a job, however, their classwork may or may not be very valuable.  It’s something that simply can’t be predicted.

I have had students come back to me and say that they are really glad I taught the class and they do use the skills that I taught them.  I’m just not sure, however, how to make it clear to the freshman in my class that I really am not trying to torture them and that I do want them to succeed.  I can only hope the ones complaining about writing their goals are so motivated and driven that a lack of clearly stated goals has absolutely no bearing on their performance in school over the next 3 1/2 years.

The end is nigh December 1, 2013

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Coming to the end of the semester is an unsettling thing for me.  I like to do something fun, like bring treats, although I always make sure to do that the week AFTER we’ve had evaluations.  Once someone accused me of trying to butter them up…

But beyond that, I am left with this curiosity.  I wonder how the students will do continuing on.  I wonder if anything I’ve done has helped them.  And, to be honest, I wonder if they’ll even remember the class a few years down the road…at least for something other than being the only female college instructor that many of them will encounter.

Anyway, it makes it awkward because it’s not something you can easily convey.  I’ve always enjoyed teaching the class, and I let them know that.  I tell them I hope they’re successful in their future endeavors.  I’ve even considered giving them the Vulcan salute…although I’ve never followed through on it.

Spock_performing_Vulcan_salute

But there’s a bit of a melancholy feel as I’ll probably never know what happens to most of them.

November 29, 2013

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I’m digging myself out of my grading hole, albeit very, very slowly.

I have to admit that reading these essays is kind of fun.  At least some of them.  There was at least one student so far who wrote that s/he needed no improvement in their time management skills…and then on about page five of the essay, it suddenly stopped with a request for an extension/redo.  It’s really hard not to be snarky when things like that happen.

Most of them discuss the same issues, which is not a surprise.  I’ve had a couple, though, that were quite interesting.  My favorite so far is the student who compared getting through college to Lord of the Rings.  Although there wasn’t a parallel for every goal I wanted them to discuss, there were a fair number of references.

I really enjoy it when I get to see a bit of creativity and personality creep into these things.  I also like seeing how much their views have changed since the beginning of the school year.  It’s amazing what three months can do to a person.

The best news is that I’ve figured out a way to revise the assignment so that it’ll be shorter as well as make it more effective.  I worry, though, that this will remove some of the more creative submissions.  I have to admit that I like how some of my students see themselves on an epic journey.

The thorn in my semester November 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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There are two things I hate about being a teacher.  The first is dealing with angry, threatening students.  Fortunately, I don’t run into those too often, but they are seriously unfun.  The second is dealing with students who don’t show up (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally) but still want to pass the class.  This problem is more common than the first, though, so I’ve had to learn to get used to it.

The very first semester I was teaching, as an undergrad, I had a student who missed a couple labs.  This student in particular annoyed me because it was someone I knew through other activities.  When I introduced myself to the class, he said to his neighbor, quite audibly, “She’s the teacher?!  This class is going to be SO easy.”  The department policy was that anyone who missed more than a certain number of labs would fail, but I tried to be nice and let him make it up.  When I set up a time for the first make-up lab, he showed up drunk and could barely function.  I complained to the chair, and he got upset with me.

“Why are you letting him make up the labs?  This is exactly why we have this policy in place.  Fail him.”

I was surprised how easy a decision it was for the chair.  Appalled, actually.  But the student had been a pain all semester, so I rationalized that I didn’t owe him anything.

I got a call from him over Christmas break: it was my fault that he wasn’t graduating.

I don’t take lightly to guilt trips, so any residual guilt I had about failing him disappeared in that moment.  The maneuver backfired, and I told him to take it up with the chair.

I’ve always wondered if his comment about the class being easy was an indicator that he thought he wouldn’t have to put in any effort.  I also realized that he was right: if the chair hadn’t told me to fail him, he likely would have gotten through the class easily.  That one was my fault: he accurately predicted that I was going to be much nicer than I had to be, and he was going to take advantage of that.  I try very hard not to do that any more.

I really hate every time I have to go through this with a student.  It’s not that I put a lot of faith in grades, but I would really rather that the students put in enough effort that I can at least justify passing them, even if just barely.  It’s much easier on all of us.

A useful exercise November 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, older son, teaching.
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Since I began teaching this class, I’ve had this nagging question in my head: is what I’m doing effective?  I’ve contemplated inquiring as to whether anything changed in terms of retention or GPA of students who went through the class before versus after I started teaching.  It would be good to track that as much as possible, so that I could see if changes in the class manifested in changes in those retention-type numbers, although I wonder if I would be able to evaluate micro-changes in the class that way given other issues seem to swamp data about student behavior.  (It may just be me, but I’ve noticed that when the economy is good, more of my students seem to be interested.  When it’s not good, I have a lot of students who are back in school because they think it’s the only way to get a better job or the students are very pessimistic.  It seems like the attitude of all of the students get pushed in pulled in ways like that.)  It might also be a good thing to put on my resume.  Wouldn’t it be impressive if I could say something about improving retention in the dept. since taking over the class?  Having quantitative data saying you’re an effective teacher certainly can’t hurt.

On the other hand, I’ve wondered if it was worth the time to do so or if the school would give me some reason why they couldn’t provide me with that kind of data.  Or worse yet: what if I didn’t like what I saw?  (It’s easy to attribute favorable changes to one’s efforts but seems hypocritical to evaluate negative changes as being out of one’s control.)

When I started teaching this class, which is supposed to be an academic skills class for freshmen, it was done as whatever each teacher wanted it to be.  I imagine most people put a decent amount of effort into it, but there was one year that apparently didn’t go well.  A former classmate told me that when he took the course (a decade ago?), the prof decided that, being engineers, they didn’t need academic help: they needed social skills.  They spent the entire semester playing fantasy football.  I wish I was kidding.

When I put the course together, I came up with “everything I wish I’d known as a freshman plus all this stuff on how to learn and study effectively (because I’d been reading a ton on learning disabilities because of older son) along with things I’ve observed my students really ought to know even if I knew those things at that age”.  So, I jammed a lot of stuff into the course.  And, as I said, I have no way of knowing how well it’s working as the only feedback I’ve had was student evals (which, I have to admit, have been much better than I anticipated).

At least, I didn’t until today.  I had requested to have some upper-level engineering students come to my classes to talk about their experiences and answer questions.  One student went through my class last year.  At some point, she said, “I bet you all think this class is a waste of time.” She continued, saying how useful the class was in transitioning her from high school, where she didn’t have to work much in order to get good grades, to college where things were more challenging.  She mentioned a couple of the project-type activities I had them do and said she’s using that information a lot in her upper-level classes.

I was surprised.  That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m hoping to hear, but I was surprised that she began discussing that unprompted.  (I had only mentioned in introducing her that she was a former student.)  It’s made me wonder how many other students have similar perceptions being a year or two into the program…and whether I need to rethink my view of trying to get concrete data.

Even the students do it… October 29, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I was on campus and, after teaching my class, decided to go sit at the department office for adjuncts to do a bit of grading.  As I was walking through, there were a handful of students waiting for the admin assistant.  There was a sign on her door stating she would be back soon.

As I was walking past a couple students and another professor who happened to wander by, the students jumped in front of me.

“Hi.  We’re waiting for the admin assistant.”

“Oh, well, it says she should be back shortly.”

“Yeah, we have our registration forms filled out.”  The student extended his form in front of me.  I’m guessing he didn’t want me to check things over to make sure they were correct…because it had already been signed.  I’m pretty sure he expected me to take care of entering it into the computer.

To be honest, I came very close to responding, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

Fortunately, the admin walked in before I started swearing, and I was able to say, “Well, there she is.  She can help you out.”

Because really…what was I supposed to do with it?

To get to the other side… September 30, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geology, older son, physics, teaching, younger son.
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If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may remember that I compiled a whole series of physics jokes.  I was posting them daily for about two months.  Some people loved them.  I think a bunch of people also unfriended me because of it.

When I did this, I had an ulterior motive in mind: I wanted to tell them to my classes.  I’ve found that students tend to listen better to teachers they think are likable.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the warm, fuzzy personality that many of my friends (particularly those in geology) have.  I come across, sometimes, as a mean, nasty type.

And so the jokes…

They really do work.  Students will loosen up and talk.  They relax a bit.  They smile.  And most important, they don’t think I’m out to get them.  Those endorphins do wonders.

The problem I’m having now is that so many of my jokes are physics related…and I’m teaching freshmen.  While they all know about atoms and noble gases and protons, electrons, and neutrons, many of my jokes cover more esoteric topics.  They give me blank stares when I talk about Heisenberg or Schroedinger or neutrinos…

There’s a part of me that would like to teach older students simply so that I have a more receptive audience.  Or maybe my problem is that I’m teaching engineers and not physicists.  Or maybe too many of them are from farms (see above comic).

But you, my dear reader, are a more receptive audience, right?  And my kids…my kids know what neutrinos are…kind of.  Maybe they’re just laughing at me because I sound funny when I talk about physics.

Incidentally, the punchline to the joke in the title, if you’re wondering, is, “Why did the tachyon cross the road?”

I know I’m a flake September 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I’m currently grading the essays I have my students write at the beginning of the semester.  The essay is just to give me some background on each student and communicate to me what they’re hoping to get out of the class.

One thing I’m noticing this semester is that there seems to be a large number of students who have mentioned that their study skills and time management may be lacking.  Several students have talked about how they coasted through high school.

In the past, I’ve had a few students make this comment.  This year, it seems very frequent.  I’m not sure why there’s this change, but it makes me hopeful.  If I’m talking to students about their study habits and time management, I think it’ll go much better when they’re actually interested in learning about it.  Otherwise, I suspect they think I’m just like their mom, lecturing them about how they need to get their act together so they can make something out of their life.  I don’t like it when they look at me like that…I get more than enough from my own kids.

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