Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Unpreparedness Dream

Most people I know have had the "unprepared student dream."  It comes in many versions: you arrive at an exam only to realize you have forgotten to prepare, you blank out before a phone-book-sized final, or--my personal favorite--you realize three-quarters of the way through a semester that you registered for a class but have forgotten ever to attend it. Along with flying, falling and appearing naked in public, the unprepared student dream is apparently one of the most common.

It's not surprising, I suppose.  In many ways the given circumstances of schooling (testing, performance, being evaluated) apply universally to life.  I'm told that actors have their own version in which they find themselves on stage without having memorized their lines or even being quite sure what play they are to perform.

It's curious, then, that I've never heard of anyone having an "unprepared professor dream."  You know, a dream in which you walk into the class without a fully-formed plan or even much in the way of expertise on the subject.   That's not really a dream.  More often than not, it's a job description.

Here it is the end of June and all of the plans I had to revise, amend and improve my courses over this summer have gone unrealized.  Time to wake up, I guess.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Fog of Evaluation

The Spring evaluations are back from wherever it is they go to be counted, crunched and computed.  And--as happens twice a year--I'm utterly baffled by them.  What do they really show me?  What am I supposed to do now that the students have informed me "You rock!" or they didn't much care for a book  Don't get me wrong. My student evaluations numbers are generally okay and often pretty good.  Still, I never know what to make of them.

At my institution we use something called IDEA, which allows us to stack ourselves up against every other person in a database comprising hundreds of institutions. Want to know how you rate on the database's curve?  Well, the results tell you whether you're in the top 10-20 percent of profs teaching in similar courses or flat-lining across the bottom. Students at my institution may not be graded on a curve, but the professors sure are. And it doesn't matter how many caveats are placed on the interpretation of the data.  You see the numbers on the little chart and that's that. Here, for example, are the results of a Humanities 101 course I taught last fall.

Now this is an overall positive evaluation, but you'll notice that I have been adjusted down by eight clicks on progress on relevant objectives. In other words, the students perceived themselves to have progressed on relevant objectives and gave me a number that put me in the top 30 percent of people teaching similar courses in the database. Indeed, 89 percent of students in the course put down a four or a five on the five-point scale. The raw average was 4.6; the adjusted average was 3.8.


Keep in mind this is not a measurement of actual progress on objectives. It's simply whether or not students perceived themselves to have progressed.  So what accounts for the downward adjustment?  As best I can figure out, the adjustment is determined by some data the students reveal about themselves.  Question 39, for example, asks students to rate the validity of this cryptic statement: I really wanted to take this course regardless of who taught it.

Okay, so what does this mean?  The summary form sent to the instructor offers this unhelpful explanation: "Student scores are adjusted to take into account the desire of students to take the course regardless of who taught it (item 39)." I suppose this could mean students who put down a four or a five were just really into the subject matter (I wanted to learn cell biology and didn't give a rip who taught it).  But it might also mean they wanted to take a particular prof because they had heard good things about him or her. It could simply mean they really needed the course to graduate.  Then again, perhaps it's the lack of student desire to take the course that's being measured.  Can't say.  Don't know.

But I know this: my students rated themselves an average of 3.4 on item 39, a number that was higher than the average in the IDEA database.  They also came in with a higher average on item 37 (I worked harder in this course than other courses) and item 43 (I worked harder than other students as a rule).

So the score for progress on relevant objectives was adjusted downward because the students either liked the subject, heard I was a good (or perhaps easy) professor, or because I challenged them to work harder than others. See what I mean?

Maybe I just don't understand the form, but it seems like I get knocked because students want to take my course and I challenge them to work hard.   That just doesn't make any sense.  And the IDEA results are filled with these little bafflers. Scores adjust up or down (almost always down by the way) on factors I don't understand and often can't control.

Like I said, I get okay eval scores, but I don't think I am a great professor. Does this mean I'm just a good classroom actor.  Is it simply the Dr. Fox effect?  Maybe it means I'm an easy grader?  Indeed, the most common criticism of student evaluations is that they lead to grade inflation. And some studies have found a correlation between lenient graders and good evals.  At the same time, studies have also shown a correlation between good evals and objective measures of student achievement. So take your pick.

What I hate most about student evaluations is that I let them matter to me.  I don't want to buy into some false sop to my ego.  On the other hand, a false sop to one's ego is better than getting poor evals (just as a grade inflated A- is better than an honest D+).  I just never know what to make of the results.  A few years ago I got the following all over the map numbers in a senior capstone:

And these numbers came with the following student comment:

So I got that going for me anyway.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Very Little Things

I wrote earlier about reading projects. One I began last January is only now wrapping up.  I decided to read a few histories and novels about the onset of the First World War, which began 100 years ago this August.  I started with Jean Echenoz's slender and somewhat lyrical 1914: A Novel, then switched to some histories: Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 and Sean McKeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War, the latter of which provides an almost minute by minute chronology from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June to the mobilizations a month later. Right now I am about half-way through Lynn MacDonald's 1914, a history of the opening battles of the war.

A few observations: it's astonishing how little the politics and ethnic hostilities in the Balkans have changed in the past 100 years.  I saw over the weekend an obituary for Dobrica Cosic, a Serb novelist whose work did much to fan the nationalist passions in the run up to the Bosnian war in the 1990s.  Cosic would not have been out of place among the dubious political figures that frequented Belgrade coffee houses a century.ago..

It's curious, too, how little England and France were paying attention as the world stumbled into war. England was preoccupied with Ireland and the French public was completely absorbed in the trial of Henrietta Caillaux, the mistress turned second wife of the Minister of Finance.  Responding to a political attack on her husband, Mme.Caillaux had walked into the offices of Le Figaro and pumped four .32 slugs into the paper's editor. That was in late March.  By the time of Franz Ferdinand's assassination, everyone in France was awaiting the trial's verdict.  An all male jury ruled the shooting a crime passionnel resulting from ungovernable female emotions. Acquitted, Mme. Cauillaux later became something of a minor art historian and died in 1943 under the Nazi occupation.

Reading about that last summer of peace is haunting.  It's like observing lives trapped behind glass.  They have no way of knowing what is about to happen.  Neither do we, of course. Occasionally, though, a few people did have a foreboding sense.  In Lynn MacDonald's book, which is filled with many first-person accounts and vignettes, she describes a grammar school gathering to honor a retiring headmaster during the last few days of peace.

The headmaster, a Mr. Rushworth, was to have received a portrait in oils that he would have returned to the school so it could hang in the Great Hall alongside his predecessors. Unfortunately the portrait had been sent to Germany for prints to be made from it.  This work had been delayed so the actual presentation needed to be postponed.  The guest of honor at this gathering was Sir Henry Newbolt, a jingoist poet.  The ceremony took place on the last day of July, 1914.  Britain's declaration of war was only three days away. MacDonald writes,
Despite the growing seriousness of the international situation none of the audience of boys, parents and masters dreamed that the postponement would last for five long years.  They could hardly have guessed that by the time the portrait was hung three of St. Olave's masters and a hundred and ninety-one of their past and present pupils would have died in the great war.
On the eve of the long holidays stretching enticingly ahead, the boys were in high spirits.  Only the guest of honor cast a gloom.  His address, hastily revised in light of the crisis whose gravity had been pointed out for the first time to the general public in the leading article of that morning's Times, was remarkable for its lack of platitudes which were the normal ingredients of prize-giving ceremonies.  There was the sketchiest of congratulations to the winners, little or nothing in the way of commiseration to the losers, no allegorical allusions to the example set by the tortoise and the hare, little or no sermonizing on the satisfaction of a job well done and the worthiness of effort for its own sake.  Sir Henry addressed himself directly to the scrubbed and shining schoolboys.
"When you are engaged--as we may be in a few days--in a great world-shaking war, your prizes will appear very little things." 

Monday, June 2, 2014

May in the Midwest

No deep thoughts or beefing today; just some photos of last week's run to trout streams in Northeast Iowa. 

The Department of Natural Resources lists around 60 trout streams in Northeast Iowa. My life list is now around 47.

This little brown liked my prince nymph, which I tied especially with him in mind.

Of spring-fed creeks the writer and fly fisher Ted Leeson writes,
That a great many cultures have endowed springs with numinous properties--curative power, rebirth and regeneration, prophesy and oracle--is scarcely surprising, and that they would have been regarded as sacred seems almost inevitable. Water is the ancient emblem of spiritual purification, and its symbolic power to absolve is as old as the need to be forgiven.
Took two browns out of the run above last Tuesday. Note the steeple of the little Catholic Church in the distance.

Putting back a plump rainbow taken on Waterloo Creek. My son asked me once what the fish thought when they got caught. I told him they're probably upset that the nasty bug yanked them all over the stream and then grateful to that nice man who removed the bug and set them free. I like to think so anyway.

Happened across these neatly stacked cairns along a creek in Winnesheik county. There were around a half dozen of them.  It was like coming upon someone's art in the forest.

My depleted box of nymphs. Tied dozens and dozens of flies all winter. Two trips and lots of willow trees and rock snags take their toll.

Best place to be in May in Iowa.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...