Friday, February 22, 2008

Teaching things freaking me out

As of this afternoon, I have 133 students. Previous years' enrollments, which are what I based my textbook orders, room bookings, and tutorial funding on, never topped 100. I hear American universities have things like caps on enrollment numbers. Someone should tell our admin about these new-fangled ideas.

Some of the names in the enrollment list are awfully familiar. There's the guy who never comes to class, fails the course, then cries harassment. There are the three sweet, but hopelessly clueless students who failed miserably in my last year's course. And there's the one who was taking this exact same class when I tutored it in 2004. I guess she's been failing happily ever since.

Then there are the 20-something good students, including my two best students EVER, who took lots of linguistics classes last year, just not this one: the introductory course which is a requirement for linguistics majors. I've talked to admin, and they won't waive this requirement, not even for the student who got 100% on most of the far more advanced material in the class I taught last semester. These students who can competently diagram complex sentences and reconstruct Proto-Germanic are going to be sitting through lectures on what nouns and verbs are, and how some languages have different word orders from others.

And yes, of course, I'll add in extra readings for them, and try to make sure the assignments have some extra challenging stuff, and do my best to keep them engaged in class, but man! I shouldn't have to.

The good news is, I probably AM being paid enough to deal with this sort of shit. Just as soon as someone actually organises me a contract. (For the job that, uh, started two weeks ago.)


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Are you also short of TAs?? If so -- maybe you could make an arrangement with the excellent students to be peer tutors?? We do that with former students and it works very well. They get some hourly wage and the struggling students have a peer who is paid to talk to them about stuff...

I suppose the other thing you could do would be to offer to change the course for the excellent ones so that they get academic credit for spending time tutoring the ones who have failed... You know they can do the material -- but, it is a whole other challenge to help someone else do it.

I've also had students become, in effect, independent contract tutors.

grace said...

I know departments at Canterbury Uni are being encouraged to enrol more students rather than face (more) staff cuts. You do wonder how they can deliver quality teaching to much larger classes.

Anonymous said...

Grace - that's absolutely right. This is something that really annoys me, and I constantly worry that we shortchange students over class size. As an undergrad at Canterbury I was lucky enough to have many classes of not more than about 20 people (and, in the case of my classes in Latin and in the Classical influence on the Renaissance, there were only 2 of us. Which was fantastic).

I firmly think that class size dominates most other factors of teaching quality. It isn't an accident that the elite undergraduate education at Oxford and Cambridge is based upon weekly one to one tutorials. Which no other university in the UK can afford to provide (and probably anywhere else, either).

I did a taught MSc at the University of Edinburgh a little while ago (in economics, not classics) - Edinburgh isn't Oxbridge, but it's generally considered to be a fairly high class institution, and has a particularly strong reputation in economics. I was horrified to find that the classes involved 100 people watching a lecturer write on a blackboard for 4 hours a day. It was like doing first year undergraduate maths again. Some lecturers were quite good, a couple were utterly execrable. There was a 'helpdesk' for dealing with homework problems, run by a couple of PhD students, but no tutorials in any form that I would have recognised. I got a great deal from doing the degree, but I'm glad that I wasn't personally paying the £9,000 fee for it, because I think it was a con.

Which is not to say that large lectures don't have a place, but at any level of education they should be supplemented by more intimate teaching, in which students can have immediate contact with their teachers.

I often wonder about whether an academic career has any future, and realistically I think I am not likely to pursue it a great deal longer (in spite of having been given, out of the blue, a tenured post, which in this day and age is a privilege). This is for a whole load of reasons, but among them is that the cynicism of teaching huge classes for large fees beggars anything that I have ever come across when working in government agencies or in the private sector. It is self serving and repulsive.

Sorry - a bit of a rant... But I really feel very strongly about this.

Anonymous said...

That was me: Tom. But it wouldn't let me post with my own name for some reason.

StyleyGeek said...

Yeah, we aren't short of TAs. What we are short of is TA FUNDING. The dept has money for a total of 4 TA (tutor) hours per week across all courses it offers. I.e. everyone in the dept is competing for them. I have snagged two tutor hours per week, but it looks like I will need at least six. There wouldn't be any money to pay peer tutors. Your credit for tutoring thing sounds good, though....

And I agree with you Tom and Grace. What bothers me most about this extra large class size is that without extra funding for tutors, the tutorials are going to be enormous too (30 students in each). Which means the large lectures will NOT be supplemented by more individualised teaching. Gah!

What I DO intend to do is make a lot of use of the class website. Discussion forums, interactive tests and teaching material, extra readings, etc. I hope that that will allow people who have initiative to do extra work at their own level.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

So, you're not taking me up on my suggestion to make the first few weeks of the course seem sufficiently difficult/uninteresting to make the 33 laziest students drop it?

Breena Ronan said...

Um, aren't there a limit to the number of students that will fit in the room? That's the excuse we use to explain why we can't accept unlimited numbers of people into the class. I think it's fairly valid considering that classrooms there are a limited number of classrooms available and it would probably be difficult to find a larger one once the quarter started.

I was paid as an undergrad TA for intro chemistry one quarter. I ran lab sessions just like a real TA, but I went to a liberal arts college with no grad students. I think the money mostly came from my federal work study financial aid.

I wouldn't have done it for credit because I have too much of a consciousness of teaching as work, but I bet lots of undergrads would.

StyleyGeek said...

Yeah, the room was a big problem. They ended up having to change the timetable in order to find a room that fit.