Friday, December 12, 2014

To Fumble on the One

This week I've been charged with telling a final exam horror story. We all have them. Finals Week is a rough time on campus. The teachers are all psychotic from lack of sleep and a bitter disappointment with the papers they've been grading. The marginal students are just beginning to realize how badly things are going to end for them. Unlike Olympic Gymnastics, one cannot expect 30 students to "stick the landing." So what story will it be? The "How to make a pipe-bomb" speech that cleared the building where I had to give  final? The Goth who did a self-penned graphic rape scene where she got revenge on her fictional father? The snake owner who took his pet out of a bag and caused a screaming panic? Nah, I'll narrow it down to two labor-related nightmares.

Being an adjunct is hard. You fly around the freeway all day carrying a big pile of papers in the passenger seat eating out of vending machines hating everyone. Well, I did at any rate. I had a hard enough time memorizing where I was supposed to be during the semester. During finals week I had no idea what was going on. The spreadsheet weasels who work out the double-length class times without overlapping them didn't care about what was happening with the rest of MY week at all. So on the penultimate day of class at Palomar when somebody raised their hand and asked when the final exam was to be held, I honestly couldn't tell them. The answer was scribbled on a piece of paper stuck to my fridge. Luckily this other student was able to help. He confidently told the class that the final was on Thursday at 8am. Except he was either a sociopath or an idiot because it was in fact Tuesday at 8am, and I gave the final to a room with 5 people in it. Luckily we now have the ability to tell them to look it up themselves on their freaking phones. Adjuncts have it rough, but I was even more exploited and resentful when I was a grad student.

I'm a California boy at heart. So when I finished my final semester at UNM I was eager to get home to San Diego. I was exhausted, drained, and emotionally beaten down. I hadn't eaten anything but ramen and bun-less dogs with stolen Ketchup packets for weeks. I had scraped enough change out of the couches to pay for the gas home. All I had to do was grade the final exams for my Rhetoric of Dissent class and I'd be ready to submit my grades in the morning and drive 18 hours to my Grandmother's refrigerator. The grading was easy: the test was all fill-in-the-blank with terms from a list on the back of the test.  So the question would ask, "________ was famous for her overcoming disability, but she was also an important socialist activist," and the student would write in "Helen Keller."

Well the grading was coming along fine until I got to a student who got 2% right. The answers were so bad they didn't make sense when you read them out loud: "Eugene Debs was Helen Keller for sedition during WW1." It was completely awful; they didn't even think to look for matching parts of speech or context clues. It was the Worst Test I Ever Graded. Until I got to the one directly below it and the answers were EXACTLY the same. Now there is no chance that two students would just randomly guess exactly the same 100 nonsensical answers. So I figured that one student blew the test worse than if they had randomly assigned the answers and the second student sat next to them and cheated off their test. What's dumber? Turning in the worst test in history, or copying the worst test in history? Was I supposed to hang around for another week while the Dean and I met with them asking them which one was dumb and which one was crooked? They both failed anyway, right? I should have followed through with the ethics violation, but I needed to get out of dodge so I failed them and slipped the grades under the department office door. If they wanted me to follow through they needed to pay me more Ramen money.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Avoiding the Doldrums

Hey there! So I've enrolled in the Faculty Blogging Challenge here at Southwestern College. The idea is to share ideas about pedagogy and such. I'm sure I won't be able to stick to the topic most weeks....but this time I'll try to remain vanilla. 

This week's prompt is: "What are your strategies for maintaining focus and and motivation at the end of the semester?" As in all discursive endeavors, my first urge is to be sarcastic and unhelpful. "I try to remember that I don't work in a coal mine," "smoking copious bowls," and "thinking about the money," all immediately came to mind. But those aren't useful to anyone. 

Come to think about it, I've actually put quite a bit of thought into reducing that end-of-the-semester dragging feeling. I do it through creative scheduling, aligning my class with the national intercollegiate debate topic, and fun management.

When I first started teaching I was a big fat stupid procrastinator. We all hate grading, so I just applied the classic procrastinator pseudo-logic: Have them turn in everything on the last day of class. That way, the semester goes smoothly for 17 weeks then turns into a hellscape of desperation and fatigue at the end. Turns out this isn't the optimal way to run a class. So now I make my major written assignment due week 8. I spread the tests out a little more. I front-load the assignments to give myself a little wiggle room at the end. That way I never feel buried in paper. Now, I admit that this is easier given what I teach: Debate class mostly consists of in-class performances. There may be no way for English professors to avoid the hellscape.

I'm lucky to have a teaching gig that changes substantially from year to year. Unlike my cowardly anti-intellectual colleagues in the Parliamentary Debate community, I coach NDT/CEDA style debate. This means SWC students spend the whole year researching a single broad debate topic. So my students are making the same claims as the students at Harvard, USC, MSU, or any other NDT program in the nation. Over the course of the year I learn about an MAs worth of information about the topic. So last year I became an expert on Presidential War Powers. Previous topics taught me all about Gun Control, Agricultural Subsidies, International Treaties, Renewable Energy.....each year is new and exciting. This year the topic is about legalizing victimless crimes. More specifically we are debating whether the USA should legalize "marihuana, prostitution, online gambling, physician assisted suicide, or the sale of human organs." Pretty NSFW if you ask me. I'm terrified Dr. Nish will call me in for a meeting, "Mr Mills, we have some real concerns with your browser history. The weed, prostitution and gambling are all depressingly common amongst the male faculty here at SWC. But we have reason to believe you may have been trafficking in human organs." At least the students FINALLY get to argue the ONE thing they've been wanting to debate about for 15 years. Finally they can make their case for legalizing the sale of human organs. 

In the end, I find the most important technique for maintaining energy and focus has more to do with time spent away from work. It's hard to be Mr. Mopey Von Whiner-son at work when you have as much fun as I do on the weekends. I see a lot of live music. I travel extensively. I obsessively play board games with my friends. And I spend a few hours a week (never enough) on political activism. In general I find that people who hate their jobs don't enjoy their free time so much either. Feeling burnt out? Punk rock will wake you right up!  

 Hey, we all get tired at the end of the semester. Towards the middle of the semester I complain that I hate lecturing and towards the end I complain that student debates are killing my soul. But changing things up in and out of the classroom can help.