Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dilemma de Ethicale

Oh cripe. I've set myself up good and proper, I have. I've been sitting on an set of assignments that came in from my class of first year students, trying to get some other piles out of the way. I dove in tonight, just to get prepared to go through them for real tomorrow. Oh good lord. It's a hot mess. One on the order of Britney's panty-less shenanigans, I'd say.

Here's the situation: It's been a couple of years since I've had a full, bona fide class of fresh-off-the-boat, where-do-I-do-my-laundry, who's-going-to-wake-me-up-
in-time-for-class, first year students. I designed the class in the summer, having forgotten the real challenges that these students face. Unlike their peers, their learning curve is ridiculously steep. They need to figure out where to eat, how to deal with their roommates, where their classes are, how not to die of alcohol poisoning--any number of crucial, immediate skills that function high up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Obviously, all of these elements in the students' priority list come well before the finer points of Thoreau's theory of the individual, or even the basic plot of The Matrix. [See? I was thinking a little about what would serve them. Just not enough...]

So, over the course of the semester, the students have been writing blogs as a kind of class journal. They were supposed to post once a week or so, and comment on each other's blogs. This will instill some habits of using informal writing to crystallize ideas for more formal papers, class discussion, etc. Since they're doing it all semester long, I can justify how it should be a big honking portion of their final grades. Easy "A," I thought. [Note both the pedagogical rationalization AND the concomitant desire for grade inflation. Hell, it's the end of the semester. I'm letting it all hang out.]

And this would be the moment when I forgot about where first year students are at. Surely someone should have told me that this was a monumental lack of clarity on my part. Did we talk about the blogs in class? Yup. Did I remind them to keep them up? Sure did. Did I, in fact, last week, give them a list of the necessary number of posts and comments and give them clemency to make up the missing ones? Sure did. BUT DID THEY DO IT?! Right-o.

So now I'm faced with a dilemma. If I grade the blogs according to the standards that I set (and we're just going on quantity now, quality is almost off the table), I'm going to fail a goodly number of these students for this assignment--let's say at least a third. The ripple effect is that it may well mean that a third of the class will fail the course. This is bad. All kinds of bad.

But how can I miraculously ignore the fact that there's little raw material for me to grade?! I can't possibly just say "oh right. Well, 2/3 of you managed to at least type in some kind of drivel in passable amounts, but the rest of you just lost your damn minds. So let's just forget the whole thing."

Either I'm a teacher who has failed to guide her students, or I'm a teacher with no standards--who, in dropping them, rewards slacking and ignores consistency and hard work. Any way you slice it, I suck, totally and hard-core.

All right, internets. Make thy judgments swift and merciless. I'm going to bed, and I expect answers when I wake up!!


Blogger Lee said...

Here in Quant Land, I gaze over the fence at you folks in the Humanities and wonder how in the world you assess students. This does not mean we Digit Heads have it any easier even though we are awash in numbers and supposed objectivity. For instance, even though I have no idea what a Good Test Question–let alone a Good Test–would look like if one fell in my lap, I deduct points from student work on tests as if the "–1" actually measures understanding or lack thereof.

A lack of content is far easier to grade. Doesn't your syllabus and rubric give both you and the students the framework you knew you were going to work in? You have to stick to your standards so that they will be there in the future. The developmental characteristic of the task is known only to you. That is a debate in your head alone. The students think you're omniscient. If you ignore the standards, you are disrespecting the students who did do the work and belittling their efforts.

I have a 7 page syllabus full of things like "assignments not done in pencil will not be graded" because of the students who like to see what they can get away with (neone fuscia gel ink?!?) rather than applying that energy toward seeing what they can do/learn/explore. I inevitably have to penalize a high-achieving student who really is having a bad day because the standards have to be applied equally or they are meaningless.

Thursday, December 14, 2006 1:34:00 AM  
Blogger FrenchieF said...

Kfluff- I'm with Lee on this one. I just sent a bunch of final grades that were SIGNIFICANTLY lower than they should have been, because students failed to adhere to my attendance policy. [Sigh] Said policy states that they are only permitted three absences. After three their Attendance, Participation, and Preparedness grade (which is 20% of their final grade, mind you) drops by 1/3 letter grade per absence. Oh, and yes, the mandatory language lab sessions "count".

Like you, I reminded my students of this at mid-term, stressed the importance of attendance in an introductory language course, and even sent them their projected grades about a month before the term ended.

It's harsh, but I feel like one of the most important things first year students need to learn is how far they can push it and still pass...

Friday, December 15, 2006 8:21:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Oy. I just posted a very similar dilemma on my blog about deadlines.

I haven't made a decision, nor do I have any advice on your particular situation, but here is my thinking, for what it's worth:

-students need to be in charge of their education
-someone still needs to lead them and help them make and understand their decisions

And well, I thought I had something better or more nuanced to say, but I'm fresh out of smart for the day (which doesn't bode well for all the writing I was planning).

Friday, December 15, 2006 11:24:00 AM  

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