Mechanizing and Automating the Teaching Process

Okay, so all my courses are now online. That’s good, because it saves me the unpaid time entailed in driving back and forth to campus, delivers a hefty saving on gasoline, and obviates my having to put up with the ubiquitous rudeness and bad manners in the classroom.

It adds a challenge, because it means I can’t explain things face to face when it becomes obvious that one or more students can’t understand something. Nor can I try to transmit the information in the textbook, which they refuse to read and which some decline to buy or rent at all, by regurgitating the chapters in so-called “lectures.” And that means they’re flying blind when they go to write the essays required by the District for the course.

A couple of semesters ago, I decided to try remedying the problem by asking them to write “Reading Reviews.” For each chapter, they were asked to synopsize the contents and then to apply the principles in the chapter to one of the readings tacked on to the chapter. Thus, for example, if they were studying Aristotelian rhetoric, they were to show where the various elements described by Aristotle appear in the given reading.

This worked to force some — not all — of them to go so far as to read the book.

However, it has several drawbacks:

Some students will not read the book at all. They look at the chapter title, guess at its contents, and present that guess as their synopsis. For the application, they either have nothing to say or it’s all hot air and bullshit.

Some cannot read it. They evidently do the best they can, but their best is extremely weak. It’s clear they made an effort, but they don’t recognize what part of the content represents the significant points. What they produce as a summary is incoherent, jumbled, and utterly confused.

Some can and do read it well. For those classmates, the whole exercise is a waste of time, because they would have read the assignment without having it force-fed to them.

It is a gigantic time-suck for me. A gigantic, tedious time-suck. Even after cutting the number of chapter readings from 13 to 11, reading all that garbage is a time-suck that won’t quit.

Exacerbating said basic fact is that I have to front-load the course with a passel of the things, because the students need to have read a fair amount of the book’s content before they begin to write their first assignment. To do that while also giving them enough time between writing assignments to do the required research, in some weeks I have to assign two or three annoying busywork projects, which means I have to read two or three of them.

At one point this semester, three sets of them hit the server at the same time. Each section has 22 classmates. Well.

22 x 2 x 3 = 132 mind-numbing pieces of drivel to read!

Even though I don’t assess them on the basis of writing skills — all I’m doing is looking at them to see if they seem to have actually read the assigned chapter — that alone takes time. Clickety-clickety-clickety-clicking to get into their assignment takes time. Reading it takes time. Entering a score and a brief comment takes time. If the work appears to be wanting, entering a reason for the low score takes even more time.

Consider: if each upload takes only two minutes to read, on average, those 132 papers consumed 4.40 hours of my weekend — more than half a day that I could have been doing higher-paid work for my clients, or, far more important in my book, simply enjoying life.

In reality, enough of them score less than the possible 15 points to push the average download/read/comment/upload time to as much as five minutes apiece. In that case…

132 papers x 5 minutes reading time / 60 min. per hour = 11 hours!

Think of that: ELEVEN HOURS diddled away on an exercise whose purpose is to make lazy or weak students do the most basic work in a mickey-mouse freshman course, a job that ought to be a given for college-level students.

As I was plodding through this pile of crap, I decided I am never gonna do this again!

Well, I can’t very well have them just turn in three papers and be done with it. That would, alas, not be pedagogically sound, and if the department found me pulling a stunt like that, I would forthwith be canned. Much as I could do without the crass exploitation of adjunct teaching, as a practical matter the piddling pay is just enough to keep the proverbial wolf from the door. And speaking of doors, I’d just as soon not spend my time greeting Walmart shoppers.

Enter Canvas, with its easy-to-use true/false-multiple-guess quiz function, much easier and faster and saner than Blackboard’s.

On reflection, I took it into my hot little brain to convert all eleven reading reviews to T/F-MG’s.

Four chapters remain for the present herd to read this semester, so I sent out an announcement deep-sixing the RRs, and then as fast as I could, wrote and posted four quizzes to replace the defunct synopsis/application scribbles.

The problem is, this also is a painfully time-consuming task. About two-thirds of the chapters require fifteen questions to cover the content in anything resembling a thorough, vaguely meaningful way. For three of them, which cover craft and are short, I can get away with asking five questions.

Sifting through one of the more complex, longer chapters and coming up with machine-gradable questions that require the student to do more than rest her eyes on a line of the text’s type and yet are free of ambiguity is no easy trick. It takes upwards of two hours to cook up each of these quizzes, and then getting it into Canvas takes another 40 minutes.

As far as I can tell, Canvas creates an answer bank based on unpublished quizzes, but so far I haven’t managed to find a question bank. The answers in the answer bank don’t seem to appear in any organized way — or if there’s a pattern, as yet it has escaped me. So rather than scrolling through hundreds of random answers, it’s easier and faster to copy and paste both the questions and the answers out of Word. FOR EACH SECTION!

This activity, as you can imagine, is brain-bangingly tedious: copying four to six answers, line by line by line by line by line by line by line…holy God!

Whereas you can copy a whole course from one Canvas shell into the other, you apparently can’t copy one feature from course A to course B, at least not if course B is actively online. I thought there was such a function, but no amount of searching the manual and Google revealed it.

The only thing that keeps me going is the hope that once it’s over, it will bring a permanent end to having to ride herd on anything so stupid as forcing them to read the damn textbook.

To ameliorate the effects of the publisher’s infuriating habit of issuing new, scrambled editions every couple of years by way of maximizing opportunities to fleece the students with new textbooks, I have not tied the titles of the quizzes to chapters. Instead, they cover subject areas. Since the Seyler text, which is the one we’re required to use, is anything but original in its organization, approach, or content, there’s a good chance that, say, a discussion of Aristotelian rhetorical terms will be the same whether they appear in this year’s chapter 4 or next year’s chapter 6. This, I hope, will minimize the need to shuffle questions around every time the greedy bastards come out with a new edition.

Once all eleven quizzes are online, I’ll never have to read another piece of busywork again, and with any luck I’ll never have to write any new quizzes.

Canvas will give classmates three chances and keep their highest score, and it will let them peek at the answers as they go. So the thing will work like one of those aggravating “tests” you have to take for driver re-education after you get caught on a traffic camera, by making you go over and over a question until you get it right. To the extent that such an annoying strategy has a teaching function, then, we could possibly argue that these quizzes actually serve a pedagogical purpose: students will have to at least look at the text’s contents to get anywhere on the quiz, and they’ll at least have a shot at directing their attention to the points in the text that matter.

So I’m putting myself through a great deal of suffering and tedium to avoid even more suffering and tedium in future semesters.

Hope it works!

Selling It: The Term Paper Vendor

Of interest: A message that will soon  be posted to the vast crowds who inhabit my online freshman comp courses this semester. Feel free to pass it along to your own students.

Here’s something that you should know about.  The e-mail below came in to my large, monetized blog.

From: Elizabeth Moss
Request for Guest Posting at
Date: January 29, 2015 3:33:51 AM MST
Reply-To: Elizabeth Moss

I am looking for some blogs that accept guest posts. I am working with an organization that supports students in the academics. I would like to write for blogs and wish to get it published. Your blog looks good and I loved the way you have maintained it. I would like to write on any topic that suits your blog. If you are interested in guest post by me, please let me know it.

Also I need to have one link from your blog to my website,, either in the content or in author bio.

Looking forward to the reply.


Elizabeth Moss

What “Elizabeth” (undoubtedly not her or his real name) wants is to submit a paid guest post that will contain what is known as a “paid link.” The link, which I’ve redacted here, is to an outfit that provides term papers in exchange for cash.

“Elizabeth” is a low-level freelance writer who works for outfits that do black-hat SEO: they use questionable strategies to raise the visibility of a website in Google searches. Most of these strategies violate Google’s terms of service; Google deploys bots that seek out paid links, and when one appears, Google will simply drop the offending site from its search results. If you have a money-making site, this will destroy your business.

Buying paid links is a very sleazy practice, especially when you pretend that all you’re trying to do is publish a guest post for the purpose of publishing your innocent little site. But when you go to the link she wants to post, you find her client is a term paper vendor: they hire bottom-feeders like “Elizabeth” to write papers for students, for a stiff fee.

Don’t buy term papers from creeps like this – or from anyone else. What they produce is garbage. You may get a C on such a paper, but that is not worth what you will pay for the thing, and it certainly is not worth compromising your personal integrity.

Notice that this writer is not a native speaker of English. S/he is probably Eastern European: “supports students in the academics” is a dead give-away. And “to write for blogs and wish to get it published” would not be literate in any language.

What you get when you pay for one of these things is bad writing. Often the same content has been sold to someone else, making it vulnerable to TurnItIn’s software. That in turn makes you vulnerable to a failing grade in the course. Some schools go so far as to expel students for cheating of this nature.

Funny about Money does not publish black-hat SEO (at least, not knowingly). Normally I forward requests like this to my advertising agent, who either finds a way to extract a substantial amount of money in exchange for something that will fly past Google’s radar or tells the solicitor to go away. In this case, I told “Elizabeth” to take a flying *** at the moon.

That’s exactly what you should do if you are ever approached by a vendor who tries to sell you a term paper.

MORE Teaching? Have I lost my mind?

Well, yeah. Just about.

Sometimes the nearly dream job leaves one imagining adjunct teaching is a good deal.

Dunno about that. But just now am thinking two more sections, paid at university rates, would trade off x(y+z) amount of sh!twork for a mere x amount, leaving time for at least a few hours of creative work a week.

At the rate I’m going, spending eight or nine hours a day in the dreariest kind of scutwork that crowds out that many hours of paying work, I’m sure not getting time to do what I want to do: write.

Free me, Lord!

Every now and again…

Every now and again you get a student, even in a  junior-college class, who is SO good and SUCH a type-A doobie that you want to fall to your knees and kiss the ground beneath the desk on which the kid does homework.

I suppose it’s those classmates who keep you going.

The other day, a straight-A student from the online 102 section emailed me, having worked herself up to a fine frenzy. Some unnamed family problems have distracted her from working on the final, giant research paper, and now she knew she wouldn’t be able to do her best on it. In fact, she was afraid it would be pretty half-baked. Would I please bear in mind that she didn’t MEAN to turn in a half-baked paper?

So I wrote back: Don’t worry about it, kid.

The subtext, never articulated of course, was Kid! You write circles around even the best of your colleagues in this course. Enter your name at the top of the file and turn in the rest of it blank, and you’ll still pass.

She’s not assuaged. Shortly comes another worried message: Would I try to estimate what her final score would be if she flunks the paper?

This is easy enough: there’s only one more graded paper due, plus an extra-credit exercise.

I toss 60 points into the column for the final nightmare paper, figuring a D is about as low as this one is capable of going. This puts her final score in the mid-C range.

Then I remember that it’s a 200-point assignment. So I double the ordinary D to the D on steroids, 120 points. Now she comes out with a semester grade of around 85%.

Got that? This kid could fail the final paper ABYSMALLY and still score a firm C in the course. A D-minus on the main product would give her a solid B for the semester.

That’s because she’s turned in every assignment; she’s done every busywork project conscientiously enough to get full credit; and she’s managed high A’s for the two required 750-word research papers.

If you’re reasonably verbal, scoring a high A on one of these little projects is not very hard. Though I have a pretty thorough-going set of rubrics that cover all the District’s desired skill sets and then some, I keep the points-off values pretty low for fine details like spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Otherwise, half the class would fail.

The community colleges are awash in students from low-SES K-12 schools and native speakers of languages other than English. Many of them have never written a researched document (or, as far as one can tell, many documents of any kind) and can barely eke out a coherent paragraph. My job is not to flunk these people. My job is to foster success, and so I lay more emphasis, by far, on organization, logical thinking, and research skills than on stylistic details. You can get a B on a paper that is adequately researched, correctly cited and documented, structured logically and convincingly, and free of fallacies, factual errors, plagiarism, and general stupidity — and never mind whether you can make your verbs agree with your subjects.

Still, as easy as it seems for those of us who are reasonably verbal (the types who spend their spare time writing blog posts, for example…), a good third to half of these students have a difficult time cranking out a halfway decent paper. Most of them fail to turn in a fair number of the small assignments whose unannounced purpose is to provide them with enough points to pass the course even if they CAN’T spell their own names.

You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve seen this semester:

750 words presented in one paragraph (hey! one paper, one paragraph, eh?)
Papers that don’t even come close to fitting the assignment, transparent reboots of essays turned in for other courses
A paper copied and pasted, whole cloth, from an open-source textbook
Another paper from the same student, who is one who can barely spell her own name, evidently written by a hired term-paper hack
Content so illiterate you can’t figure out what its author meant to say
Reading reviews that show no indication that the author even looked at the passages under review
Paper after paper that does not address the assignment at all, but rather reviews a different chapter from the one specified (if it’s “reading review #4,” it MUST be about chapter 4, right?)

And on and on.

And there you have it: the reason an adjunct flies into an orgasmic flight when one student shows she can write all of 2½ double-spaced pages coherently and with stylistic accuracy and, of all things, even manages to address all (not some) of the assignments competently.

Every now and again, you get one of those.


Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education

The other day, I called my gynecologist’s office to ask if she could recommend a plastic surgeon with whom I might consult about a proposed mastectomy (the breast issue is being dealt with at the Mayo Clinic; my gynecologist, one of the rare doctors whom I happen to trust, is “in the wild”: i.e., not with the Mayo). After considerable jabber with the telephone gate-keeper, I explained for the third time that it looked like I was going to have to have a mastectomy, that I do not want reconstruction, that my surgeon is pressuring me for reconstruction, and that I’d like to consult with a plastic surgeon who is not with the Mayo.

“Is that a pelvic procedure?” the young-sounding woman asked.

“No, dear,” I said, unwittingly condescending in my astonishment — was I speaking with a child? “They’re going to chop my boob off.”

“Oh,” she said. After the briefest of pauses, she resumed: “How do you spell that?”

You have got to be one of my students, I thought.

Back-office staff in doctors’ offices usually have at least an AA. Many have the BA. This, then, presumably was a college graduate who wondered if a mastectomy is a pelvic procedure.

Think of that.

Well, what I think is that this is yet another result of short-changing the educational system.

The practice of replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts is also a consequence of short-changing the educational system. And in my opinion the outcome is exactly what we see here: young people who are so ill-educated they’re not fit to be sitting at a desk in an office.

Many adjunct faculty, of course, are dedicated and highly competent. Many are not: we’re not paid to be either dedicated or especially competent. At pay rates that work out to less than minimum wage after grading and course prep are factored in — especially in writing-intensive face-to-face courses — we have more incentive to cut corners and rubber-stamp students along than we do to spend extra hours tutoring kids whose vocabulary is at the middle-school level. With no office space, no phone, no campus-based computer, and often not so much as a locker to hang a jacket in, we are simply not equipped to deliver real teaching to students who need extra attention. Or to any students, in my opinion.

The community colleges are awash in students who need real teaching. Yet the community colleges hire the lion’s share of adjuncts — at my district, for example, now the largest in the country, 80 percent of the faculty is adjunct.

Colleges and universities short-change employees and students for a simple reason: increasingly legislatures short-change education.

When education is shorted, as this case vividly demonstrates, business is shorted.

When business is shorted, America is shorted.

There is simply no way a US industry can compete in the global economy when employees can’t even define or spell the names of the industry’s services and products.

That’s why the issue of adjunct hiring is a business problem. It’s not just an education problem. It’s not just the problem of a few legions of PhD’s and MA’s who were foolish enough to pursue advanced degrees in the humanities (and in psychology, and in anthropology, and in art, and in music, and in the STEM disciplines…). It is America’s problem.

And it’s a very serious problem.

After three books, one of them a best-seller, emitted through mainline publishers, my first effort at self-publishing has gone live at Amazon! Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education describes the predicament of America’s large and growing contingent faculty and shows what it is like to spend a semester in a classroom as an adjunct.

I hope you’ll take time to buy it and to recommend it to your business, community, and political leaders.


College Students: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

If you are attending a college or university or if you have a child in college, you need to read this book.

As a college student, or as a student’s parent, you face endless tuition increases. Do you know what that tuition is buying — and not buying?

Some 80% of college instructors are not professors at all, but underpaid, often underqualified part-time adjuncts. Fewer and fewer American students get what they pay for when they arrive on a college campus. Meanwhile, graduate programs churn out thousands of would-be college faculty with master’s and doctoral degrees, few of whom ever land full-time jobs in education.

Quality of higher education drops as full-time faculty disappear and are replaced by part-timers with no infrastructure, low pay, no benefits, and no representation.

This book explains the short- and long-term effects of replacing professors with part-timers and chronicles one adjunct’s semester in America’s largest community college district.

Online Progress, Online Updates

We’re about two-thirds of the way through this semester’s online Eng. 102 course and a week or so into the online magazine writing course, Eng. 235.

Feeling pretty pleased with the 235s. One of them is exceptionally talented, a clear writer, thorough, and well organized. The rest are doing OK. Judging by the first three scores, several of them surely will ace the course and the rest will score decent grades, assuming they turn in all the papers.

Of course, therein lies the problem with community college courses, especially those presented online: typically a third to half of them will drop before the term ends. Many who drop would do all right if they could hang in there, but for one reason or another they either have to drop (economic or family pressures) or choose to do so (discouragement, distraction, changes of plan).

One of the 235s has failed to submit any of the three assignments. Three refrained from sending in the first significant assignment, thereby dropping 100 points. That’s four of the twelve enrolled students: a third of them in danger of failing or withdrawing.

Of the 102s, nineteen of the original twenty-one are still on the roll. One has turned in three of the thirteen assignments due so far; one is missing five of the assignments; one is missing four. Still, only one is actually flunking, because the course has so many assignments, most of which are low-value scores. If eighteen of twenty-one students are still  hanging in there, with only one major assignment and three busyworks (out of 12) coming due, that is not bad at all.

Another challenge, of course, arises from our students’ often weak academic skills. Some show up in the second-semester freshman comp course with reading skills so weak they don’t seem to be able to parse out the instructions for how to do an assignment, and you wonder how on earth they managed to get through the first semester. One suspects, especially in the cases of those who’ve tried several times, that they retake the course until they encounter some instructor who takes pity on them.

Two of the 102s’ three essays have come in. One student demonstrated remedial-level skills on the first assignment and then submitted an example of perfectly idiomatic and smoothly edited prose: copied and pasted straight from the Internet. Presumably that also is a way some of them get through 101. :-D

Some of them simply don’t read. Whether it’s because they can’t read is unclear. They must be able to limp through the required assessment tests and remedial courses, so evidently they can comprehend written language at some level. In some cases, I’ve observed, the person shows that she or he understands the meaning of a word in isolation, but when the term is placed in context can’t figure out how it relates to the other words or statements around it.

How exactly that happens is a mystery to me. Possibly the present generation of students is being taught to parse meaning first by memorizing a word’s definition and then by deducing the the rest of the sentence’s sense. That’s how they’re behaving. If it’s so, then it’s exactly the opposite of the way we were taught to interpret meaning, back in the Dark Ages when most kids came out of grammar school with a fair degree of literacy. We learned to guess meaning by context. Sometimes we got it wrong, and if we didn’t come from a higher-SES family we often got the pronunciation wrong (you don’t even want to know how I thought “Beethoven” was pronounced!). But most of the time we figured it out.

Too many of the classmates who come my way can’t figure it out on their own. And that’s worrisome.

Oh well. I can’t solve the problems of the world. The best I can do is try to help the present flock make its way through the courses and hope they somehow manage once they get out into the world.

Some of these students should be in face-to-face sections. But from my own point of view, I can’t see ever teaching in the classroom again, unless it’s for a very short-form summer session. With all the surgery I’ve had — four since the end of last June — if I’d had to show up on the campus this semester, I would  have lost my job.

Such as it is.

The online format has made it possible for me to run two sections in spite of repeated surgeries that have disrupted my business and my daily life. The piddling pay for the courses has kept the Mayo Clinic from completely draining my checking account.

Next semester the journalism program’s director wants to drop the magazine writing course’s textbook, which is like all textbooks absurdly overpriced, and replace its content with readings on the Internet.

That will pose a problem, because it’s going to involve a lot of work. And if I end up undergoing more surgery during the winter break, a distinct possibility, I can’t even begin to imagine how I’m going to find the time and energy to rewrite the entire course using a scattering of websites to undergird the content. It’s going to be a real bitch.

STEM Grads: Welcome to the World of Exploitation!

So you were kicking yourself for pursuing that Ph.D. in humanities, just because it was a subject that made you passionate and that you thought you could excel in and maybe even make a real contribution to knowledge-building, teaching, and all that? Well, move over, pal, and make room for your colleagues from STEM.

Yeah, that would be the ones we’re told we need so many more of.

Turns out we’ve got a glut of those, too. Or maybe not so much a glut as simply a failure of will on the part of the body politick and corporate leadership to fund basic research. NPR recently ran a piece titled When Scientists Give Up, whose author detailed the failure of funding in the hard sciences and the consequent exit of scientists fed up with living on grad-student wages. One man, a tenure-track bioscientist at UC whose career path included Johns Hopkins(!) and Penn State and who has published in tier-one journals, threw it all over to buy a small-town grocery store. Another, a UC Berkeley Ph.D., is starting a distillery.

This article has generated three hundred and fifty-two responses.  Overall the tenor echoes the sound of the humanities adjunct: the groan of those who are screwed, shafted, and living in poverty.

I was generating $3 million a year in billable services working in an IVF laboratory and I was begging them for a raise to go from $36K to $38K! No 401K and no pension and no overtime. We used to sneak into pharma lunches and pick off the stale food to avoid paying for dinner in the cafeteria! I had to fight to get them to pay for me to go to our annual scientific meetings so I could stay current. The job demanded 60+ hours a week, but because I was salary, I was “exempt” from labor laws. I was driving a 1979 Plymouth Horizon with 250K miles on it and repairing it in my spare time when it broke down. (I can now change an alternator in less than an hour!) 10 years later I had nothing saved, couldn’t afford a downpayment on a house and I gave up- I had to do something to get out from under the education debt. i couldn’t get a night’s sleep. Sales was nearly as demanding for time and urgency, we were expendable, but it certainly paid better. Later, when I worked in pharma sales- I’d order extra food so the lab techs could have something to eat. –Geraldine Merola

I have a Ph.D. from an ivy league university with more than 30 years working in academic (and some corporate) research. The US government invested millions of dollars training me and funding my research. I had to quit doing scientific research when I could no longer get any funding for my research laboratory, my own salary, and salaries for my assistants. I think the current glut of biomedical PhDs chasing (and failing to obtain) stagnant research dollars will have a chilling effect on US science for decades to come. That’s okay, there are plenty of other countries funding cutting edge biomedical research–we can just wait for them to publish their latest research. (Oh, you don’t read Chinese? too bad.) –Jen Jones

I am at the interface of life sciences and engineering. When I get enthusiastic young undergrads wanting to talk about research careers, I tell them the truth — Unless you go to the best schools working for the best professors and then still get very lucky, you will be bagging groceries when you are done and have wasted your entire 20s in the lab. If it wasn’t for a few personal connections, I would have never landed the tenure-track job I have now because I don’t have an undergrade at Ivy School A, a PhD from Ivy School B, and a postdoc at Ivy School C. The game is rigged and in a world of limited research money, it comes down to both luck and connections.

I need two PhDs for tenure consideration, but once I have tenure I will probably never train another PhD student. I won’t set up any more students to enter a world where their PhD is a burden to their careers and a waste of their time. –Mark99

It goes on and on like this. Overall the gist is that, like graduates in the humanities and social sciences, young STEM grads also find themselves unable to earn a living in the fields for which they spent years training — and for which the US taxpayer spent millions of dollars per student to train.

Once again we’re brought back to a thought I’ve posed elsewhere: that if we as a nation will not fund jobs for the best and the brightest, than we must legislate to prevent our young people’s exploitation. And that means federal and state quotas on the number of Ph.D. graduates any given university may have enrolled in any given year. Funding should depend on matching that quota: exceed it, and the institution is no longer eligible for taxpayer dollars.

That represents the easiest and the fastest way to bring a stop to the merciless abuse of graduate students and young doctorates. If you’re going to end up running a grocery store anyway, you might as well get started on it before you waste your time in graduate school.


Prof to Students: Hold the e-mails?

Recently reposted an article from Inside Higher Education  that described Salem College Assistant Professor Spring-Serenity Duvall’s decision, arrived at after some lengthy and thoughtful consideration, to strictly limit student e-mails. Her policy: no e-mails unless you’re scheduling an in-person meeting. One exception: they were allowed to send her content relevant to the course.

She then provided plenty of office-hours time for meetings, and also agreed to meet classmates outside of office hours if necessary to fit their schedules.

The results:

a) She managed to silence the nonstop barrage of emails begging her to reiterate the syllabus content 15 ways from Sunday, reporting that a student or an assignment would be late, and communicating the various whinges to which students are subject.

b) Students started showing up for class better prepared.

c) Students’ papers were better.

d) And a vast Time-Suck went away.

I like it.

It is, of course, workable only for face-to-face classes, and only for full-time faculty who actually have offices in which to hold office hours. As an adjunct who is paid only for the number of hours I stand in front of a classroom, I’m not about to sit around the campus library for two or three unpaid hours a week (or more) waiting for students to wander in as they wish, nor do I think it is wise to discuss academic issues with students in a public place. And of course because I’m now teaching exclusively online, the only way to communicate with my bunch is by e-mail or through announcements.

However, if you’re real faculty with a real infrastructure, it’s a brilliant idea.

The vast online proprietary schools raise e-mail tyranny to the institutional level: faculty are often required to send e-mails to every student in a class at least once or twice a week, and also required to respond to student e-mails within a set amount of time.

Duvall notes that most student e-mails ask questions whose answers are on the syllabus. They don’t bother to read it, or they don’t take time to figure out what it means.

That certainly is true. Every semester at least one student asks me to reiterate, in detail, an assignment that I’ve already explained, with all the clarity that I can muster, on my syllabus and again on my assignment sheet. And a third time in Canvas, come to think of it.

This semester it came to my attention that students truly do not understand the content of syllabi and assignment sheets.

Unknown to me, the college had switched to the 11th edition of our textbook. My syllabus was keyed to the 10th edition. The only difference between the 10th and the 11th editions was the selection of post-chapter readings. The content of the chapters themselves was unchanged.

To persuade classmates to read the book, I ask them to turn in “reading reviews” synopsizing the chapters and applying the principles therein to one of the related readings.

Well, when they saw the page numbers didn’t correspond and some of the essays had been changed, they freaked.

I had to find the 11th edition’s table of contents on-line and then write them a new list of reading reviews.

Soon, reviews were coming in…reviews of the wrong chapters.

They couldn’t figure out that I was not asking them to read the chapters in order from 1 to 14. Stubbornly, they stuck to their conviction that reading review 3 must cover chapter 3, when in fact it covers chapter 14.

Some of the material that appears later in the book is important for their success on the first paper. They need to read chapter 14 now, not two weeks before the semester ends.

Their confusion, we can see, was a result of not reading closely. They don’t read  carefully because they barely read at all. Some have surprisingly low comprehension levels.

I suspect, too, they don’t read closely because they’ve become so accustomed to getting information through video channels that the act of reading feels clumsy for them. Look at the local news websites: recently they’ve trended toward removing written articles from their pages altogether. The only way you can get the sentence or two of reporting that interests you is to sit through a tedious, often frothy blabathon delivered by a talking head.

Personally, I find it far easier and faster to read a news article than to have it read to me. But that’s a function of fluent reading. If you’re not a fluent reader, you want someone to read to you. And when one comes down to it, that’s not an efficient way to absorb information.

At any rate, expecting them to read the syllabus may be asking a bit much, because many of them don’t read and can’t read, at least not very effectively or comfortably.

Still. If a ban on e-mails would force them to at least try, that would be an improvement.

Another semester, another 30 challenges

Just got the assessment scores for this fall’s online Eng. 102 section. These tell you how your new students did on the various reading, writing, and math tests they’re subjected to, and also what remedial and regular courses they’ve taken and their grades in those courses. When you see these things, you realize why so many community college students never make it even to the AA, and what an unholy challenge it is to bring a large body of low-SES students up to par.

I forget where I read it — saw it just recently — but studies show the single most accurate predictor of academic success (or lack of it) is socioeconomic status. Poverty breeds failure in school. For a variety of reasons, of course: broken families, parents who themselves are uneducated and so have no academic cultural capital to pass to their kids, hungry children, abused children, children growing up inundated in violence, poor medical care, substandard ghetto schools, kids having to work to support themselves or to help support their families, unwed mothers, and on and on.

Heavenly Gardens Community College is far from the lowest-SES school where I’ve taught. But it has its share of classmates who come from working-class or true poverty-level backgrounds. Most of these are bright young men and women: they’re smart, they’re usually hard-working, and they would not be here if they didn’t want to get ahead.

At this age, of course, the “hard-working” part works against them: many have to work so hard at surviving, there’s no time or energy left to succeed in college courses. Some are very smart, but not sophisticated in an academic way and so are stymied by the cultural barriers we erect around higher education.

And I’m afraid that often our well-intentioned efforts to break down those barriers and help them get ahead just make things harder for them. Here’s some poor soul who has taken a barrage of fifteen assessment tests in math, writing and language! Imagine the stress and frustration…heaven help us.

 Of thirty classmates, five have taken one remedial course; three have taken two remedial courses, one has assayed five remedial courses. That’s almost a third of the students.

Understand that each of these things delays the student by a semester, or at least by a summer session. Think of the sheer persistence entailed in sitting through five of them!

Not to be outdone in the persistence department, four people enrolled in Eng. 101 twice, one person enrolled three times before passing, and another four times. Three people have tried twice before this semester to pass Eng. 102, and one rugged soul has made five runs at this course.

So, a fifth of the classmates had to make more than one try to pass first-semester composition, a course that requires nothing more than four short essays. And more than a tenth have tried to pass the present course more than once.

I’ve said before that attrition rates in a typical Heavenly Gardens course can run as high as 30% to 50%.  If half of these folks drop — which I sincerely hope they do not — only fifteen of them will make it through their two required freshman comp courses. Little wonder that so few of our students, especially those who need remediation, ever make it all the way to a diploma.

The Blackboardization of Canvas?

Ugh! I hate the new gradebook in Canvas. They’ve gooped up what used to be a simple, easy interface by adding new layers of nuisance pointing-and-clicking…just like Blackboard.

It used to be that when you finished grading a paper in Word (I use Word’s track changes to show edits and enter comments), you could go to the appropriate cell in the grading spreadsheet, click on it, enter the grade, and straightaway upload the graded paper as an attachment. That was fast and easy.

You had an option of using the Speedgrader pane, which allows you to read the paper in Canvas but which does not offer the kind of sophisticated mark-up you can do in Track Changes — all you can do is enter comments, which means instead of showing a student where an apostrophe should go, you would have to write out an explanation: “Enter an apostrophe before the ‘s’ to make this possessive.” Right. We’ve all got lots of time to do that over and over and over again…

In the old Canvas grade sheet, you didn’t have to do that. Now, though, to enter a grade and upload a file, you HAVE to click through to Speedgrader, even if you don’t use it.

Consider what this does to your workload.

1. Click on the cell for the student’s assignment
2. Click again to go to Speedgrader
3. Enter student’s grade
4. Enter a message to the student
5. Click to upload file
6. Navigate to file
7. Select file
8. Upload file
9. Submit grade and attachment

Nine actions for every grade; that would be 225 mind-numbing actions for any given class with an enrollment of 25.

Something similar happens when you copy a course into a Canvas shell and then go to change the due dates to fit the new semester. Just to change a date…

1. Open an assignment
2. Select “options”
3. On the calendar icon, click through the months from the spring semester’s due date to the fall semester’s due date: that’s 5 clicks
4. Do the same for the “make available” date: 5 more clicks
5. Do the same for the “make unavailable” date: 5 more clicks
6. Click “Update”

The English 102 section I just prepped for the fall semester asks students to write 11 “reading reviews,” 3 full-length papers, and two extra credit projects, for a total of 16  assignments to enter in the course shell.

16 assignments x 18 steps = 288 mind-numbing steps

And all you’re doing is inscribing the new due dates in the website. It doesn’t include writing the weekly announcement, posting dates for those (16 weeks x 6 clicks per announcement = another 96 steps!).

It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking about 384 steps — assuming you don’t make an error and have to back up and do something over again — it gets to be quite time-consuming. And I use the term “mind-numbing” advisedly.

That doesn’t include writing the required 26-page syllabus with the required redundant calendar of due dates that repeats the list of assignments with their descriptions and due dates. It doesn’t include sitting down with a hard-copy calendar and figuring out when these things should come due. It doesn’t include designing the assignments in the first place, or writing and posting t he auxiliary course materials, or writing and posting the rubrics.

All of it is free labor. Adjuncts at my school are not paid for course prep and grading. We’re paid solely for our presence in the classroom.

The syllabus writing and the assignment design and the calendar-juggling, of course, can’t be blamed on Canvas or on Blackboard. But the clumsy, unnecessary web design that requires click after click after click of everyone, even those who desire not to use x or y feature, certainly can be. Especially since we’ve seen, in an earlier version, that said frantic clicking is unnecessary.

Guys! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!