Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day 46+2 (Round II) "In the trenches" (palpable relief edition)

Palpable sense of (mostly) relief growing all up in this joint: last day of finals, many kids are done, and a whole raft of them have split their exams and come direct to the Barnes & Noble to sell back their books. This is something I never understood, maybe just because my undergraduate / graduate experiences were (in terms of topics, anyway) remarkably positive: I wound up having to take almost no classes in topics I didn't care about or want to retain expertise regarding. Returning textbooks always felt a little bit like selling an instrument: in both cases, something I had been to a lot of effort and (usually) cost to acquire was never going to be as easy to acquire a second time, and selling it off was never going to net me the same cash, not to mention effort, I had expended in acquiring it in the first place. So why would I sell them back? Sure, they're costly (my rant about the rapacity of publishers who keep their lists afloat by inflating the costs of required textbooks is for another day), and I certainly was fortunate in the topics I was "required" to take--which I would have already been studying on my own, in most cases. Selling back textbooks was nearly as painful, for me, as selling off an instrument--which was in turn nearly as painful (and as pointless, for me), for me, as removing a tattoo. I've done the first the most and the last the least, but it's never pleasant.

I can understand that for large bodies of undergrads, though, the textbooks for their required Arts & Humanities core requirements are just weighty and frustrating reminders of informational experiences they were "forced" to sit through--and that selling-back the textbook provides an at least ephemeral sense of vindication and release.

Release is palpable, though, as I say: most of them have turned in as much as they're going to turn in for assignments, the last round of exams (4:30-7pm today) is coming up, and they're are most of them undergoing that virtually-instantaneous transition from stressed-to-the-max cramming for final obligations to utter-abandon escape from campus, town, stress, and adult responsibilities...and a headlong flight back to Mom's couch, kitchen, fridge, washing machine, and general womb-like coddling.

I'm not a huge fan of this undergraduate "boom-and-bust" mentality; or, more accurately, this attitude of "blow off shit for weeks at a time, don't go to class if you can get away with it, prioritize parties/sex as THE principal reason for attending college at all, cram/cheat in large pods all night long in advance of the major exams, cram/chat/study-group in large pods for multiple nights in advance of the final exam, write any projects in large pods in the last 4 hours before they are due, show up late to the final, whine about how 'unfair' it is that you're not getting the full exam period, run away from the exam room after, run to the bookstore to sell-back all your books, run to your apartment, cram a giant laundry bag for Mom to wash, stop at the campus bookstore to buy 6,000-7,000 empty calories of caffeine, sugar, nitrates, and Red Dye #3 to get you through a (highly dangerous to others) marathon drive home, crash on the couch, turn off your brain until 12 hours before your first class, drive like a bat-out-of-hell to get there." Lather, rinse, repeat.

No, I am not a fan of this. Not only because I think it's infantile, self-indulgent, engenders a mercantile and dishonest attitude about the experience. But even more (most of all) because it cheapens what college can be for candidates with the right aptitudes, goals, and determination. College can be a time to vastly widen your horizons: of possibilities, bodies of knowledge and skill, ranges of experience and personal values, career options--and then to learn of the existence of horizons beyond those horizons. Kids who spend their time careening from disregard to panic to adrenaline-fueled-testing to sloth, and then lather/rinse/repeat, are in no way equipped to experience any of this expansion: when you're perpetually in panic mode, you can't think straight, much less far. If I could cancel the existence of Final Exams, and have grades assigned entirely on the basis of attendance, weekly assignments, and participation, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Of course I can't--but I move as close to that as I can. In the case of a class of 100 freshmen--who are only marginally more adult than 12-year-olds--repetition, consistent order, regular assessment, rigorous deadlines, incremental presentation of material, etc, all make each kid remarkably labor-intensive.

At the end of this fall semester, I will have seen probably 15 assignments--and given each an at-least cursory grade--for each of those 100 kids. By the end of the semester, coupling those regular assessments with attendance records and my own empirical/subjective impression of engagement and participation in the classroom, I have a pretty damned accurate sense of each kid's engagement, level of prior preparation, and investment in the process. So the extensive, extensive quantitative evaluation--all those numerical values--exists primarily so that I can check my impressions (they're hardly subjective, because in fact they're based upon the sum total of all the data about each kid, which I'm carrying in my head). Those impressions are not numerical or arithemetical, but after 8 years of teaching here--and 15 years teaching elsewhere--I use the numerical valuations of the spreadsheets primarily to confirm, or occasionally to contradict, my "subjective" impressions. Mostly they are remarkably consistent with one another--and when they're not, I'm very glad to have to numbers to correct my own bias. And, of course, the presence of the numbers gives me the "evidence" I need to defend a grading decision in the unlikely event of somebody's would-be-litigator Daddy decided he doesn't like the kid's grade that Daddy "paid for."

Hasn't happened yet, though.

[updated to add] 8pm, and the last of the finals are done. Data entry is complete, and grades for all are actually figured. I won't upload the grades for the 100 freshmen just yet, though: as a colleague puts it, "let 'em get home to Mom, sleep late, eat home-cooking, do their laundry, and then calm the fuck down--before they see the grade. That way, they're a lot less likely to object purely on the basis of panic." Good advice.

Below the jump: nasty-ass Blue Norther front blowing through; mercury's dropping.

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