Friday, September 28, 2012


This is one of those, "Maybe it's just me" things. Or maybe it's one of those "Death of a thousand papercuts" things.

I get really annoyed when students don't bother to staple their homework, their essays, whatever. When they just come in and drop a pile of papers with that crummy foldover corner thing on my desk. Or, worse, they ask: "Do you have a stapler?"

My "desk" in the classroom is an open-topped table. If there is not a stapler on it, I do not have a stapler. And I usually wear dresses to class that have no pockets, so it's not like I'm going to be able to reach into a pocket and pull out a stapler. And I do not carry a briefcase, purse, or backpack to class: it's me, the textbook, my notes, and chalk!

So, no, no, I DON'T have a stapler.

(On the last teaching day of my teaching life? I may well wind up responding, "Hang on, let me pull one out of my ASS" to the student. Because really? There is nowhere on my person I could have a stapler and that's pretty clear).

I know people who refuse to accept papers that are unstapled. And I can see the CYA aspect of it: "Wait, you didn't get the last page of my paper where I made all my brilliant conclusions? WHY, YOU MUST HAVE LOST IT! I deserve a better grade for your sloppiness as a teacher!"

But I can't quite bring myself to take up that fight. Because it would be a fight. And I'd have to deal with the students who whined about it. Or who said, "But just this one time? I couldn't find a stapler" or "My stapler broke" or who knows what.

(I tried bringing staplers and leaving them in the rooms. They were gone within three days. I refuse to be the supplier of staplers to whoever is taking them.)

But the thing is, this is just one of those modern-world problems: Is it really so unreasonable of me to ask that students staple their papers? Some of them act like it is. But then I have to make sure I keep them all together, get them back to my office, staple them's one of those things, like cleaning glassware: if each student in my lab cleans their own glassware at the end of lab, it takes each person MAYBE three or five minutes to do it. But if they leave it all (and worse, if they leave it all on the bench...or they wash it but do a cruddy job and I have to redo it), I may be stuck there for 30 minutes or more washing glassware. (We do not have a TA budget for TAs to be paid to do such things).

It's a question of, are you willing to put yourself out a little bit so you don't put out the other person in a bigger way? And what's even more: by not washing glassware, you are putting out your teacher - someone with more experience and authority than you are. You are saying, effectively, "I consider you to be equivalent to my servant, because I am expecting you to do the menial tasks I could just as well do myself."

I think that's what really gets me, especially with the dirty-glassware-left-behind bit. It's an attitude of entitlement - the students know I don't have a TA, they know that Custodial doesn't handle working with they know that if they leave it, it's on me to do.

I finally broke down this year and told them, "If I see a group leaving glassware behind, five points off for EVERYONE in the group. (And I saved back the "nuclear option" - that if there was LOTS of messy glassware, I'd penalize everyone). That seemed to do it, but golly, I shouldn't have to either threaten or bribe my students to keep a shared lab clean!

Also, and I think I've noted this before: the students who have small staplers they carry with them to use to staple their papers tend to earn very high grades. The students who go and seek out a stapler on their own (for example, going to the computer lab, where one is chained to the front desk) generally are people who earn good grades. But often, the people who don't staple their papers and act like it's my job to do so, their grades are not so good. Not because of the staples: I don't grade people down for not stapling. But not bothering to staple your papers is indicative sometimes of a lack of attention, a lack of caring, in other areas: it's related to the idea that the students with the best attendance usually earn the best grades.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The news-radio station I listen to occasionally has a feature where a pastor of one of the large churches in that city comes in to talk about stuff. (One thing about living in the south: people will go on even not-religiously-oriented radio stations and talk about God, and not be concerned about people complaining).

Anyway, I liked his message for today. Because it made me feel better about my life.

He was talking about passion. And he pointed out that the same root word for passion in Greek (? I think it was Greek, maybe it was Latin) is also a word for suffering. And that people who are passionate about what they are doing sometimes "suffer" - maybe not suffer in this country in the sense that, oh, the Coptic Christians or Iranian Christians suffer for their faith - but that there is some element of sacrifice.

And he noted: if you're passionate about your work, you will make those sacrifices. You will come in early and leave late, you will do more than other people do, you will not just go the extra mile, but the extra second, third, and fourth mile.

And I kind of saw myself in that: granted, I probably don't work as hard as SOME on this campus, but I do know I sacrifice more of my time for teaching and student service than some people do. (I've had students tell me that: that I'm more willing to work with them, I'm more willing to provide help outside of class, than some faculty in other departments). That if you care, you're willing to make those sacrifices.

And, despite my regular bitching about the entitled Snowflakes of the world, I do care. (In fact, I think part of the reason I bitch so much is that I care: I see how they could be better, how they're really smart enough to do the work, if they could just get over being lazy)

And I think that's the root of something that distresses me about some of the students: I see what I perceive as a lack of passion in them. They don't give a dang! To them, coming to class is like, I don't know, going to stock the shelves at the Wal-Mart - it's not something they care about, they know there is some sort of potential future reward (a paycheck at Wal-Mart, a good job with a good degree), but rather than doing their best to be their best while waiting for that reward, they just kind of drift through. And while I can see that that might be okay - and perhaps even in some cases, sanity-saving, if you're working a routine job with little chance of advancement - it doesn't work when you're a college student. Because a lot of what you get out of college is based on what you put in to it. And if you're unwilling to put forth some effort and make some sacrifices - well, you might as well go submit that application to Wal-Mart. But if you want something better, you learn to defer gratification and do what NEEDS to be done, so at some future time you can do what you WANT to do.

And I see students who have problems with this. Who ask for test make-ups because they planned a vacation for the week of an exam. Or who ask for an "excused absence" so they can go wait on line for the new iPhone. Or to miss an early morning class so they can go to the midnight premier of a movie.

And I guess I see all of those things as stuff you really should defer if you're a student (or be willing to put up with the consequences: I have also known people who were up well past midnight who came to my morning classes the next day).

And I'm not saying to ALWAYS defer everything fun that makes you happy - heck, I schedule some weekends that I can be "off" working on teaching, grading, or research, so I can go antiquing, or read a good book, or go meet up with a friend who lives some distance away and hang out with them. But I'm not asking for time off work to do that, and I'm scheduling the work I must do so that I have the free time to do that.

And I admit, a lot of the time, when I do that kind of thing - when I put my work first, or put the responsibilities I have at church first - I start to feel a little sad. And I get to wondering, "Am I just an old fart who puts too much emphasis on being responsible?" Because our society, all too often these days, seems to either sweep up after the people who are irresponsible (often at the expense of the responsible ones) or actually encourages dropping responsibilities in favor of "fun."

And I am not made that way. I cannot slack off on what I know needs to get done and go off and have fun.

And hearing the pastor say that it was because of passion for what we do that we make these sacrifices - of time, of money, of sometimes doing what WE want to do - and that that is a good thing. And he made a comment about how it means you're going out and tackling what God has put before you this day. And I have to admit, a lot of the time I find it hard in my working life to think of myself as doing what God wants me to do....but maybe I am. Maybe by teaching students to calculate standard deviations, or teaching them about disease transmission, or helping them to learn how to do research - that's what I'm supposed to do, and maybe something I will do will help someone in the up and coming generation to become a great doctor, or a great medical researcher, or someone who will make some kind of discovery that will help us to have an energy source that is inexpensive and allows us to decouple our unhealthy relationship with countries that hate us....

it's just a hard thing to remember when you're mired in the situation of dealing with students who want to do the bare minimum to get by.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Student percentages (and a ramble)

I know I gripe a lot about the "special snowflake" students, but really, they're few in number. (But like any vocal minority, they sure make themselves heard). The really horrible people - the demanding, entitled ones - are maybe 5 to 10  percent of the population. And then there's maybe 20%-30% who are really only in college for that piece of paper that's "supposed" to get them a job  (Good luck with that, in this economy).

But then there's 10-30% (if you're lucky, 30%) who really do care. Who want to learn, who are willing to work hard, who listen when you critique their work because they have learned that constructive criticism - all that red ink - is how they get better over time. (I try to be kind. I don't, unlike another prof I know, write "WTF????" on a paper if it doesn't make sense to me. But I do tell them if the writing is awkward, if they've used the wrong word, if they are not supporting their argument well, if they have taken the lazy way out of doing the research....and I would hope that they would realize Not To Do That next time.

And a certain percentage of them do.

And there is a percentage of students who, even if they're not going to go into high-powered careers where they do lots of groundbreaking research, they're decent people. They're nice. I have a few students who always wish me a good day at the end of class, and you know, it makes a difference.

It so much makes a difference. I make an effort myself to be polite to the students (even as I may be critiquing their work strongly) and I make an effort to "see the person." Sometimes I fail at that; I find it harder with the people who are demanding not to just write off their behavior as "They've been given everything all through their lives and now they expect it." Of course it's possible some people are insecure, some didn't get enough love and care as a child, some are having a hard time adjusting to adult life...but sometimes it's hard to see that. (And some people really do try to take whatever they can get without working for it in this life).

A lot of my "nice" students are the Fish and Wildlife guys. Many of them come from more humble backgrounds than our pre-meds do - at least, that is the sense I get. However, though they may come from financially humble backgrounds, by and large, they are wealthy in one big way: They seem to have good relationships with their families. A lot of them talk about going fishing with their grand-dads, or getting together with extended family for meals, or going to their niece's or nephew's birthday parties. And I think that connection really DOES matter. I think college-aged students who interact a lot with people of different generations (especially older generations) often have a sense of perspective and community that the students who are only surrounded by other 18 year olds do.

I know I was a better person than I might have been when I was in college, because I attended church. And I felt like I NEEDED to attend church. It was good sometimes to talk with people older than myself who were NOT just my professors, who had a different perspective on life. I know these days I need to get out of the hothouse atmosphere of the campus on a regular basis - when someone like me spends too much time immersed in what goes on on campus, things get stretched out of proportion. Things that are really small in the grand scheme of things seem HUGE, because you are looking at them from such a close and tight perspective.

So it's often a relief to go to church, or go out to lunch with a couple of friends from church, or go do something with someone not affiliated with the university. To get my head out of my work for a while.

Sometimes I think that the way school and especially college is set up may stunt young people a little bit, by making most of their interaction with their own-aged peers. Maybe I'm prejudiced in that; I didn't like my peers much when I was a kid (I was one of those little kids with the invisible-to-anyone-but-the-bullies tattoo that said "Tease me. I cry easily. It's fun.") I have to admit, even today, I often have more in common with people 15 or 20 years my senior than I do with my own-aged peers....the women from church I prefer to hang out with are mostly in their 60s; most of the ones in my own age group (with one big exception,  and she is a friend of mine) are SO wrapped up in their kids' lives that they don't seem to have time for much else. And I suppose that's fine, it's just...there's a point I think where you become too wrapped up in living through your kid.

So I don't know. I think people do interact better when they have a range of ages around. I am not sure why but I have that sense. I don't know if it's the perspective of the older people, or if there is still some vestige of respect-for-elders that cuts down on the "Lord of the Flies" aspect, or what it is....but it seems to me that people act better and are kinder when they don't just interact with their own peer group.

And so, as I said, I get maybe 20% or so of the students who won't set the world on fire, who have decent but not outstanding grades - but they're good people. And I'd rather work with people who are basically kind and decent, if not hotshots, than with people who can earn top grades but do so while being jerks to the other kids in the class, and also sometimes the prof.

The older I get, the more I find that basic human kindness can trump skill or talent.  (The Scripture for this morning's sermon was the famous chapter 13 of First Corinthians. Again, the older I get, the more I see the truth to that. And the speaker made the point that the word used for "love" there translates poorly into English, that the word really used is "Agape," which is a sense of love we don't always seem to have much of in our society....)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Friday can't come soon enough.


 Dammit, freaking special snowflakes. The people who have been coddled all their damn lives, who have never been told to "man up" and do something, who have always had someone swooping in to rescue them.

They can go pound sand. They can go soak their heads. They can go fall off a log. They can take a long walk off a short pier. They can go pee up a rope.

I'm so farging sick of them. I have two GIANT snowflakes in two different classes this year and they are driving me BATTY.

What really gets me? When I need a little help, when I need a little slack cut for me, do I get it? NO.

One of the snowflakes actually called me up to berate me for not putting the material up on BlackBoard sooner. Please. I had a fricking STOMACH VIRUS. I was NOT WELL. The material was delayed two hours relative to when it was normally up.

And yet, if that person forgets to bring their assignment to class? It's all "Oooh, can I bring it next class meeting?"

Guess what, honey: NO. No you can't. And I'm making that rule special for you.

Ricki's first rule, again: Don't piss off the person who is grading you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I don't care either

A lot is being made of Romney's comment that he allegedly doesn't care about the people that are more interested in what they can take from the government than in what they can do for themselves.

You know what? To be honest, I don't care about the "takers," either. I deal with "takers" - not the kind Romney referenced, but still "takers" - on a daily basis. Some of them are people who sit on their butts and complain about the volunteer efforts you are doing, how you are not doing enough for them, without ever becoming involved themselves. We recently lost a family from church who complained that the youth program wasn't "good enough" and that there were no youth Sunday school teachers.

And yet, when they were asked to assist....they always said "No." And a lot of the time, they didn't even show up for youth group.

And I see takers all the time among my students. I have one now: e-mailed me two late papers expecting I'd cheerfully grade them. Or people who think they can skip lab and then I'll set it back up, just for them, so they don't lose those points.

And I see takers among some of the faculty - who refuse to do committeework, who insist on schedules where they have certain days free, even if that means their colleagues get hit with crappy schedules or extra committee work. 

Okay, I have to admit: I DO care about the elderly poor, the people who need a hand up in their lives (but I think a hand up, getting them able to work for themselves, is preferable to having them dependent all their lives). I care about kids whose parents don't seem to give a crap about them. Though I would argue we should as much take care of these people through NGOs and faith groups as we do with tax dollars: it seems to me that smaller, more localized groups are more efficient at getting help where it's needed than a giant bureaucracy is.

But the kinds of takers who sit on their butts and complain because the free cookies are oatmeal instead of chocolate chip? I'm done with them.

Friday, September 14, 2012

When they outlaw soda, only outlaws will drink soda....

I bet every nannystater politician in the nation is rubbing their hands together over the NYC decision to ban restaurants from selling big sugared drinks, and planning what they can manipulate next.

Two things:

First and foremost: It's the individual's responsibility to learn about nutrition and health and to apply that knowledge to their life. And also, to decide what risks they're willing to take. I THINK most Americans over the age of reason know that soda isn't good for you in mass quantities. How "bad" it is, depends a bit on who you ask - I've heard some people that claim that even one sip of HFCS sets you immediately on the path to Diabetes and other problems...and other, more logical sorts, who observe that if you drink a big gulp once a month or even once a week, but not more frequently, and you're a person of normal activity levels, you're probably OK.

(Side note: I've seen a number of studies recently suggesting that inactivity has a lot more to do with poor health than diet. And they controlled for false correlations there - that it's not just that unwell people are inactive; it's that the skinny couch potato is probably set up for worse future health than their stockier cousin who works out, or who at least WALKS regularly)

I don't care that much for soda so I don't really drink it. I don't buy it (I think I have part of a 12-pack of 7-up in the house that I bought six or seven years ago when I had some stomach thing and thought lemon-lime soda might make me feel better. I should probably get rid of it; it's probably not good any more). I might, once or twice a month, get a sugared drink if I go out for a meal - though these days, I'm more likely to get a flavored tea, which at the places that make it right, has less sugar in it than most sweet teas or most sodas. If I feel comfortable making a special request, I'll ask for half sweet tea, half plain - because sweet-sweet tea is too sweet for me. Or I'll get plain and add a little sugar at the table.

But it's up to each person. Because everyone is different. I can happily live without soda, but if I were told "No more dark chocolate" (unless it was something that was, like, giving me an allergic reaction), I'd be angry and sad. I'll use the calories I don't expend on soda for my dark chocolate, thanks.

But that's the problem with statism: it's too easy to apply blanket solutions that might fit a few people, but will be bad for many.

I expect the next thing NYC will go after may be greasy meats. You know, bacon double cheeseburgers. Whoa, too much fat! Too much protein! Gotta ration people down! And so, you'll see places pushed to sell "junior" hamburgers instead - with only lettuce, onion, and tomato as toppings.

Second, and subsidiary: This is not going to have an appreciable effect on obesity, or childhood obesity, or whatever it is the politicians are claiming to "protect" the populace from. Because people will find ways around the law - they always do. Order 2 medium drinks instead of one large. Go to a convenience store or somewhere that can still sell the big drinks (Like any government ruling, there are carve-outs and exemptions....just like with the healthcare mandate). And at that, really, how much do sugared drinks affect an ordinary person's diet? If a person is drinking biggie drinks they are likely making other food choices that will negatively affect their health.

I expect, though, it will be some years down the line that we'll hear a "huh, obesity didn't go down after the big-drinks ban" and it will either be on page 32 of the newspaper, in small type, or it will be used as a push to promote banning/rationing/regulating some other foodstuff.

(And big milkshakes aren't banned. Nor are artificially sweetened drinks, and I admit that I am unconvinced that aspartame is safe....there are anecdotal reports of it causing migraines in some and possibly short-term memory issues in people who consume a lot of it).

So, this is just kind of full of fail. But expect to see more of it, because the government loves to find "problems" that they can "solve."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chicago teachers on strike.

Someone who has more time to read  and analyze, please tell me I heard this wrong:

Chicago teachers earn on average $75K a year, and are demanding a 35% pay increase??

That can't be the only reason (please) that they'd strike.

(Edited to add: apparently they're also upset over some of the evaluation measures used for teachers. Well, I don't know. I get evaluated every semester, I have to write a long report every year summarizing my teaching evaluation results, my scholarly productivity (grants and publications), and my service (committeework, stuff like judging science fairs). I think some kind of evaluation is necessary and again, most everyone I know has some kind of "annual review" in their career where they either get told "keep on keepin' on" (as I tend to hear) or "You need to step it up in these areas....")

I make less than they make, and I am a college teacher of demonstrable quality (nominated for an award, have students coming back from grad school thanking me for the preparation I gave them, high teaching evals). Of course, I also don't have to live in Chicago, but still: demanding a 35% raise, when most people in the working world haven't seen raises for five years or more, seems kind of rich.

(I was over the moon when I was promoted and got a 5% raise due to that promotion)

In my career, I would be less likely to raise objections (we are not unionized so we cannot legally strike) over money; it would be more likely over working conditions. For example, if they made the blanket expectation that everyone would teach night classes. (Or if they did that, but exempted the people with children). Or if they doubled our loads without telling us or giving us time to discuss. Or if they abolished tenure. (I know lots of people hate tenure, but I'd hate having to reapply for my job every three years and wonder if they were looking for a way to get rid of me and bring in someone younger and cheaper. They probably wouldn't, for the reasons I stated in the paragraph above, but still, I get paranoid. Also, there's a history at some schools of going the "flavor of the month" with the sciences, so you get a department stacked full of nanobiology specialists and nary a taxonomist to be found....and then suddenly you need someone who can do taxonomy, but all the taxonomists went off to other careers....)

But still. Striking over wanting that kind of pay raise (especially considering the median income in Chicago is something like $45K - yes, there are lots of rich folk on the Gold Coast, but there are also a lot of middle and working class people, and I bet the rich folk are the ones relying on private schools) just blows my mind.

Then again, if you expect people to be logical, you will be eternally disappointed.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Thoughts on college and employment

One of the statistics recently being tossed around is how few recent college graduates actually have jobs in their field of study.

And while I completely understand that few businesses are hiring...there are other issues at play, perhaps.

I think many of us in academia have heard employers bemoaning how they have to "train" the college graduates - not just "train" them in specific things, like maybe the particular software the business uses, but "train" them in communication and basic math and even sometimes "responsibility" (like: show up to work on time). And yeah, perhaps some of those are cases where we (collectively) have failed our graduates, by allowing them out into the workforce without an adequate weeding process.

But there's another thing happening. I've seen it on my campus. Recently, we had a BGS instituted. Meaning, Bachelor of General Studies. Lots of schools have these; Michigan had one as an option back in the day when I went there. (And oh, how snobbish we biologists were! We laughed at the "pink tassel" people - at graduation, people who earned a B.S. had a gold tassel on their mortarboard, people who earned a B.A. had a white tassel, but B.G.S. had a pink tassel. We called 'em the 7-11 manager wannabees, and I don't mean that in the Joe Biden sense.)

Don't get me wrong: a person can do a "good" B.G.S. If a student wants some kind of unusual interdisciplinary major that is not offered on their campus, they can use the B.G.S. as a way of setting up their own interdisciplinary major. But, the reason the Pink Tassel Kids got their reputation, was that a lot of people doing a BGS used it as....well, another derogatory term we used was the "Choose Your Own Adventure major" (kids who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s will remember that series of books. Usually you wound up making the wrong choice and dying...).  The students who took that major often did it to make a "lite" version of some other major, so they didn't have to take the "hard" classes.

And unfortunately, that seems to be happening here. I heard both a chem prof and someone from math bemoaning that they've lost majors from their department to BGS, when those majors learned about some of the advanced classes they would be expected to take, either as Chem or Math majors. And I've heard of people in other majors doing it to avoid some of the writing-intensive classes.

And here's the thing: if you choose the "soft" way through, if you avoid some forms of preparation, and you're in a bad job market, you're going to lose out to the guy who decided to take the tough classes.

I will say I think BGS does need some reform: don't do away with it completely, because there are those people who have a really unusual plan of what they want to do, and it's a solid plan, it's just a major that doesn't currently exist as a defined major. But don't let people use it as a soft-armchair option for college. Or at least make them sign a paper certifying they won't bitch about their "valueless" degree when they can't get a job.

Sadly, I don't think that will happen. There's even a push here for a "three-year plan" BGS....where a lot of the classes are 8 week classes and are presumably a bit watered down. And that displeases me. What we DON'T need is an underclass of people who look college-educated but really aren't. What we need in this country is people who are willing to work hard....and options for people who want to do that work but maybe don't want or need college.What I don't want to see is us become some kind of training facility for the Future Telemarketers of America.

So, just as some people have a hard time finding a job....I think there are also employers out there who are having a hard time finding "ready" employees: people who are ready to work, who are ready to do what writing is required of them, who are ready to do the hard things.