Monday, December 24, 2007

Grading Stinks

A mere observation that for all my meritocratic tendencies, my admitted elitist snobbery, I hate to give grades to students in some classes. There is a point where "pass/fail" starts to make some sense. If a class is outside a student's major, and is meant to develop mastery of basic skill, would it be so bad to simply "pass" students?

I wonder if English would not benefit from being about mastery instead of a grade?

Or, is there a reason to keep issuing grades? People are judged in real life and an education should prepare students for their future professional existences.

I'm torn because I think most of my students did okay this semester. I would have little trouble giving more than the eight "A" grades I did record. However, there is also an argument that with a points system clearly established a student earns his or her grade. I do not "give" grades — they are earned by students. To give everyone the same grade is to diminish the extraordinary efforts of a few special students.

I see two sides to this issue and have no good answer.

Part of me likes grades because some students do deserve special recognition. The other part of me would limit grades and such to those courses essential to a student's future career. I don't care if my doctor got a "B" in an art history class! Really, it isn't a big deal. But if the art historian was a "B" or "C" student in art history... then I care.

There were a few students to whom I wish I could have "given" better grades this semester. The reality is that they didn't earn those better grades when compared to their very hard-working peers.

That is life. Ouch.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Filled Classes

The particular writing course I am scheduled to teach in the Spring 2008 semester is filled. Not merely my section, but every section of the course is filled.

This situation is appalling. The university tuition, fees, and miscellaneous costs are estimated at over $20,000/year for undergraduates. That means the education costs $80,000 or more for students — even more when you calculate how many of these students must use loans to pay for the education.
How can the price of education keep rising faster than inflation... when less and less is offered to students?
Tuition pays for approximately 67% of the cost of instruction at the University of Minnesota. The state of Minnesota pays approximately $4,277 of the average cost for full-time students." - from
The money is going somewhere.

Tuition, not including fees and other curious charges is $305.77 per credit for undergraduates.

I teach a 4-unit course, with 22 students. Class is held twice a week, for 70 minutes (give or take), so close to 2.5 hours. There are 14 weeks of class (spring break and other events remove two sessions of class and we don't give a final in a writing course), for a total time of 35 hours. Assuming my math is correct, a single class collects: $26,908 in tuition. That's $768 per hour of class time!

Sure, if I were a full-time, salaried instructor, I'd cost the university at least three times the tuition of a single class. But, at the early stages of a career, I'd be teaching "3-2" or even "3-3" (five or six courses a year).

Fees cover a lot thing beyond the price of tuition. Course fees per semester (
Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow (optional)2.98
Council of College Boards0.87
Graduate and Professional Student Assembly12.47
International Student Aid Fee (assessed to all students who hold nonimmigrant visas)12.00
International Student Fee (assessed to all international students for orientation and advising)75.00
Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (optional)3.45
Minnesota Student Association2.56
Stadium Fee 12.50
Student Health Benefit Plan782.00
Student Health Beneft Plan/Academic Health Center Students1008.00
Transportation fee16.00

You get the idea... a lot of money is being collected from students. Add the money from the state and you get a budget that is either impressive or troubling, or both. Of course, the university is also seeking bonds to cover "shortfalls" in maintenance and construction.

Some things to ponder. For what the budget is, there is no excuse to not meet the needs of general education enrollment. If we are going to require English, math, science, and other topics, the university must offer the course space to students.

It is time to examine the budget and make some changes. (Of course, as an English instructor, I'd make a claim that writing and reading are basic skills, while some majors and courses should be left to private or specialized universities.)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The End is Near

Already the end of a semester is here. I'm stunned, of course, but they do seem to go by quickly.

Some general observations on this semester versus previous experiences:

1) I still prefer creative writing to academic writing. Dry academic writing will never be my thing, but I also appreciate the need for formal genres of writing. If I do become a full-time professor at any point in my life, I would rather teach "The Rhetoric of Fiction" (see the book by the same title, Wayne C. Booth) or "The Rhetoric of Dramatic Writing" than the rules of the MLA and APA.

2) I am increasingly worried that my doctoral work and the degree will limit my opportunities to teach what I want to teach... unless I get something creative published every few years.

3) My students offered some great feedback this semester. They would rather learn to use the tools of business writing than write memos again and again. I agree! I've written about this elsewhere (see Tech Skills). Learning to use Word, InDesign, and similar tools to create documents is more valuable than trying to teach juniors and seniors the dying form of the memo. Yes, memos will live on via e-mail, but the form is already evolving.

Maybe none of this matters. I might get lucky and sit around writing scripts, essays, and lecturing from time-to-time. I love teaching, but I would go insane teaching academic forms year after year after year. I need more opportunities for creativity.