Sunday, November 28, 2010

Death By 1000 Questions, A Rant

Tomorrow I go back to work.  Like most of us who have been off for the holiday weekend, I'm dreading and loathing when the alarm goes off in the morning.  I hesitate to write about work, one reason being my tenure-track status.  I've just had some issues the past two semesters that I'm at a loss about how to solve.

I am really struggling with how needy my students are, and how to try to set boundaries with them, and how to try to teach them what behavior is appropriate, when I'm just utterly exhausted by the whole thing.  I don't remember my students being this way - or maybe, to this extent - at my former institution.  It's wearing me down to the point that I'm seriously reconsidering if being a college professor is what I really want to do with my life, when before I've always been convinced that this is my Life Calling.

I write policies in my syllabus, and they still come to me and ask.  I don't allow makeups on quizzes.  It says so, they see that I don't let other students do it.  But still they come and ask, and force me to say no.  It seems innocuous.  They try, hoping maybe I'll give in once.  What's the harm?  But when you have 100 students, and you end up having to say no 100 times, it's bothersome.

I explain to students that I have 10 minutes between lecture and lab.  This is not enough time to erase the board, shut down the Powerpoint and eject my thumb drive, and make it to the lab in time to begin there if I also have to answer questions.  I can understand you don't want to hang around for office hours.  I understand it's "easier".  But when I'm trying to focus on what I'm doing, and you ask me an asanine unrelated question, I'm going to suggest that you email me or come to office hours, that I don't have time to discuss it with you right then.  You've seen me say that countless times already this semester (try EVERY CLASS).

But these things make me feel bad. 

A student comes up saying "hey, my kid is sick, can I have your permission to stay for Wednesday's lab instead of today?"  It shouldn't be a problem for me.  Am I letting them do it or not?  If I don't, I feel like I'm being unreasonable.  But what if it's a lab exam, and I say yes, then I end up with 10 of them making excuses and asking the same question.  Do I say yes to a person whose kid is sick, when I've been there too?  Or do I say no because it's not one individual person.  Do I use them as "an example" so the rest of them don't ask?  And feel guilt in my heart about it?  (Hint: don't ask me in front of the whole class and it changes my dilemma.)

It's not that the request is unreasonable.  It's just that there's one of me, and 100 of them, and if I let them, I'll die a slow painful death one bite at a time.

From a student's perspective - what's 10 minutes of a professor's time?  From the professor's perspective: that's 17 extra hours a week if every one of my students wants 10 minutes of my time.

From a student's perspective - she's got a kid, she should understand.  From the professor's perspective - (a) I can accommodate no more than 2 or 3 makeups in the second lab exam.  Who do I choose?  The first three that come to me, the three with the best stories, the three that are crying, the three that sound reasonable, the three that are making good grades, the three that I trust?  And (b) all of this is taking time.  And usually time between lecture and lab when I don't have time to make these evaluations.  (Again, if you're in this situation, EMAIL is better.)

So I either say yes to that-and-all-the-other-requests-that-follow, which creates a logistical problem to be solved in the second lab exam with too many people, or I say no and feel bad about it.

And that's the root of it.  I can enforce policy with the best of them.  Then I feel like a heartless bitch.  But the first exception I make, and it snowballs.

Tenure plays into the thought process, although I don't like to admit that.  I'm up for tenure and promotion to Full Professor in two and a half years.  I need student evaluations that show excellence in teaching.  Every moment, I'm wondering if I piss off this student, will they write a bad evaluation.  If I enforce my policies effectively, will my evaluations say that I'm a heartless bitch.  If I say yes to this student, and make endless accommodations for them, will my evaluations reflect that I'm an understanding teacher?

It's endless.  "Are you going to give a study guide?  How many questions are going to be on the test?  Can you tell me what I need to get on the final to pass your class?  Are you going to give a study guide?  How much is each question going to be worth on the lab final?  Will there be extra credit?"

Little bites.  Tiny bites.  By this point in the semester, there is nothing of me left.  And I have two weeks to go.

Notice I'm not complaining about the number of students showing up to ask questions about content, or legitimate course questions.  Noone is asking "hey, can you help me understand hydrogen bonds here" they're asking "can you let me take a test late" or "are all the slides from the whole semester going to be on the cumulative lab final."  (Side note:  I have never met a group of people this large that all seemed confused on the definition of "cumulative/comprehensive lab final".  That's a separate rant.)

I am actually looking for suggestions.  Any professors have effective strategies for the Death By 1000 Questions problem?  Anyone else have thoughts on how I can effectively answer or deflect inappropriate or inappropriately timed questions.  Hint: mentioning repeatedly that I don't really have time to answer questions between lecture and lab only quells the onslaught for a class or two.  I've tried that one.  Also, yes it's in my syllabus, yes I've explained why, yes I've been late to lab and cut time off their lab quiz because of it.

Keeping in mind that I do want get tenure in 2013, rather than a terminal contract.  I think.


Esperanza said...

I loved this post, because I'm a middle school teacher and I go back to work for the first time since my daughter was born tomorrow morning and when I get there, I will start dying a death by a 1000 questions too. Man, I would have thought they'd get better by college, but I guess not. Your students sound just like mine!

The one thing I do, is I have a place where the information that usually are asking about is located and when they ask, I just point to it. I don't know if that would work for you, if you could have up a poster with the answers to the questions people usually ask and literally just point to it, but it helps me a lot. When they know I won't talk to them about it, they usually start going to the information first, before asking me. If they do ask something that is not up there I make a sign that says, when I have time. They know this sign, I teach it to them. I also have transition times when they may not speak to me. I tell them before they start a task that I will not be available to answer questions for 3 minutes. If they come up before that 3 minutes happens I just put up my hand. I also stand still for that 3 minutes, just watching them. That is an important part, because if you're working they feel like that means they can interrupt you, but if you're just standing there watching them as they are supposed to get started, they actually get started.

Again, I don't know if any of this is relevant to you, but it's what I do with my middle schoolers. Good luck!

Laraf123 said...

I teach middle school too! I know you are looking for professors to chime in but I have to say this all sounds eerily familiar to my experiences. Except that it's the parents who are killing me with questions. Multiple emails each day. Meetings, extended conferences and phone calls. I send a weekly update and keep my webpage (with ALL the answers to their stupid questions) current daily. WTF?
And yes, when it's one parent and 5-10 minutes at a pop, it doesn't seem like it should but it does ADD UP!

MommieV said...

Thank you guys so much for the perspective. I hadn't even thought about it being an issue at the middle school level. I thought it was just because I'm at an open access community college where the students have high expectations placed on them (often for the first time) and have no idea how to react. I didn't realize how "exclusive" I sounded asking for advice from other professors, I just didn't realize it was such a pervasive feeling.

E - I'm sorry that I didn't realize it was your first day back! I haven't been keeping up on my blogs! Good luck to you today. Tears are normal. They stop eventually.

Selkie Mom said...

I teach high school and run into the same problems. One thing that helped me was being proactive with FAQs - I am sure you have a detailed syllabus but maybe also include FAQs you received from previous years. This way you can say - look at your syllabus. Don't answer the question if it is on the syllabus so they start looking for the answer themselves. The other thing is to give them a weekly feedback form to fill out at the end of class - they can ask questions or tell you if they are confused. I place a section in it that makes my students tell me when they are going to find the info whether it is on their own, peers or during office hours. I would also have a detailed website that you can also refer them too. be consitent and you won't feel overwhelmed with questions. I know how frustrating it is when the kids could do their own research and find the answer.

As far as tenure, I agree you want to show that you have rigor in your class but that you are also a good teacher. Providing opportunities for feedback and communication will always look good for you. And giving them a structured way to do this will help you all. It has helped me so much so that now I can enjoy being a teacher without feeling like a babysitter. Not everyday is perfect but the best thing about kids/young adults is that evryday is a new day.

Serifm said...

It's not just the community college level. I've heard this from friends who teach in low income high schools and Ivy League colleges. Teachers are being pestered. to. death. The best thing you can do for your students is to be consistent, whatever you decide. If you aren't consistent, they HAVE to keep asking questions because they never know if you mean what you say. It encourages them to keep doing the very thing you hate.

My favorite high school teacher had a real problem with bodily functions. She had a hard and fast rule that if you bled, vomited or farted in her class (and she caught you) you'd be suspended. We all kind of thought she was joking...until she proved she wasn't. She suspended a kid who was fooling around with a compass and stabbed himself. She was hardcore, but she was consistent. And we loved her.

Jet Harrington said...

I am right there with you, V. The comments above say great things, about being consistent, about INSISTING on your transition time, about having resources you can point them to (sometimes literally).

Students do not need you to be their friend - they need you to be their professor. They are learning chemistry from you, but they are also learning how to BE in the world, how to find the answers they need, what resources they can trust, WHO they can trust. They will respect you if you are consistent with them. Even if you are a hard-ass about some things - sometimes especially if you are a hard-ass about things - you will be well-liked teacher if they respect you. Well, and if they learn something.

These same things apply to parenting - being consistent, supporting w/o being a helicopter, giving opportunities for success by creating an environment with room to learn and grow.

Sounds like you are doing a great job figuring out what boundaries are important to YOU and now the task is to communicate those boundaries clearly to your students. You won't hurt your chances at tenure by being professional, clear, and consistent. Good luck!