succumbing to peer pressure

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"First home work shoud be performed under guidance of the instructor."

I'm just going to finally give in and do one big post bitching about my students and then I can stop subjecting all my friends to my rant and (hopefully) can blog about something else for a while. I'll start with a couple of caveates - yes, I realize that in my school there are many international and non-traditional students who may be having a totally separate set of difficulties. yes, I realize this is merely the vocal minority of students. With a class of 300+ there are going to be whiners and they do not in any way represent the whole. Nevertheless, they are wearing down my soul.

Example #1 - the above quote, taken directly from a student's response to the optional questions on their homework assignment (approximately how many hours did this assignment take to complete and did the lab adequately prepare you to complete the assignment?) I'm sorry, you want your teacher to hold your hand and walk you through the homework assignment? Just exactly how old are you? (keep in mind these are graduate students)

Example #2 - several complaints about not knowing a program had already been written to complete their homework; for this first time around literally all they had to do was run the program and interpret the output. I'm sorry, you missed the two different places on the class website where you could download the program and the line in the homework instructions that said, the program to complete this assignment is located on the R drive... AND the numerous e-mails and bulletin board postings regarding the program?

Example #3 - I had to read ahead in the lab notebook to complete the extra credit problem, no fair! Well, no shit sherlock. That would be why the instructions to the extra credit problem said, we encourage you to read the next section in the lab notebook prior to attending next week's lab. On pages whatever to whatever we discuss the data step, do this simple example to gain some extra credit points and verify that you did the reading!

Example #4 - you said to enter percentages as a number between 0 and 100, I thought that meant to round to a whole number! Well, no, decimals are still numbers, and although whole numbers are also numbers, 'number' does not necessarily imply whole number.

Example #5 - what are the rules for rounding? Wha?!

Example #6 - There are too many documents posted on the class website, it was too hard to find the rights ones. Note - the website is organized thusly: under a tab called "Assignments" there are documents called "HW 1," "HW 1 - word doc," "HW1 program," "HW 2," and "HW 2 - word doc." Yes, of course, I see why that was so incredibly difficult to figure out. I'll post the rosetta stone for my crazy organizational system next time.

Bah. I don't want to be mean and bitter. I just feel two strong themes emerging - 1) oh my gosh, math and computers are so hard and so scary I am destined to fail! AAAAAAA!!!! immediate panic. Well, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm sorry that math is so incredibly poorly taught around the country, I'm sorry if you have some traumatic math experience in your past. But you are a graduate student now, and try, just for 30 seconds, to leave your mind open to the possibility that not only can you do this, but you will be provided with the tools necessary to succeed in this class. and 2) oh my gosh, this is a math class and it's going to be impossible and all the profs and TAs are going to be mean and out to get me, so I'm justified in whining and expecting a level of hand-holding that I would never ask for in any other class.

Lastly, many of their complaints are justified. They are being asked to use a pretty crappy online system to enter their homework answers, they are being asked to enter those answers in a pretty anal-retentive way, and they are going to get answers wrong if they don't follow those anal-retentive instructions. They're right. That's frustrating and time consuming. But a) I don't see a better solution available for grading 300+ weekly assignments, b) shouldn't graduate students be able to follow directions, even annoying, anal-retentive ones? and c) when they do inevitably miss a question because they enter 3.4 instead of 3.41, can't they get over it, since in the grand scheme of things that one missed question accounts for 2 out of a total of 1,000 points?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

And then there was a ray of sunshine

So I'm plugging along, grading homework assignments, when right there, in the blank space for the extra credit problem, is a little personal note to me! One of my former students [Tom] must know one of my current students, and got him to leave a little note for him in the online form (ok, so it was actually a slightly vulgar reference to the time that one of his friends [matt] drunkenly (and inappropriately) confessed that he [matt] sometimes thinks about me while masturbating*. it goes with the female-geek territory). But still, it was well timed and brought a much-needed smile to my face. (my day actually got worse this morning - I had been comforting myself about the snarky student comments with the idea that my department knew I was doing a good job, then first thing today two professors made snarky comments! bah!)

*that sounds worse than it is. inappopriate or not, it actually became more of a way to make fun of matt than some sort of offensive reference to me. Oh yeah, and I teach grad students, so we're all approximately the same age. the note actually went like this - Megan - how many little soldiers have to die for you!? love, tom

Also, this is my 1,000th post. Ta-Da!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

BLARG! So, I'm a grader for all 300+ students in the intro bios lab. Which means that I spent the summer translating paper homework assignments to online forms, and setting up datasets and programs and generally trying to get the online site up and running so that things would run relatively smoothly once the semester started. Students should be able to complete their homework assignments and submit them online, and the online system should even grade them for me (!). Of course, there are problems. I knew there would be, everyone knew there would be, no matter how many times you vet something or try to think of every possibility, you're going to miss something. It's fine. I'm doing my job, everyone who matters knows I'm doing my job. And yet...and yet I feel all this responsibility, because I know how frustrated these poor students are right now and how much they're probably cursing my name because of technical difficulties. And it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if these students don't like me and don't understand the work that's been going on or why things are all fucked up now...but I feel tremendous guilt and responsibility anyway. Blarg, I say.

Monday, September 11, 2006

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No, he's not mine (thank goodness! though he is just about the best behaved little kid I've ever seen). Just seemed like the appropriate heading for this statement: two of my friends are pregnant! In both cases, it's a good thing (stable married folk, intended, etc.). I weathered the friends-getting-married stage pretty well, but always assumed the friends-having-kids stage would freak me out. So far, not so much. Though this particular set of couples makes it easier on me - I've only ever known the four of them as marrieds. I think were any of my friends whom I've known from singledom to married to start procreating, I may start feeling a bit old. Maybe this will be a nice way to ease into the idea. I do feel badly for one of my friends though - though the pregnancy itself is a happy occasion, she's been having a pretty rough first trimester, and has been so sick she hasn't even been able to muster up much excitement! Poor thing! It doesn't help that her sister is pregnant right along with her and is so far breezing her way through the experience. Ah, sibling rivalry. The other couple includes my friend Brian, from Case, who's all adorable and excited about dad-hood.

(the pic above is from my Sunday spent as kickball fan. for more action shots, go here)

Why I blog*

Holy shit! Epiphany! I blog because this is the one place where I really give myself permission to be an unrestrained nerd. Ok, I claim to have embraced my nerdiness, but frankly, that's only in the realm of statistics. I am a statistician, and so I have 'permission' to be smart and enthusiastic and dorky about math stuff. But, and I think this is one of the reasons this blog so often covers non-math topics, I pretty regularly reign in my interest in and excitement about other 'dork' topics.

Pretty much all smart people, somewhere along the line, learn that it's inappropriate to 'flaunt' their intelligence in public. We learn to let others speak in class, to tone down our passion, to make ourselves more socially acceptable, so as to spare the feelings of others. Now, there's a fine line between healthy, realistic pride and hubris. And there's a fine line between healthy, realistic humility and shame. I thought I had managed to walk these parallel lines, primarily because I never fell into that (all too common female) trap of pretending to be dumb. But guess what? I'm just the other side of that coin - pretending to be less enthusiastic. Because I am that particular combination of smart and enthusiastic. Not just about math, but about ideas. About the meanings of words and actions and motivations and culture. And, frankly, it's not all that often that I have the opportunity (allow myself) to let that enthusiasm run wild. I got a fair amount of it at Case, and I think that's why one of my earliest thoughts during orientation was, my people! A lot of us were that combination of young and smart and naive and we challenged each other to rise to the mental occasion, be the topic movies or paintings or computers or theater or math or literature or science. No one was ashamed of being smart and curious and excited. We organized a group (albeit short-lived) to sit around and read plays, and talk about them, just for the hell of it. We (ok, Chestnut and AWB) created $25,000 Pictionary and we got off on making our friends guess incredibly complicated categories (I'm personally most proud of getting the audience to guess Things America Does that are Hypocritical by drawing a timeline of our relationship with Saddam Hussein).

I still catch moments of unrestrained mental work - the high I feel after APHA and DGH meetings, the feeling I had sitting across from Kathy while she got choked up about her research...but most of the time I'm actively working to tamp myself down, to make myself smaller. To not revel in attending nerd lectures and being just as excited (and moved) by meeting Margaret Atwood as Paul Hunt (ok, maybe Paul Hunt was a little more exciting).

And I think that's why I've started writing more since moving here - I'm trying to create the space I left behind, the space where I didn't have to pretend, to act slightly apathetic and unmotivated and disinterested in topics other than my chosen profession. The place where it wasn't pompous to reference works of art or drop an author's name.

And already I'm back pedaling in my mind - I don't mean to imply that my friends here aren't smart, aren't engaged, etc. etc...But fuck it. I'm making my own space to be smart and enthusiastic and unrestrained in my dorkiness, across the board. And I'm going to work harder at making that space off the internet too.

*I thought about saving this post until tomorrow, it seemed callous to post a big me, me, ME thing on 9/11. But the truth of the matter is...the most noteworthy thing about this day, in my person life, is that it's AWB's birthday. Of course, I stopped this morning for some quiet reflection. I sympathize with all the people still trying to carry on with their lives, still carrying around missing pieces. But it feels equally callous to try to drumb up some false personal sense of loss. I was lucky - I didn't know anyone who died on 9/11/01. I don't know anyone who lost anyone. I feel an abstract sense of loss - the impact that day had on our country, the events it set in motion. But to hold that up against someone else's personal reminisce about that morning, sitting in my advisor's office, not sure what to do next, friends coming over to our's not important. We were all ok.