Monday, February 25, 2008

Throwing rocks at the creek (a long one)

Last Friday I gave the first exam to my class. I actually thought it was way too easy for them. I thought that there was no reason why anybody should miss any of the questions on it. Everything came verbatim from what I had said in lectures. I wasn’t even asking them to apply concepts… just basic information regurgitation. As I handed out the exam, I was thinking I really should have challenged them more… it seemed more like an exam for grade school children than for college students.

After everyone had finished, I paged through the exams, just to quickly glance at question number 2: “True or False: A chimpanzee is an example of an Old World Monkey.”

The answer is false, of course. I had made a slide about this that we went over in lecture. At the top of the slide, I had written in bold letters: "This will be on the exam!!" I gave them a hand-out about it. It was on the review sheet and I even specifically mentioned it again at the review session on the Wednesday before the exam. So, you would think they all got it right, wouldn’t you? Not so. A full 38% of them missed it. I was crestfallen. How was this possible? Cara’s sixth-graders all know that a chimpanzee is not a monkey. But college students at what is supposed to be one of the best universities in the country? Apparently not. If these are our nation’s best and brightest, we might as well throw in the towel.

But still. I didn’t give it that much thought. I assumed it was just a fluke and they had done well on the rest of it, and I went on my merry way. On Saturday was there a symposium at school all day. I was presenting a paper in the morning and was part of a panel in the afternoon. The paper I presented (“Dog attacks on mantled howler monkeys living at La Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua”) was pretty much a revision of the poster I had presented at a different conference last fall. This presentation went pretty well. It was a multi-disciplinary symposium—larger than just biological anthropologists. Much to my surprise, the cultural anthropologists in attendance were very receptive to this issue. After my talk there was a 10-minute break, but I didn’t even get to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water because people were coming up to talk to me about this. A cultural anthropology grad student told me she had never realized that primatology could have such a human dimension (the issue is really one of tourism and human encroachment rather than dog predation per se). Honestly, that means a lot, because sometimes I feel that biological anthropologists are vilified by other members of our department as “evil scientists.” And the irony is, of course, that some biological anthropologists have vilified (or at least picked on) me for even bothering to describe this instance because its simply not “sciency” enough. The thing that meant the most to me was when a cultural anthropology professor in the department told me—in front of everybody—how important and useful this was and how I really should publish this incredibly rich, detailed account. The cultural anthropologists were surprised that I hadn’t seen the same support from members of my own subdiscipline. Sometimes I feel like biological anthropologists are so afraid of not being taken seriously that they take themselves way too seriously and end up looking like idiots. Have we really become so jaded that the observance of an extremely rare, stochastic event (such as dog predation) is not deemed publishable simply because it doesn’t conform to the same cookie cutter format of every scientific paper?
Seriously, if you act like you’re testing an hypothesis, you can publish the biggest loads of crap.

At any rate, the symposium caused me to miss out on my dad’s birthday celebration in Roscoe, but at least after I got done with it, I talked to him on the phone and heard Logan’s antics described to me in real time.

On Sunday, I ended up getting up early and doing most of a 12-mile training run with the running club. Rather than starting out with them, I’d planned on cutting across town and catching up with them about 3 or 4 miles into it. The problem I hadn’t counted on was that nobody had shoveled their sidewalks after our latest snowstorm, so I was running through ankle deep snow (with a layer of ice underneath). Whenever there is the slightest hint of ice, I dodder around like an old lady; needless to say, the going was very slow. I finally managed to catch up with the group around Centennial Park, and I ran with them for the next 7 or 8 miles. It was nice; I had forgotten how much fun it is to do a long run with other people. There were only about 5 or 6 runners who had shown up for the training run, and everybody had stayed together, at the same pace. We talked, laughed, drank Gatorade, and the miles just whizzed by.

On Sunday night, I finally set about to grade the exams. As I graded, all I could think about was my high school English teacher from junior year, Mrs. Sullivan. She had a gold-lettered sign hanging in her classroom that said, “Excellence Expected.” Everybody loved her. She worked so hard for us and she was so sweet. She told us that when she was grading our term papers, she would get so mad at the sloppy way we’d written, that she would go out and throw rocks into the creek to diffuse her anger. Well, I really needed a creek to throw rocks into last night. I’ve spent about a million hours preparing my lectures, trying to make them as entertaining and as clear as possible. I have been pouring my heart and soul into this, in a way that I really thought was getting through to them. And there were some of them who did really well. But there were too many of them who did not. Some of the things they were missing, like the chimp question, there’s just no excuse for it. I feel like its just arrogant, disrespectful, insulting, for some of them to so flippantly blow it off. In the end, I realize that there are some who will be engaged and plugged in and motivated, but there will be others who will not be no matter what you do. Today some of them came to talk to me about the exam and I realized that even those who didn’t do so well aren’t really arrogant or rude. They’re just kids. And this stuff is hard for them. Its new material, and they don’t know what to expect. So I still stand by them. The class, overall, really is great and teaching continues to be a great experience. They really are good kids, even if they can’t remember the difference between a monkey and an ape.

Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

BLESS YOU, dearie,,,,,,,,, Don't let this get you down. Hang in there, but continue to EXPECT and DEMAND EXCELLENCE... they are after all UIUC students, and somehow made it that far........ Either they will get this 'by the end' of the semester. OR, they won't , and whatever the outcome, will be one they will need to deal with. You did your part!!!!! Sometimes there just aren't ENOUGH ROCKS!!!! _:) Out of the academic world, some of these same students. will be people who will continue to MUDDLE along and somehow, end up /at the top of the chow line, and everyone wonders HOW??????? We're proud of your presentation and reviews on Saturday-- some 'academic 'folks can be quite mind set..... CONTINUE to excel IN SPITE oF THEM!!!! Power thru....... we missed you and RB at Logan's, You should see him READ his animal baby magazine from AUNTIE M!!!!! hang tuff..... luv you, foxy mama

Logan's Mama said...

Neuropsychology sounds much the same way as biological anthropology. It seems that neuropsychologists view themselves as being much more "medicalized and hard sciency" than the other psychology disciplines, but to the M.D.'s, we are all just crappy Ph.D's that they ignore and discount. Oh well... Take heart, you are doing a great job wtih your class and don't judge the whole experience by their test scores alone.
Logan missed his Auntie M last weekend. We'll hope to see you soon...
P.S. Why are doing training runs? Another marathon coming up? :-0

amypfan said...

I'm glad you're feeling better about this, since I'm a slacker and have still not gotten around to responding to your email. There were many, many times when teaching that I felt this same way. I mean, really, sophomore English is not rocket science. Sometimes I feel like, "Why am I even here? Why am I even talking? No one is listening anyway!" As in, I give an assignment, I hand out a copy of the assignment, I explain the assignment, I write the assignment on the board (in the same place every day, no less), and I still have kids who look at me blankly when I collect the aforementioned assignment and tell me "but I didn't know" (as if this will excuse them from having to turn it in). I think my blood pressure is rising just writing this.