In which I fail to be developed, professionally.

I am about to shock you, readers; brace yourselves.

I got into a heated discussion, nay, an argument the other day. I KNOW! You are bewildered as to how such a thing could have come about. Let me lay the details on you.

Against my better judgment, I decided to go to a professional development seminar. I am sure you are aware –  in fact, you probably have encountered these weaksauce assholes at your own institution – that universities have a special little corner they shove the least able teachers, who have tenure, but can’t possibly be let in front of students: this is often called the Academic Development or Faculty Development Department/Unit/Centre. (In my experience, the universities that have a “Centre” have much the worst development staff.)

The faculty in these places have fuck-all to do, and often try to schedule meetings with people who are doing actual work like teaching and developing courses. The couple of weeks before and after semester see them crawling out from under their rocks and spamming invitations to encounter groups, and development round-tables, and all manner of bullshit time-wasting exercises. Most of them, you get one sniff of and sensibly decline to attend. Occasionally, though, they target you with a cunningly-named event targeted at something that appears relevant to your interests. You think “this sounds like it might actually be useful”. Of course it isn’t going to be, but guilt at the number of these invites you have ignored, and the spectre of the Chair asking what professional development activities you have attended this year start to niggle at you, and so you end up going.

It becomes apparent within 5 minutes that this is bullshit. I went to an online teaching seminar, and most of the other people there appeared to be unfamiliar with computers, and had fucking PAPER AND PENCIL with which to take notes. Goddammit.

I enlivened the proceedings by betting with myself how long it would be before I said something that would prompt the PD sloths “leading” the seminar to tell me I should be running it. They are all sycophants who are full of politically correct mantras about every contribution being worthy, and how you should always give feedback that reflects the questioner’s question back at him or her, so it hardly ever takes long, if you aren’t some kind of snivelling social retard. This time it took 35 minutes. Not a personal best, by any stretch.

It became increasingly apparent that what this session had been designed as a lengthy infomercial for Blackboard, and I tolerated that for about 5 minutes before I started grinding my teeth. Most of the infomercial was all about how you can get Blackboard to automagically count student posts on Blackboard forums as graded participation. Really! Blackboard can automate this for you, making the process of massaging snowflake egos that their every little verbal burp has meaning and worth! It only takes one click!

Luckily for me, some of the other victims of this scam started meeping about their misgivings about some aspects of Blackboard, which opening I quickly grabbed in order to talk about the alternatives. One of my major issues with Blackboard is that it really is an arcanely complicated electronic gradebook, and its focus is the prof and how he/she is going to produce the grades. (There are SO many things wrong with that, it just makes me foam at the mouth, but let me reel this in just a touch.)

Squeezing into the opening provided by someone who students are frustrated by having to recreate their profile in Blackboard for EVERY SINGLE course they take, I mentioned the portfolio software I (and a few others) have been using for the last few semesters, which has, as one of its advantages, the fact that students keep their portfolios from semester to semester. Since this software is sanctioned by the Learning PodPeople, some discussion of it was allowable, but then I pushed the envelope by mentioning that I was intending to teach with twitter, and possibly Google Wave (if it still exists in a week).

This caused consternation. Why? Well, because unlike Blackboard, none of these alternative methods would give students constant 24/7 access to their grades.

This is where the arguing thing got going.

“I don’t want students to have 24/7 access to some arbitrary numerical score,” I opined.

This was countered with the infuriating “But it makes them more comfortable” argument.

Okay, apart from me not really caring what makes my students comfortable, at least in opposition to what I think is pedagogically good for them, I think this is a crock. The argument is that if students know their numerical grades, they will understand what this means in terms of a final grade for the course.

COME ON. We all know at least a dozen examples where this is is not true. Students who know they have 79% come in begging for that one extra mark; students who know numerically that they are failing believe in the power of prayer; students who have poor math skills are startled by Cs at the end of semester. A couple of semesters ago, when I took over a class for a colleague, I had a student who was sure she was getting a B, despite having no grade higher than a B- all semester. Having the marks accessible is no anodyne against student delusion.

My other objection here is more philosophical. I don’t believe in giving grades without context. That is, I think students should see a grade on a paper next to a substantial number of comments about what was good and bad about their work. Maybe I’m deluded, but I want them to learn from the process, and not just be fixated on the number, or the letter.

I expressed these opinions to the Professional Development Chooks, who were still bok boking about how I could use the gradebook in Blackboard, even if I wasn’t using Blackboard for any other purpose (I know, WTF). “No.” I said. “I don’t play that game.”

This resulted, not in a spirited debate about grading, which might have been useful, or at least interesting, but in an immediate backdown. “We didn’t mean to suggest that any of your methods were WRONG,” they chanted, resorting to their mantra. “Whatever you feel comfortable doing is fine.”

This is exactly why these teaching support people suck the balls of the donkey. They are so fixated on politically correct educational theory that focusses on massaging egos and being careful of professorial self of steam that they will never offer cogent or practical advice that isn’t so obvious it is useless. “Face the class while lecturing.” Even in extreme cases of stupidity or contrariness, they won’t really give advice. “It might be an idea to put pants on when you go to class, but only if it doesn’t cramp your style.”

Looking at it glass half full, I only wasted 90 minutes, and bothering to go on to campus meant that I lucked into FREE BEER at the Dean’s reception, which hilarity I described on College Misery.

8 thoughts on “In which I fail to be developed, professionally.

  1. waitingforagnes

    Good to know that the modern-day obsession with everyone being ‘comfortable’ (just typing it makes me want to spit, it’s almost as bad as ‘journey’) all of the time has leached its way into all professions. Blackboard – the college students’ epidural?

  2. zugenia

    This is one of the truest things I’ve ever read on the internet. The “whatever makes you comfortable” school of pedagogy is a pernicious creature, as is Blackboard, which failed so spectaularly in the one year it was available here that now the entire campus is migrating to an entirely new web courseware system, which may or may not “suck the balls of the donkey,” but which is called, and I am not making this up, “Avenue to Learn,” which is not the English I know and love and am paid to teach.

  3. M-H

    I am sorry that the people on your campus who support this software are so asinine. I work in online learning support and I don’t think that Bb is the answer to every pedagogical problem, but it can be used in pedagogically very interesting ways. I don’t care about its gradebook and tracking functions; to me they are the least interesting thing about the software. But my experience is that gradebook is the feature that most academics (at my Uni anyway) want to know about. Demand for specific training on the gradebook far outstrips the training demands on other parts of the system, such as how to use the discussion forums or journalling for innovative groupwork, or how to integrate Bb with the portfolio system for individual student development that goes beyond the numbers approach to grading. Academics are even wanting to learn how to use the gradebook to track down and email students who aren’t logging in to Bb. Go figure.

    1. whatladder Post author

      I think this is a response to an academic culture which is more and more about grades rather than learning. I don’t think students are entirely to blame, because academic administration also puts a lot of pressure on profs to grade within a range, or whatever. Look at the world of shit that even tenured profs get into when they refuse in one way or another to play the grade game.

      1. M-H

        At my Uni in Aus I don’t have the impression that ‘the grade game’ is a major driver – yet. My partner, for instance, is now doing very little undergrad teaching, and is able to concentrate on serious research, some postgrad seminar work and PhD supervision. But it’s taken over 20 years for her to get herself into this position. But we don’t have the tenure system in the same way either, nor is the fee structure quite such a driver. It’s interesting to compare systems.

  4. Harriet

    “Even in extreme cases of stupidity or contrariness, they won’t really give advice.”

    The benefit of this maddening behavior is that it tends to come out early in a conversation and immediately identifies the offender as an idiot.

  5. ladysquires

    I’ve never liked Blackboard very much but have never really been able to articulate why. I think this is pretty darn close.

    Incidentally, I know of a few profs who practice what I can only describe as “defensive grading.” One at my university is so paranoid about getting sued that he basically instructs his TA’s to give out nothing but A’s and B’s.

  6. Pingback: Potpourri of ventage. « What Ladder?

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