Category Archives: teaching

Introducing Nervous Neddy.

I say “introducing” because I have the feeling he is a developing story. I was going to write about him last week, and now there’s twice as much material. Let’s start with the background.

You know those people who are a bit nervous, and so then they say stupid shit, and stand a bit too close to you, and this makes you a bit nervous as well, just by rubbing their aura up against yours? Neddy is one of those.

Once  he made a stupid remark in class and everyone stared at him, and then he came up to me at the end of class and asked if I knew why people were looking at him weird. Do you know how hard this question is to answer?

He’s got just a whiff of the ‘berger about him, too (although, since I know this really really really ‘bergerish berger elsewhere on the internets, my whole ‘berger standard has changed radically, in the direction of tolerance). In addition to the nervous part, Neddy has a couple of extra zesty layers on top of an already difficult personality. One, he’s a fucking moron, and TWO, he has no idea that he is a moron. This leads to scenarios like the following:

Me: So, these essays you just wrote, class, that I am handing back, I wish to point out some common errors, in the hope that you will stop making them.
Class: Okay, we will indulge you by pretending to listen.
Me: So, this is children’s literature, and in essays, when we write about children, let’s refrain from referring to them as “kids”.
Class: Okay, seems fair.
Nervous Neddy: Why?
Me (Socratically): Why do you think?
NN: No, really I have no idea.
Me: Class?
Class: It’s slang. We shouldn’t put slang in an essay, and those of us who did are kind of embarrassedly going “doh,” right now.
NN: How is it slang?
Me: How do you mean, “how is it slang?” “Kids” is an informal term for children.
NN: They mean the same thing. I don’t see the problem.
Me: Class?
Class: “Kids” technically means “baby goats”. Saying it for children is informal, and we don’t use informal language in an essay.
NN: I never heard this meaning for kids before. Therefore, it doesn’t count. I am refusing to acknowledge this point, and maintain that it is fine to say “kids” in an essay.
Me (searching for an equivalent): It’s a slang word like “crap”. You wouldn’t use a word like “crap” in an essay, would you? (After I say this, I have a flash of a second where I realize this is by no means a given.)
NN: Why are you saying kids are crap?
Omnes: BOGGLE. (Discussion continues for another 4 minutes.)
Me: “Kids” is slang. Don’t use it. End of discussion.

We then proceded to have another  round over my next point, which is that “relatable” doesn’t mean what they think it means.

So, then I give their essays back, saying “I have a class immediately after this one, as you know, so I don’t have time to talk to you about your essays right now. Come see me in my office hour.” Class ends, and I am packing up, and Neddy comes up to me. “I think I did better than this in my essay,” he says. To which I respond, “Neddy, I just said I don’t have time to talk about this because I have another class RIGHT NOW, and I have to go to my other class RIGHT NOW.” And I start walking out the door, and he starts following me, asking about the comments I made on his paper.

I jump cowardly in to the elevator and tell him to come see me in my office hour. Which he does, and that, dear readers, is a long story for another day.


Fuck you. Fuck all you all.

I nearly went over the edge today. I know you want to hear about it.

So, I am in class, explaining to the class my marking rubric, which I have used for several semesters now, where I let students use the rubric to predict their grades and they get a bonus if they get a bulls-eye.

As a pedagogical exercise, this is designed to show students what I am valuing and how I am marking, and also to get them to do a bit of reflection and self-assessment. Of course, it’s also a way in to having a “what makes a good paper” discussion in class. Generally, it works pretty well, and between 3-6 students a class actually manage to get the bonus.

Today, I explain the bonus and go through the rubric, and then this giant asshole puts his hand up and says “Yes, but how do we know you won’t look at our score and then change yours?”

EXCUSE ME? I looked at him and said “Are you sure you want to be asking that?”, to which he said “Yes, it’s a legitimate question.” A few lesser assholes chimed in. One wanted to suggest that I give the bonus mark if they got within the ballpark: no, because that is way easier – you have to earn the damn bonus. Then Asshole 1 and his buddy start going on about how they think they need a “guarantee” that I will stick to the rubric.

I have to admit, I was at the point of being so angry I wasn’t coherent. “This sounds like you are accusing me of cheating,” I said. “I presented this rubric as a way to help you understand how I am marking.”

Yeah, they understand that, but profs mark differently (DUH, I just gave you MY rubric, you moron), and how do they know I will stick to what I said?

Well, I dunno? Trust? Understanding that I am a professional? I said if they thought it was some kind of trap, they could opt out of the rubric exercise, but no, that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted, I think, a promise that they could have the bonus. Which I wasn’t going to give.

I suggested that the way they were talking made it sound like they thought I was out to get them, and that their assumption that I would act unprofessionally was unfounded and unflattering, but there were at least 4 of them who insisted that voicing this kind of distrust was not disrespectful.

What it came down to, for them, was that “all profs mark subjectively” and that any moves I was making to make my approach as transparent and objective as possible was somehow suspect. IF YOU REALLY BELIEVE I MARK SUBJECTIVELY, WHY ARE YOU PISSING ME OFF? I screamed, in my head.

Some of it must have shown on my face, because a student in the front row said, “Can we move on?” Which was a nice lifeline. So I tried to move on, but I found myself close to tears of rage. I had to leave the room. I’ve never done that before. Honest to god, I said “I need a minute,” and went out into the hallway.

A couple of the female students came out to see if I was okay. I wasn’t going to cry, but I think they thought I might. I said “I just need a minute so I don’t yell at everyone,” I told them. So I counted to 10, and went back in, and ignored the assholes who were snickering, and pulled up my damn big girl pants, and taught them about editing their papers.

But I feel like I went somewhere new today. Not even Pineapple Boy made me feel this kind of despair.

A failure to prognosticate.

Amongst my many skills is a soupçon of ESP inherited from my maternal grandmother, who occasionally used to help the police in the smallish city in which she lived (trufax). While I have had the odd experience in my day, I have never believed in my ability to tell the future, which I suppose means that when I worked as a telephone psychic (more trufax), I was something of a charlatan. All of which explains why I am unable in normal circumstances to predict the future, or discern the unknowable. This inability has annoyed at least 3 people this week.

The first person was a student who wrote me an email in which he presented his essay topic as a sentence fragment. I wrote back asking for clarification, at which point I got a grudging sentence, which made it appear as if he had decided on a position in advance of gathering any evidence, so I sent another query. It took 2 more emails for me to understand that he did actually seem to have a grasp on the task.

Now, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Witness “child porn” girl from the previous episode. I make my students develop their own topics, because I think it is pedagogically valuable, although it does make them whiny. The reason I don’t make a list of essay questions, my dear snowflakes, is because I can.

Anyhoo, the student with whom I had the email exchange, and let us now call him Covert Genius, was apparently quite butthurt that I questioned his ability to write an essay. He came and told me so in class, saying OF COURSE he knew how to get evidence to support his point, and how dare I assume otherwise. He is a 4th year student. My response was along the lines of “given that this is a FIRST YEAR class, and all I have to go on is your sentence fragment of a topic, I was doing my JOB and making sure you knew what you were doing,” but with more ego-massaging in.

This was apparently not good enough, since he later posted a really really really long post in the class discussion forum about how he was an award-winning writer, and how dare I not know about his genius, presumably just by looking at him, since his writing is in no way remarkable so far. Dude, if you are such a genius, why did you procrastinate on doing freshman comp until your final semester?

I was contemplating some kind of sarcasmic response to him on the forum, but another student jumped in and smacked him down for being both boring and inappropriate. Awesome.

The second case involves a student from Winter semester. That’s two semesters ago, for those of you who are counting.

This student was doing well in my class, until she disappeared for several weeks. I was mildly perplexed, but these things happen. I then got an email from her saying she had been in hospital and was still very ill. She was worried about the class. I did what I could to reassure her, saying we could worry about her options when she was well.

A few weeks later, at the end of semester, she sent a bunch of panicked messages worrying about failing. I told her to come and see me, which she did. I suggested, since she had missed more than half the semester, that her best option was to take a compassionate W on the class and try again when she was well. But she had been getting an A! True enough. If you get an A once, you can probably do that again, I suggested.

She was pretty adamant that she wanted to take an incomplete and finish the work, and since she had been a good student, and since I was going to be teaching in Spring Semester anyway, I agreed. I gave her a list of the work she needed to do, and instructions about keeping in touch via email, and completed the paperwork.

I never heard from her again. I was mildly perplexed, but these things happen.

Then, this week, I got an email from the Registrar’s office saying that the student was asking for a very late compassionate W. Two semesters later? Is that even possible?

The reason for the late request, according to this email, was that I had “pushed the student into taking an I when she wanted a W” and been “negligent” since I had not seen “that she obviously was in no position to make decisions about her academic life”. Really? So now I am supposed to be a doctor and a mind reader? I suppose I should know that trying to be nice to students has a 50% chance of biting me in the ass.

The third case comes, oddly enough, from my actual life outside my job, in which I have recently taken on the volunteer duty of emailing person for my daughter’s ballet show. Now, I took this on thinking that unlike the previous emailing person (who is firmly of the opinion that the internet you use for the email is different to the internet you use for the web surfing), I had some idea of how to use a computer and an internet, and therefore it wouldn’t be all that onerous of a duty, unlike, say, building sets, which I did last year.

What I failed to take into account is that Ballet Moms (and yes, yes, there are a few dads and a few – well, TWO – boys, this is ballet and it is mostly girls and their moms) are even more speshul snowflakes than students. I kid you not. They don’t read emails; they misread emails; they need 4 emails to explain what “regular rehearsal time” means; they ask me to do stuff that is clearly outside my portfolio; they want me to email them separately from the bulk email; they refuse to believe me when I say I am getting error messages from their hotmail accounts (seriously, HOTMAIL? Is this 1998?); they generally act annoying and whiny.

The one who takes the cake, though, is the Mom who complained to me, in the smarmiest patronizing tone ever, that I had caused her daughter to miss a rehearsal on Thursday because I hadn’t sent out the rehearsal schedule for the week. “But I sent the schedule on Sunday morning,” I said. “And I didn’t get an error message from your account (mirabile dictu).” Well, as if that is good enough. “You should have known I didn’t get it and called me,” she said. Seriously? I should have divined, from no evidence at all, that she needed me to phone her?

My ESP skills are utterly inadequate.

Potpourri of ventage.

Okay, so it’s, like, Week 4 of semester. Here are some things that are happening.

This guy comes to my class and spends the first 5 minutes ostentatiously unwrapping his textbook from the shrinkwrap it comes in at the bookstore. Then he picks the wrong volume, despite the kind attempts of the student sitting opposite him to show him that he’s looking at the wrong book. A couple days later he comes to see me about the essay that is due the following day. I mention that I couldn’t help but notice he hasn’t done any reading, and it is WEEK FOUR, and maybe he’s fallen a bit behind. Well, he’s busy with work, donchaknow. I suggest that maybe he cut his losses and drop, but he’s not willing to do that yet. He thinks he can catch up. Can I help him with his essay? Oh, sure, what the hell. What is he writing it on? He doesn’t know. He hasn’t done any reading. So, he wanders off, I bang my head on the desk, and then he fails to come to the next class, and doesn’t, therefore, hand in a paper.

The majority of students in my online class continue to suck the balls of the donkey. It’s WEEK FOUR, and one of them wanders up to me in class and lets me know he still hasn’t figured out how to log in to the courseware.

I make a tutorial that consists of a flickr slideshow of screenshots with writing on them (and you know my paint skills are top notch) to help the students who are having trouble with the courseware. I offer bonus marks for students who comment on the tutorial. There are at least a dozen students who don’t watch the tutorial, and who still need help with the courseware. I suggest that they watch the tutorial, but they can’t figure out how. Seriously. Clicking a link is WAY TOO TECHNICAL for these people.

I get tricked into sharing my tutorial with one of those slug-like beings from academic support  about whom I complained earlier. His response is to ask me how I made the screenshots, to which I reply, “by taking screenshots and writing on them using GIMP.” He responds by linking me to a program that can do what I already did. I CAN ALREADY DO IT. I DO NOT NEED YOUR PROGRAM. When I express this sentiment, he suggests that we meet to discuss it. I am tempted accept the invitation and meet with him carrying some kind of sharp implement, but manage to restrain myself.

I have a student who is worried she is failing and can I tell her her grade. It’s WEEK FOUR. Your first assignment isn’t even due until tomorrow. There is no grade yet.

I have a student who has been mad at me ever since she told me she was missing the first 2 weeks of class and I said that I thought that was a bad idea. She sends me emails complaining that I don’t do things like her other teachers do, and that she continues to be unhappy with my attitude and behaviour. I have offended her at least 3 times, apparently. Once by saying I think attendance is important; once because I didn’t comply with her request that I “stay after class to discuss my attitude and behaviour”; most recently because when I clarified for the whole class my expectations on participation, she got into an argument with me over email about whether a week from Thursday to Thursday includes a weekend. (Apparently, it doesn’t, and I am foolish to persist in my belief that it does.)

I have a student who wants to write her essay on internet crime, and stuff. I suggest that she needs to narrow her topic down, since “internet crime” is a bit too broad, and she writes back: “I just want to look at child porn.” I laugh for 3 days.

Failure on the internets.

So, this semester I am teaching a hip, new class which is essentially composition with a “new media” focus, or, in other words, “writing online”. Now, this is a writing class, not a computer class, so there’s not a high requirement for technical ability. But, you know, we (the people who developed the course) assumed that students who enrolled in the class would read the title and the course description, both of which clearly indicate the nature of the class, and self-select accordingly. I know, dear reader, I can hear you falling off your chair as you chortle heartily at our naivete.

It’s been hilarious so far, if you find that kind of thing hilarious. Let me present to you, then, some of my experiences, in the form of a list, entitled: “Signs you may not be suited to doing an online writing class”.

  • You don’t know how to turn on your own laptop, and have to ask for assistance in a stage whisper, which halts all other discussion.
  • You sign up for a gmail account, get onto the prof’s contact list, and then forget your password.
  • Your solution to forgetting your password is to sign up for a new gmail account.
  • You forget the password for that one, too.
  • Instead of going to the courseware page you are given:, you decide to go to the google, and find the home page of the courseware, and try to sign in there.
  • You actually manage to sign into the home page of the courseware,, but you then cause great confusion to everyone by complaining bitterly that you can’t find the group for your class. This is only resolved when you take some screenshots and send them to your prof.
  • You do the same idiotic thing as the previous student, but you don’t know how to take a screenshot. Luckily someone else was almost, but not quite as stupid as you, and this eventually solves your problem.
  • It takes a back-and-forth exchange, during which you send 4 emails, for you to figure out how to post a reply to a thread on the courseware forum.
  • In one of the emails, you explain that you have written your reply in MSWord, but do not know how to upload it to the forum.
  • After you – finally! – successfully make this post, you send another email, asking how to start a new forum thread.
  • You get a twitter account, but can’t figure out how to follow someone. You don’t see the point of twitter, since nothing happens.
  • You identify yourself as someone who is slow with computers, and by slow you mean “it took me 2 weeks to reply to the semester startup email.”
  • When you are told in your computer lab class, to close down Internet Exploder and use Firefox instead, you burst into tears because you “don’t know how to do that”.
  • You send a message to the prof asking if “doing all this online stuff is really necessary” because you “prefer not to do any of your schoolwork online”.

Uncharacteristically upbeat.

I have a good class this semester. There, I said it.

A couple of weeks ago, we read Italo Calvino’s story “Meiosis” which is an exercise in messing up reader expectations, and so we were talking about re-reading. The issue that sparked this was the question “Is a story which is essentially a mindfuck any good the second time, when you are aware of the mindfuckery?” (Not giving any more detail, since I do not wish to spoil the story for anyone who has not read it; if you haven’t, you totally should.)

So we were talking about reading as the sum of the textual experiences you bring to the text, and then I asked what I thought might be a harmless question, viz. “Have you ever read something you liked, and then hated it on second reading?” and one student said Twilight, and all hell broke loose, but in a good way. We spent the rest of the class discussing Twilight (which I have not read, but I can still totally discuss it), which was not the plan, but it was a great learning experience.

Not that this is a class of angels, by any stretch. This week is Heart of Darkness, and there was a notable lack of enthusiasm in class on Wednesday. I let them go early and told them to finish their darn reading by today, and we would tackle it again.

There’s an exercise I like to do with a class when there is reading that is hard, which is to give them 15 minutes at the start of class to write any questions they have about it on the board. I give them this instruction, and then I leave the room and let them get on with it. The leaving the room is key, because I find that students often have questions they think are stupid and they may be reluctant to ask them when you are looking. Writing your stupid question anonymously (or at least not in front of the prof) is easier, somehow.

So this morning, this is what I did, and I was absolutely astonished to find that before I left the room, one student had said “let’s be systematic about this,” and another one had agreed, and a third was calling for the best speller in the class to stand up and do the writing on the board. This has never happened before.

So I went and grabbed a coffee and came back, and there were a score of really good questions on the board, and the rest of the class was an energetic and intelligent discussion.

Awesome. Sometimes my job is really cool.

Also, I got to give them Howard Felperin’s awesome explanation of how Kurtz’s last words really might have been the Intended’s name, if Kurtz was speaking French, which is always good for a giggle.

Monday Mayhem

It’s Monday. Unusually for the weather here in the Armpit of Canada, instead of being fucking cold and sunny (bearable), it is overcast, foggy and frosty. While this means the temperature is slightly warmer than brass monkeys, it feels colder. The dull greyness is making people irritable, and, apparently, bringing out the crazy.

Do tell, I hear you say. I have four instances of nonsense today.

Nonsense the first. A student who has been to only 2 or 3 other classes this semester turns up, collects her essay, and then is irritated that she failed. I have to meet with her immediately to explain myself. “Well,” I say, “you have written a plot summary rather than an essay; you have no supporting quotes, and no MLA citation. We went over this a lot in class.”

Actually, I did this new thing where I spent about 10-15 minutes in 5 classes on specific things I wanted to see in student essays, and the vast majority of students actually managed to follow directions. Of course, they went to class.

Little Miss Absent pouts. I try the direct approach. “You have been to 3 classes, 4 tops this semester, right?” She grudgingly admits that this is so. “It seems to me that you don’t really want to be in this class. You don’t seem invested.” She replies, “I DON’T want to be in this class,” and stomps out.

I foolishly assume this is case closed until later in the day when my Chair calls me into his office and asks what was up with the student who got the F. “I asked her if she had quotes and citation in her essay, and she said no,” he says. I ask if she also told him she has only been to 3 classes out of 17. “No, she didn’t mention that”. She asked, instead, to change sections. Because clearly some other professor is going to be happy to have such a dedicated student turn up half way through the semester.

Nonsense the second. The Cheater from Friday is back with a bigger apology. She wants to apologize more. I thank her, but before she can go any further, I tell her I have already mailed the report to the Cheater Police. She sits for a minute or so, trying to get some tears going, and then storms out.

I later hear that she has been down to the Cheater Police to pre-emptively complain about my injustice. Apparently she asked them if giving an F on the course for the first instance of plagiarism was not too harsh. The Cheater Police, who are diplomats, say it seems rather unusual, but that they need to have more detail on the circumstances. I say “Five assignments,” to the Chief, and she says, “Well, that certainly puts a different light on it.”

Nonsense the third. My chair, while talking to me about Little Miss Absent says some other student wants to complain to him about me. I assume it is Friday’s Cheater, but he says no, it is someone who is complaining that I attacked and humiliated her in class. When was this? (See, I do it so much that I can’t be expected to remember every instance.) Apparently it was during a class last week about medieval women. The only thing I remember from this class is some nice discussion, so I have no idea what he is talking about, except that there was one student who said something wacky about breweries, and I said that her opinion might not have been entirely fact-based. “She hasn’t talked to you?” he asked. “Nope.” Stay tuned for updates.

Nonsense the fourth. In Children’s Lit today we were talking about Fairy Tales in general, with Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel as a specific example. There was a lot of quite thoughtful discussion of adult themes in Fairy Tales (pregnancy, death, kidnapping, getting blinded by falling out of a tower, wolves as seducers, that kind of thing), and I was talking about whether one of the reasons we as a culture still like to read them is that they let us explore deep-seated fears and cultural taboos. This is about as Freudian as I get, but it’s pretty hard to discuss Rapunzel, with the locking up of the girl in the giant tower shaped like a penis, without at least a nod to psychological interpretation.

If you see what I mean.

There’s some giggling, but generally the students take it reasonably seriously and we have a good discussion. Until just before the end of class, when King of Flakes puts his hand up and says, “So what you are saying is that this is a story encouraging children to have sex. I don’t get it. This is not a good moral for a story.”

How was your Monday?