A Philosopher's Blog

The Intellectual Challenges

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2013
English: The 1st generation iPod Touch, with a...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I am a philosophy professor, people might suspect that my main intellectual challenges as a professional  involve problems in philosophy (or determining how to best turn students into Atheist-Marxist-Omnigendered-Socialist Intellectuals). However, this is not the case. I have two main areas of challenges that eat up significant mental resources and they have nothing directly to do with philosophy.

The first area is countering cheating. As might be imagined, the small percentage of students who cheat include a number of innovators. These innovators constantly develop new methods of cheating (or refine old ones) that are then copied by the less inventive cheaters. Obviously, the advent of smart phones has created new avenues of cheating, which faculty counter by requiring students to put away their phones. However, clever students have made use of blue-tooth earpieces to listen to their audio cheat files. The smart watches (such as the upcoming Apple device) also provide a means of cheating.

Of course, some students still go old school in their cheating, relying on crowded classrooms to cover their copying of others or from their cheat sheets. Some also take the approach of cheating after the fact, such as altering test answers and claiming that the professor marked them wrong. Some even claim that the professor lost the test or paper that was never actually turned in.

A few years back I had a small outbreak of this sort of after the fact cheating and countered it by snapping photos of all the graded answer sheets with my iPod Touch. This year, some students tried to counter that counter by claiming that I had given their tests back before I took the photos.  I had already started moving to Blackboard and my counter will be to let Blackboard handle this problem.

Of course, this creates the problem of countering cheating on Blackboard. Some programs require students to buy proctoring devices and software that record the student taking the test. Currently, I do not have that option. However, during test runs this past year I was able to create questions that required knowledge of the material and simply having access to books, notes, and the web did not help. Randomizing everything (questions and answers) also helps, as does setting a time limit.  I suppose that the students can do a George W. Bush and get other people to do the thinking for them, but I suppose that at least teach them about how life actually works.

The second area is minimizing unproductive time. As with most jobs, being a professor involves a fair amount of annoying work that is essentially a waste of time from the standpoint of the true goal of the profession. For example, I spend hours each semester handling emails that are not about the course material, but are about various issues a few students have created for themselves. For example, a student might regularly miss classes and email me after every missed class asking about make-up work or what was missed. As another example, students will email me with questions that are explicitly answered in the syllabus. As a final example, there are the students who arrive at the end of the semester to explain, at great length, why they did not do the work during the semester. And, of course, there are the make-up exams, late papers and administrative ordeals that eat away time that should be spent on things like improving course content.  But, at least in these cases I am interacting with students.However, I also face the challenges posed by administrators.

There are always forms to complete, mandatory meetings, assessments, committees and so on. While some do connect to actually educating students, much of what is done simply eats up time and produces little of value to education. For example, while I recognize the value of rational assessment, one “does not fatten the pig by weighing it.”

My objective over the years has been to try to spend my time as productively as possible. While technology has helped a bit, it has also hindered it. One obvious example is email. Back in the day, people had to call me or come to my office and eat my time in real time on their own time-now email is chewing away 24 hours a day. On a typical day, I’ll wake up at 5:00 am to find dozens of emails have been sent since I checked my email at 8:00 or 9:00 the night before-I often get some that were sent at 1:00 or 2:00 am. Apparently being nocturnal is a common thing these days. People do, of course, expect rapid replies-I’ll get emails asking if I have seen the previous email.

I’ll go through one example of  a common time-waster and show how I have endeavored to counter it.

As most professors will tell you, one major time-waster and annoyance is make-up work. While some students are good about handling missed work, the common cycle is this. The student begins by missing the work (such as a test).  Oddly enough, students often do not seem to realize they have missed something, so a few years ago I started emailing everyone who missed a test to let them know and what was to be done to make up the work. In most cases, the students ignore the email for a while and then, usually near the end of the semester, they start sending emails about make-ups, typically saying they will come in at time T. As might be guessed, time T passes without the makeup being done, which is followed by more emails. Students who attend class also do this in person, usually while I am either trying to set up for class or trying to get to my next class.  Eventually (usually at the last minute) everyone shows up at my last office hours wanting to complete their make-up exams. For good measure, people usually show up to be advised or with other problems at the same time, thus creating a bit of chaos. Naturally, I do try to convince people that they should consider coming in the day before the last day-I have five hours of office hours that day. But, people seem to prefer showing up for the last office hour.

I did try a no make-up policy for a while, but that proved…problematic. Some professors do stick to such a policy-a friend of mine on a grade appeals committee says that those professors’ students routinely file appeals semester after semester until the professor just gives up.

I also tried building make-up work into each class. For example, my Critical Inquiry class has 27+ assignments and only the best 10 count. My reasoning was that with 27 assignments, students would surely not ask for make-ups or need them. That proved to be incorrect-since students had to turn them in at the start of class so we could go over the answers, this resulted in many students either not showing up on time or not showing up at all. Also, the assignments came from the book and students are very reluctant to buy the book (although the insane prices of text books makes me sympathetic to this).

I then turned to technology and made the assignments available on Blackboard. That way students could do them at anytime from anyplace their smartphones worked. As I expected, the  percentage of completed assignments increased and their was a decrease in people emailing me to ask about making up assignments. However, I was slightly surprised that the increase in completed assignments was relatively small. That is, even though the assignments could be done just about anywhere at anytime, a significant percentage of students simply did not do them.

When I taught my hybrid class I also noticed the same when it came with tests: although the tests were available for an extended period of time (weeks in some cases) and could be done with a smartphone or tablet from almost anywhere, the percentage of people who did not complete the tests before the deadline was only marginally smaller than that of a traditional class (and well within the boundaries of chance).  Naturally, I got emails from students asking me to open the tests up for them again. And, of course, Blackboard added some new problems, such as Blackboard issues preventing students from finishing tests. However, most problems were still student related, like people trying to take tests at work and getting interrupted by, you know, work or students using unreliable connections to take tests.  But, I keep endeavoring to minimize the time I have to waste.

I now suspect that there is a constant Tr (for Trouble) that cannot be eliminated no matter how I design my classes. This probably connects to the Peters’ Principle: my friend Michael Peters noted that 10% of his students caused 90% of his problems, no matter what he did. I have found that to hold true: my typical class is 38 students and I usually have 3-4 students who generate the majority of the problems. The other 90% generally do what they are supposed to do (such as showing up and doing the work on time). But, the Troublesome Ten more than make up for them.

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7 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 29, 2013 at 8:16 am

    You should follow this up with all the good things you enjoy about teaching philosophy 🙂

  2. biomass2 said, on April 29, 2013 at 9:38 am

    If you interview a reasonable mix of K-12 teachers, you’ll likely discover that the basic problems you face are strikingly similar to some of the problems those educators face. Lazy, inattentive, dishonest kindergarten students very often become lazy, inattentive, dishonest college-prep students. Unfortunately for you, Michael, some of those academic “stars” sneak into the post-secondary system.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 30, 2013 at 6:21 am

      There is some weeding out through the grades-I taught high school for a while in 1988 and it was much worse than college.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on April 29, 2013 at 10:10 am

    In Belgium they have oral exams in which the teacher grills each student individually.

    A great chance to indulge your inner sadist!

    • biomass2 said, on April 29, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Makes for carcinogenic- yet tasty –students.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 30, 2013 at 6:23 am

      I have 35-70 students per class-I’d need a lot of verbal charcoal.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on April 30, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Alas, did not see an entry for LaBossiere…

    nozick, n. (from nostrum + physick) Political snake oil, a patent medicine, esp. a cathartic or purgative. “Waste not logick, not yet strong physick, on the Leviathan; serve it nozick, and stand back.” – Hobbes.


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