Monthly Archives: October 2014

Blog Period 2: That's more like it. Or more of the same?

Incredibly, the average grade, grade distribution and proportion of the class who did nothing was almost the same as for the First Blog Period. Fifty students did nothing and another 18 did too little to pass, 38% of the class. Last time it was 40%. The average grade among those who did enough to pass was 79%; last time it was 78%. The grade distribution was almost the same: D, 16 students; C, 20; C+, 28; B-, 22; B-, 22; B, 21, B+, 6; A-, 12, A, 3. So on the face of it, not much grounds for celebration.

On the other hand, closer inspection shows that many students are strategizing. Most of the folk who did well last time did nothing this time – under my best-score-of-three-blog-periods algorithm, they must have decided they were happy enough with their score from last time. And a lot of those that did nothing last time have come in to the game for the first time. A few of those new entrants did really well, but most did not. How could they? It was their first time trying. Among the ones who were doing things for the second time, many had taken on board the comments on the graders and really lifted their performance. That was hugely gratifying and makes the heroic efforts of the graders to give quality feedback on the work of over 140 students in less than a week all worth it. Sadly, there are some students who did not much improve from their performance last time (or got worse). Some of those will complain, and I will likely look into it and just wonder whether they read the feedback from last time, or studied examples of good practice, or took advice from the TAs. Or whether we graded too generously last time.

Speaking of examples of good practice, try Flu vaccines – yes or no? (answer: yes), Are girls better students? (the answer is a very thought yes [and that more guys should come to my review sessions]), Can positive thinking cure you? (the answer is a very thoughtful no), or indeed any of Abigail Kennedy’s outstanding October blogs.

Among many other great pieces, I recommend the following.
Does wealth cause peanut allergies?
Are blonds more desirable? (here, Anna James reports a study she did herself)
Do Brita filters help or harm? (impressive use of state government records)
Can your nose fix your spine?
Is touching human?
Soft skills to pay the bills?
Are diet sodas really the better choice? (I liked this because in class we discussed sugary sodas, which increasingly do not look good for you. Turns out that might apply to all soda. A strong argument for beer, I reckon [when you turn 21])
Does money buy happiness?
Is Facebook bad for your GPA? (answer, yes but it makes you smarter…)
Does cracking your knuckles cause arthritis?
Are more people born on Valentines day and fewer on Halloween (answer yes.)

There was some brave stuff too. Try Born GayFemale Drivers, and Sociopaths. And I want some of these toe-nibbling fish.


Revision session tonight. For all the SC200 years, I have been going on and on about the need for students to revisit tests, figure out what has gone wrong, learn and do better. Go over the earlier tests, make sure you understand them. Go over…make sure…

Tonight a student points out that once the test is done, they can’t access the media stories the tests analyze. For geek software reasons, they can just see the questions, not the context.

I am incredulous. Five years, nearly 800 students, and no one has mentioned that before?

Combat in the classroom 3.

There is a student who always arrives late. She has an earlier class somewhere far away. I noticed her because she’d taken to sitting on the floor at the back where there are no chairs. Sometimes she’s in her army uniform, and that just didn’t seem right on the floor. She seemed relaxed about it, but when I asked during a pop quiz why she didn’t sit in the many spare seats, she told me she liked the space in the aisle, and she hated the whispering going on in the regular seats. I suggested she try sitting at the front. And she is now. She comes in late, but slides down the side and sits right in front. She asked a question of one of our outside speakers the other day. I was SO pleased. No whispering at the front. Space to think.

space-to-think-heroEveryone deserves that. Not least those who serve.

Combat in the classroom 2.

In one of my early years at Penn State, there was an ex-Marine in the class. He was extraordinarily opinionated, frequently disagreeing with me, always asking fantastically interesting questions. His mind would go anywhere. He got top A’s throughout, but he wasn’t trying for them. He blogged on ballsy topics, never asked ‘Will this be in the exam’ or ‘How many blogs to I have to do’. He was the first student to get all questions in one of my tests right.

This is my life: Sgt. Bryan Early - Squad LeaderBut he didn’t care about that record. He just wanted to learn, to push me and himself. He loved it. He told me he was so glad to be in my classroom: it was peaceful, respectful, and intellectually demanding. The very opposite of his Iraq experience he said. No IEDs, no bullets, no one who hated him. I told him that if a shooter came in through the classroom door, my plan was to hide and let him deal with it. He just laughed and laughed and laughed.

That Fall was the fall of Sandusky. I bumped into my Marine outside Old Main. He was carrying a huge sign demanding the President’s ass even though Spanier had just been in my class (and very effective he was too). When I saw the Marine next, after Spanier had been sacked, he was just so pleased change could be affected. I often wonder what happened to him. I’d love to meet him now, to see what a Penn State degree does to a combat vet with a lust for learning and life. A man who served, a man on fire to use his brain.

Combat in the classroom 1.

In my class last year, two students in army outfits sat together. They were shy with me, but I learned they’d met in the army, got married, had kids. He’d been in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. She’d been US-based, worried sick. Now, between tours, they were trying to get college degrees, raise their kids and make their way in the military and life. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for them, but they weren’t complaining. They seemed at peace.

He stopped coming to class about half way through semester. She kept coming. I will forever regret not asking her what happened. He passed, but with a C or a D, I think, working off the Angel notes and talking with his wife he later wrote me. After, when the year was done, I learned he’d stopped coming because – get this – he couldn’t deal with all the whispering conversations in class around him, and the inanity of the stuff discussed by the whisperers.

armyImagine what that’s like. You’ve been in combat. You have a family to raise on not much money. You have no parents paying your fees or living expenses. And kids around you are talking about their boyfriends, football, manicures and celebrity gossip while you are trying to learn.

Those kids drove a seasoned combat vet from my class.

One reason I got so pissed.

To infinity and beyond

Word just in that we have secured for next year a classroom twice the size of the current one. So there will be nearly 400 students next year. Each year, I have agonized about whether to scale up, and each year past, I have decided against it or been unable to get a bigger class room. But now, after five years, it’s happened. I wonder what I’ll be thinking this time next year.

Selfish beyond belief

Much to my disgust, I got really angry in class Thursday. As in so many contexts, anger in the classroom does not work. But I was seriously pissed. I should not have lost it, but I did. Twice.

The problem is the folk talking at the back. They talk despite my exhortations not to. They talk when I tell them I am getting texts from their classmates begging me to stop them. They talk when I tell them of people in past years who have given up the class because of the talking. And so the question: what sort of person deliberately choses to interfere with other people’s education? What can be so important to talk about that it’s worth the ire and even hatred of your class mates? What sort of person keeps talking after I’ve yelled all that at them?

I’ve had problems in previous years (1, 2), but never lost my cool before. Losing my cool is not good. It completely destroys my concentration, and worse, it poisons the class atmosphere. A post to the comment wall:  You just scared the shit out of me. I don’t like when you’re upset. Neither do I.

In desperation, I asked the class to make suggestions on what I should do. A sample of responses:

  • I have an idea. Maybe we can spend a class teaching people how to whisper correctly? 
  • I think walking up and calling individual people out like you did is a great strategy because that would be so embarrassing and they deserve that
  • I personally think you walking up to people is the most effective because it calls them out in front of the whole class and I would be embarrassed
  • corporal punishment. That’s how you deal with talking.
  • the girls talking are the KD girls and their men. If they’re talking they’re obviously not here to learn. Kick them out!
  • you should ask people to text in the color shirt / description of the talking people and then go kick them out
  • the people who are bothered by it should go sit in front
  • give them ebola
  • duct tape

I am continuously reminded by the outstanding efforts, questions, dignity and humor of students striving to make the most of the class that the me-me-me-entitlement mentality is actually very rare. But sadly it is present. The issue is one of simple civility. Science is a civilizing enterprise. Universities should be civilizing places. I hate that a selfish few ruin the class room. I also hate that they make me so angry. So uncivilized.


Last night I was at the cocktail bar in Zolas with Laurent Keller when a former student who wanted to remain anonymous bought us drinks….. I searched the bar but I didn’t see anyone familiar. After 800 students, I no longer recognize everyone. But whoever it was, cheers. I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk. That’s the first time an SC200 student has bought me a drink.