Thursday, August 30, 2007

Notes from the classroom

Colege Students

It's still early enough in the fall semester that I don't remember all of my students' names, but I am getting to know them as people. The fall term is an especially good time to run into completely disoriented students who have no idea where they are or what they are doing. Among my favorites are those who failed to distinguish between A.M. and P.M. while registering for classes and are twelve hours out of sync with reality.

It did not alleviate their plight when the good people of our maintenance office put up helpful new numbers on the temporary units near the gym. How were the students to know that some of the new numbers were mounted on the wrong rooms? I imagine the sociology professor was just as charmed to have some of my math students stumbling into her classroom as I was to find several of her students cowering in fear at the cabbalistic symbols in my room. (No doubt the Cartesian and polar grids on the wall were trying to ensnare their souls.)

Miss Manners goes to college

On the first day of an introductory class, I had worked through my lesson plan, taken roll, distributed a ton of handouts, and was turning onto the home stretch with some pointers for the next session. A student came dashing in, looked around, and decided she wanted a seat right in front. As soon as she sat down, she noticed the array of handouts on the instructor's table, so she bounced up and foraged through them. I was doing my best to appear unperturbed and imperturbable when our new arrival sat back down, flourished one of the handouts, and blurted, “What's this for?”

All eyes, including mine, swiveled toward her. I paused for a full beat. Then I calmly said, “You might want to check the syllabus for the details I've already shared with the class.” Her classmates snickered and she made a bit of a face. She did, however, keep quiet.

With only a few minutes left, I distributed a take-home quiz that was extremely easy and designed to serve as a confidence builder. “This is due at the beginning of our next class period.” (It was, you recall, an introductory course and undoubtedly full of students with keen math anxiety.) I invited those with additional questions or problems to come up to confer with me and dismissed class. As I was talking to a learning-disabled student who needed the accommodation of extra time on exams, the energetic late-arriving student bustled up. “Here!” she exclaimed, and shoved the completed quiz at me. She had hastily scribbled an answer to each problem. Then she dashed for the door before I could reprove her or hand back the paper. (I don't care to be in the business of warehousing student assignments till the due date. I want them handed in when it's time, rather than prematurely.)

But she was gone and I decided not to simmer over it too much. The second class session began a couple of days later and the perky late-arrival from Day One was nowhere to be seen. I collected the quizzes and started the roll call. I was partway through the slow process (making a point of actually looking at each responding student in an attempt to learn as many names as possible), when the missing student popped in. “I'm here!” she cried.

“Yes, I see that.”

Perhaps her Ritalin dosage needs adjusting.

Too cool for school

The math classrooms at my school usually have boards on three of the four walls. Most teachers use only one wall during a class session, but I have on occasion taken advantage of all three walls. It's most convenient when I want to sent lots of students up for board work, either individually or in pairs. The problem is getting access to the boards, because students keep rearranging the desks and wiping out the aisles around the perimeter of the room. This is especially bad across the back of the room, which is often inhabited by a peculiar subspecies of student that apparently requires enormous amounts of legroom. These students push their desks back against the rear wall and then slouch down in their seats, legs splayed out in front of them for the convenience of fellow students who enjoy stepping over them.

They grumble and pout when I insist on leaving an open space across the back of the room. Recently I noticed that someone had scrawled “Playas sit here” across the back board. That hadn't occurred to me before. I supposed it must be a powerful aphrodisiac when a “playa” informs a lovely lady that he has his own special row in the beginning algebra class. How it must make her heart beat!

Plussed and nonplussed

I was gathering up my stuff at the end of class, answering last-minute questions and getting ready to depart. One student hovered nearby. I didn't recognize her, but then I don't know all my students yet. Everyone else was gone and I was expecting her to say something. But no.

Since she remained silent, I picked up my textbook and my briefcase and headed out. As soon as I moved, she pounced. She grabbed the little table next to the teacher podium and dragged it to the front of the student rows. She snagged the instructor chair (seldom used except on exam days), put it next to the little table, and sat herself down.

Once she sprang into action, it all became clear. She was a very large woman and she could barely fit into a student desk. That's why she was eager to get dibs on the table and chair before her instructor came in.

What would I do if she were my student? After all, I use that table constantly, fanning out papers for distribution or splaying my notes across it. Could I insist on reclaiming the table and then stand idly by while she proved that her girth was incompatible with our student desks? (I think it would have been a near thing, as best I could tell.)

I left the class knowing that this was a problem that would only get worse as our students get larger.


The boys on our campus tend to wear shirts unimaginatively labeled with the names of various sports teams or vehicles. The kid in my calculus class with the “Approved for public release” shirt was a wry exception. The girls seem to be more creative in their choices, or perhaps they have fewer conventional restrictions than the boys. Today I saw a “Future Trophy Wife” shirt that gave me pause. Was she being ironic? I can never tell. She was cute enough to be competitive in that field of endeavor, but I think (hope) she was kidding.

Some months ago I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt that said “Colege Student.” I laughed out loud when I saw it. She flashed a quick grin at me, but then said in a sober voice, “You know, most people don't get it.”

Damn. I totally believe her.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. You mean you have those, like, grade-school one-piece desk-and-chairs? Gotta be a lot of people those don't fit.

I remember telling the guy who was bragging on the wonderful new language lab how much I hated it. He was taken aback. So I had to explain to him that when you're 5' tall, and the desk in the carrel is big, and the controls for the recorder are fixed at the back -- you can't reach the damn things.

The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - I would hope you would get another little table - or use a student desk.

Zeno said...

I'm afraid we do have a lot of those one-unit student desks. Just like grade school.

Since we're pretty good at accommodating students' physical needs (perhaps even better than we are at supplying all their educational needs), I think we could find another small table from the warehouse stash, where unwanted furniture goes to collect dust.

I think the likelier long-term solution will be different desks -- maybe even two-piece versions!

susanbrown said...

I work in a math/physics advising office and on the first day of classes there are always a number of students who come to my office insisting that some other class is meeting in the room where there math class is supposed to be. Today 3 of them went to room 112 instead of 122, and yesterday we had about 5 who swore that there was a physics class going on in their multivariable calculus course.

I consult the schedule for the professor's name and to verify that there has been no room change. "Was the professor in the "physics" class about 6' with long black hair in a pony tail?"

"Uh, yes."

"Welcome to multivariable calculus. Now get back over there right now, or you're going to be really lost for the rest of the semester!"

susanbrown said...

Yikes -- I meant "their" math class, not "there" math class.

kai said...

Back when I was an undergrad we had a Differential Equations exam which was given in rooms V31–36, except V33. There was of course a number of us which missed this proviso, so we sat down in V33, picked up pens, rubbers, snacks, etc and waited for the exam to start. The proctor came in with the exam papers, greeted us and after a bit of paper shuffling announced:
“Lennart* will be coming in around 09:00 if there are any problems with the questions.”
[surprised] “Lennart who?”
[baffled] “Lennart Larsson.”
[bewildered looks]
[confused by our confusion] “Lennart Larsson, the CoMa teacher…”
[desperately] “CoMa!?”
[are you kidding?] “Theory of Construction Materials!”
RUMBLE as all present students hastily pick up their gear and desperately run out to find the correct room. Proctor looks on wild-eyed. I so wonder if any of the actual CoMa students ever found their way to V33…

Tony said...

I start "colege" on Tuesday after a 7 year hiatus from higher ed. I'll be sure not to be any of these students.