Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Love my job...

...even though it sometimes makes me sad. (To paraphrase that little comic from yesterday).

Sometimes I get frustrated. A lot of my frustration stems from how things have changed in the 20-odd years since I've been in university. Back then, the internet as something civilians got to use was still really in its infancy (I had e-mail while I was in grad school in 1990, but that was it). There was no World Wide Web. There were no journal-search data bases.

As I've said before: you used Biological Abstracts. Big, heavy books with tiny type. You looked up your keywords, got some numeric codes corresponding to abstracts, then looked those up in ANOTHER book. You got the bibliographic information and read the abstract to decide if it was worth tracking down the article. All in all, you had to budget a couple days for the simple task of FINDING articles for a paper (for a long paper, or something like graduate research, it was more like "A couple days each month, or a couple days for each stage of the project"). Now, I can go to JSTOR or BioOne and find those things in a matter of seconds. If you hadn't used the old way of doing it I don't think you'd fully appreciate how fast and easy the new way is.

This is lead up to a little whinge: I collected an assignment in a class the other day. This was a short writing assignment, I specified three to five pages with the hint that five was probably closer to the mark. I left the topic fairly open-ended, but it was essentially a practical thing: they were writing a proposal of sorts, which involved figuring out what purpose they wanted to have, what equipment they would need for that purpose, how they would use it, and come up with a budget.

I left the assignment fairly open-ended: they could think about doing it in, say, a museum setting. Or a school. Or as a private business. Or as a number of different things. I told them to have fun with it.

And really, this could be a fun assignment. I could see coming up with an idea and then searching around for the components that would fit into that idea. And a couple people did that - one person, in fact, essentially came up with an entire lesson plan for a two to three day summer enrichment program for middle school kids, found some activities that went beyond what we discussed in class, and wrote a really detailed and good paper.

But a lot of people didn't. A lot of people did what I consider the bare minimum. Some didn't even really have any sources outside of the class lab book.

And yeah, yeah, I get that it's a busy time of the semester: it's busy for me, too. But this assignment has been known since the first day of class, and they've had the detailed instructions on what I wanted for almost a month. (I find assigning stuff any earlier than that leads to people "forgetting," or coming to me in a panic the day before it's due, saying "I lost my assignment sheet!")

It's a matter of time management. I realize I was an unusual student, but had I received an assignment like this, I would have gone home the day I got it, and unless I had something more urgent (e.g., an exam the next day in another class), I would have at least thought about it and maybe started an outline. (And wow, if I had had online search capacity, instead of having to hunt in the library (or libriarIES if we're talking about the time I was at University of Michigan - there were something like seven libraries and the material I needed could have been in any one of perhaps four of them.)

I would have had fun with it. I would have treated it as an opportunity to be a little creative. That's what I was hoping for and that was what I talked about making the assignment. But, as I said, a lot of people picked the easiest (and least interesting, both for them and for me grading it) way out.

(I also didn't receive papers from several people in the class. One was waiting for me under the door this morning and the e-mail that was sent with a copy of the paper was time-stamped 4:30, so I guess I will grudgingly accept that one. My general policy for most things is "by 5 pm the day it is due" except for a few very big things)

I dunno. I guess it's that I look at the assignment and I see how I would have actually enjoyed it a lot more than running yet another lab experiment or taking another exam, and it makes me a little sad that the students apparently saw it only as a burden. And that they didn't take advantage of some of the wonderful resources that exist to help them make better projects. 

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