A little More on Online Courses

For the first time in a long time my Freshman-level course on Hispanic Civilization has become hard to teach. And I mean that in a good way.

In a regular face-to-face course, you ask students, “Does anybody have any questions?” and immediately several hand flow up into the air.

“Yes?” you ask one of the students.

“Can I go to the bathroom?” the student immediately responds.

Cringing because of how anti-climactic the question is, you let the student go and turn to another student whose hand is raised, “Your question?”

“Will this be on the test?” the student retorts brightly. The rest of the students with raised hands nod vigorously, letting you know that this was their question, too.

I remember the exact moment when I got my last good question on this Freshman course. That happened in November 2009. And I think it was mostly a fluke.

However, now that I’m teaching this course online, I get hard, interesting, meaningful questions from at least two or three students every single day. (Since this is a summer course, it is taught 5 days a week.) I actually have to think and sometimes even look things up before answering them! This is a dream come true, people. I never have to think before answering the questions in my 100 and 200-level courses. Before the students get to the 300-level, they never come up with anything but the most trivial, easy to answer questions.

The online course, though, gives the students enough time (as well as an incentive) to ask good, thought-out, intelligent questions.

Now I want to come up with a way to foster the same kind of thing in my regular teaching.

Why Do They Just Give Up?

There is a new and disturbing trend that I’m seeing among students. They sometimes give up before even trying. I didn’t see anything like this before but in the last couple of years this started to happen.

Last semester, for example, my most brilliant student – really, an extremely bright guy who obviously enjoyed the course and was very much into learning – didn’t hand in one of the essays.

“Where is your essay?” I asked.

“Nah, I decided to sit this one out,” he said.

I thought that he might have been busy or overwhelmed with other assignments, so I suggested he take more time. Then, I suggested he come to my office and we work on the essay together. Then, I told him he could have until the end of the semester to do it. (I’m always very accommodating this way.) But he refused even to try. This was not a doctoral dissertation, people. It was a 2 page essay analyzing a text we read and discussed in class.

All the student had to say, though, was, “I don’t think I will have much to say about the topic, so I’m just letting this one go.”

Or take yesterday, for example. We are preparing for the mini-quiz, and I handed out activities to help students prepare because, as I’d warned them, this will be a tough mini-quiz. One of the students looked at the exercise, pushed it away and just sat there.

“Why are you not doing the exercise?” I asked.

“It looks too hard,” the student said. “I’ll just wait for the answers.”

This is a language class, so knowing the answers that other people came up with is of zero help.

I’m extremely baffled by this phenomenon. You are sitting in class, anyways, so why not at least try to do the exercise? It surely is more fun than just sitting there, staring into space. How can anybody give up without even trying? And I know these students. There is absolutely nothing preventing them from doing the assignments quite well if they, at least, tried.

These are not rich kids. The absolute majority is paying for their own education, and life will not be easy for them after they graduate. So this tendency to not even try makes absolutely no sense.

Does anybody have an explanation? When this happens, I don’t even do anything because it is so strange to me that I have no idea how to address it. Maybe if I understood the reasons for this, I could find a way to deal with it.

Let’s Kill the Book Report!

I don’t know which enemy of humanity first came up with the idea that getting high school students to write the so-called book reports will teach them to write well. All I know is that I just got through over a dozen academic essays that are inspired by the high-school book report model. And I can say that the book report is a horrible practice that needs to be abandoned as soon as possible.

This is how these book-report essays are structured:

– The essay title is always of the “Essay 1, Essay 2, Final Essay” variety. All my exhortations to come up with a meaningful title seem to fall on deaf ears. Alternatively, people might think that this is what a meaningful title is like.

– Before the essay begins, there is always some exceptionally cheesy quote that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything but that kind of sounds warm and fuzzy. At this point, I’m almost tempted to offer bonus points to anybody who spares me the aggravation of reading an epigraph to their essay.

– The student starts the essay by offering at least a page-long analysis of whether the “reading was easy to read” (sic!). The miserable professor has to slog through the endless recounting of how “first, the reading was kind of hard for me to understand. In the middle it was sort of easy for me to understand. But then in the end it was again very hard for me to understand. Altogether I’d say the reading was fairly easy for me to understand.” (All of the essays I grade this semester were written in the students’ first and only language, by the way. And the readings they analyzed were also all in English.)

Now imagine getting through a dozen of those one after another. Fun, eh?

– After the hard to understand / easy to understand part, the inevitable “how this made me feel” portion of the essay always follows. After reading several pages of minute analysis of how each part of the text made the patient the analysand the student feel, you forget whether you are a psychotherapist or a professor of literature.

– There is always (and I repeat, always) a discussion of whether “the author uses highly descriptive words to bring his point across.” What the point that is brought across with these highly descriptive words actually is always remains shrouded in mystery. I still have 17 more essays to grade this weekend and, I swear to God, if I come across the “highly descriptive words” once again, I will howl.

– A little less frequent topic of discussion in such essays is whether “the author’s outlook is positive or negative.” Am I the only person to feel that the word “outlook” is horribly overused nowadays?

– The book-report-inspired essay never fails to end on a note of condescension towards the writers whose work was being analyzed. “Overall, I’d say Julio and Jorge [Cortazar and Borges] are OK sort of writers. I mean they are nothing special of course. They obviously tried hard to create there little pieces so that’s commendable. But often they failed. They should be commended for trying hard though.

I understand the need to get students to read and to reflect on what they have read as early as possible. These book reports fail to do that, though. All they manage to achieve is instilling really bad writing habits in students and it’s weary work eradicating those habits in college.

Students on #OWS Protests

We were discussing Spain’s Indignados movement today and, of course, I simply couldn’t resist asking my students what they thought about the #Occupy protests.

Here are their responses:

“What’s #Occupy Wall Street?”

“Never heard of it.”

“I’m opposed because they are all corrupt.”

“I’m in favor because they want to stop the corruption in the government.”

“I’m in favor because they want to stick it to the big corporations.”

“I’m opposed because they keep whining how they are in debt. And if they took out all those credit cards to buy stuff, that’s their own fault.”

“They are OK, I guess.”

“Oh, that’s all just silly. I have no patience for those people.”

“I don’t care. I have more important things to think about.”


The other 55 students valiantly resisted my efforts to elicit their opinions on the subject. Many smiled enigmatically. I believe they didn’t want to share what they think because I made it impossible for them to guess what I thought of the #OWS.

And that’s a shame because I don’t grade on political opinions.

How to Write Emails in a Professional or Academic Context

I just received the following two emails from students and I’m sitting here, fuming.

Email 1.

I’m read the material need for the final paper but I do not understand it. I am confused and is unsure how to start my Final paper.

Email 2.

Do to my computer internet not workin at home, I was not able to send it to you at the moment you requested. Sorry for the inconvience but i made sure i sent it as soon as i back.

That’s all the emails contained. I did not edit them in any way. There is no signature or any information that would allow me to identify these students. I have no idea which of my courses they are taking. There was no subject line, either.

Mind you, these students know how to write a correct sentence. We’ve done enough written assignments in both of my courses for me to know that I don’t have students who always write as badly as this. It’s just in the email format that they regale me with something like this. Why, people, why? And this is the technology generation we have been hearing about?

I’m so fed up with getting this kind of email that I just devised a PowerPoint presentation for them on how to write emails in a professional context. I know that the PowerPoint sounds snooty and patronizing, and I hate doing that to students. But I can’t face a flurry of such emails at the end of the semester, and I know they are coming.

Here is the presentation if you are interested:

How to Write Emails

Is there anything I should change or add?

What Have You Heard About the Holocaust?

In this area where I live, the Jewish community is absent and in order to explain to my students who the Jews even are, I have to engage in the following kind of dialogue that annoys me beyond what I can express.

Me: Have you heard of the Holocaust?

Students: Yes.

Me: So what is it?

Students: When many people died?

(Note the “died.” Like they just got old and died, or didn’t take their vitamins and died.)

Me: What people?


Me: Why did they die?


Me: Who killed them?

Students: Bad guys?

Me: Yes, you could put it that way. Bad guys.

How to Prepare for the Finals?

As I have shared in the previous post, finals are often an unavoidable evil. This is why I want to share some advice with people who are now preparing for their finals in the hopes that these suggestions will make life at least somewhat easier for people who have to go through this ordeal.

1. The absolutely best thing you can do is allow for some time and space before you finish preparing for the exam and the exam itself. Ideally, you should get a good night’s sleep and not study for the exam at all in the morning right before it. I often see students still frantically going over their notes and leafing through textbooks as they walk into the room where the exam will be administered. This is a big mistake. Knowledge needs time to settle and be absorbed. These last-minute consultations with the notes do a lot more damage than good. Preparing for the exam is important but knowing when to stop preparing is just as crucial.

2. If your exam is in a foreign language course, the best thing you can do is get together with a native speaker of that language right before the exam and chat with them over coffee. If that is not possible, download some music in that language and listen to it on the way to the exam. Read something online in that language. All of these things will help you a lot more than any last-minute revision of verb conjugations.

3. I strongly recommend not pulling any all-nighters before the exam. Getting a good night’s sleep will allow you not to feel listless (or hopped up on caffeine) during the exam. Wake up early and do some gentle exercise. Take a walk before the exam. This will get the blood circulating in your body.

4. After you are done with an exam, do not immediately plunge into preparing for the next one. Reward yourself with some pleasing activity that will help you relax.

5. My grandfather was a doctor and he taught me the following important rule for people who do sedentary work: after every hour you spend working, get up and take a 10-minute walk. Getting up, going outside and walking around the building or down the street and up will help you be a lot more productive. If you remember to breathe deep and not think about your work as you are walking, that would be great.

If anybody has other suggestions for people who are currently preparing for the finals, please leave them in the comments. Let’s help out the students! 🙂

What If the Students Just Can’t Be There?

The following question has recently appeared on College Misery:

What do I say when students ask me to loosen the attendance policy for them, their emergencies, the things that get in the way of their attending class? These range from “Baby Daddy is in jail and I had to bail him out,” to “My job with the transit authority changed hours on me for 2 weeks.” These are often good students, hard workers. Their excuses seem real. I tell them the policy and they stare at me with big eyes and say, “Well, how am I supposed to be in class when I have to pick up my kid?” “How could I make class at 9 when my shift changed?” “Did you want me to leave my brother in the emergency room so I could come here for a quiz?”

I know exactly what this prof is talking about. Most of my students don’t live on campus. All of them have at least one part-time job. Many work full-time. Quite a few are primary caregivers for ailing elderly relatives or small children.

Traditionally, campuses were structured around the lifestyles of students who lived in the dorms, maybe did a few hours of work in the cafeteria or the bookstore, and used the college years to slowly mature intellectually and personally. Today, with the advent of what we call non-traditional students (low-income, blue collar, black, Latino, etc.), we have to accept that students are often prevented from being on campus because of the pressing personal concerns and work obligations.

I know my students and I know how hard their lives are. This is why I never ask them, “Why did you miss the mini-quiz?” Instead, I ask, “When will you be able to come by the office for a make-up mini-quiz?” I now have make-ups for all of my exams and mini-quizzes because I know I will have to accommodate students who simply can’t be there. I also make sure that the grade distribution is designed in a way that a student who is forced to miss quite a few classes but is willing to do extra work outside of the classroom can get a good grade.

I don’t remember a single occasion when I didn’t let students take make-up quizzes or exams. If a student tells me that she couldn’t sleep all night long because the baby was sick and crying non-stop and this is why she didn’t do well on the exam, I always let her rewrite the exam. If a student says he will have to miss 3 last weeks of class because he needs to drive his father to chemotherapy, I deliver the material to him outside of class hours or online.

And I find that when you treat students like human beings and show that you understand their hardships, they never abuse your trust.

A Breakthrough With Freshmen

So do you remember how I told you about my bored, indifferent freshmen? I tried everything to connect with them but nothing worked. Until today. I shared this story with them (only I substituted blogging with texting, for obvious reasons), and finally, almost at the end of the semester, they woke up.

I guessed they identified with the perennially texting part of me and managed to see me not as one of those obnoxious, anti-cell phone adults but as one of them. And we finally managed to share a laugh and have a lively discussion.

You just never know what’s going to help you break the ice.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Inside an American High School

I’ve taught high school students in this country but I’d never actually been inside an American high school until yesterday. So I decided to share my impressions with my readers.

As you can see on the photo, the school is very beautiful. Many American schools look like penitentiary facilities on the outside, which is why I’m happy that our local school was designed by somebody who doesn’t associate education with incarceration.

Inside, the school is really beautiful and very clean. Classrooms are decorated with course-related materials, photos of students, and things students made themselves. Students look very happy, comfortable, and excited to be there. There are endless lockers for students to use. In my country, the concept of school lockers is non-existent and it is a horrible drag to lug around all of your stuff with you all day long.

Bathrooms are clean and they have doors. Soviet school toilets never had doors in the stalls, so you can imagine the daily joys of urinating, defecating, and changing your sanitary pad in full view of your classmates. This is why I was very excited to use a high school toilet that had a door.

Of course, we need to remember that this is considered to be one of the best schools in the area. We are a small town but our high school graduates thousands of students each year. People bring their kids from all over the region to our school.

One thing I found strange is the environment in the classroom. I don’t know whether it is always as relaxed and undisciplined as it was during the class I visited. Maybe it’s just the personal style of the teacher who taught that particular class. I’m used to a much higher level of discipline in the classroom, so I was quite taken aback by the amount of talking, shouting, walking around, and discussing things that had nothing to do with the class that was being taught. I’d say that about 15-20% of class time was wasted on this unruliness.

I loved being in this school. The moment I walked inside, all four generations of teachers in my family that came before me awoke and started screaming with joy. There is something very special about being in a school. It gave me such a positive charge of energy that I kept walking around with a goofy smile on my face until the end of the day.