F for Fail: an anecdote on how advanced education often fails students

I'm taking another class at PSU, my second in as many quarters. The first class was a great experience in many ways: our professor worked as a trusting guide and facilitator. This was a graduate level class and she presented us with a goal, with as much time and space as she could make room for, and as much guidance as she could to achieve that goal. This class frustrated many of my classmates: they felt that they did not understand what it was that she wanted and therefore were paralyzed to act; they wanted prescribed methods and outcomes. She wanted us to think for ourselves and to explore.

I thought that she was fantastic. She was asking us to think for ourselves. She wanted us to write introductions, glossaries, author biographies, and reviews of contemporary reviews for novels that had gone out of print or were virtually unknown. She didn't define what she meant by a glossary, but really, how hard is it to look at a few and then ask her some questions: should it be like this or should it be more like this? It was interesting how much these graduate-level students squirmed because they weren't being given a roadmap.

My second class is the converse. Tuesdays have become endless; I teach all day and then have class from 5:30 until 9 p.m. I come home tired and usually uninspired. This class takes away the opportunity and space for any form of creative processing or critical thought. It's a 400 and 500 level course on Hood Films of the 1990s: thus far, we've watched "Boyz n the Hood," "Menace II Society," "Fresh," and other films. I thought this class was going to be a fantastic opportunity to discuss issues with a diverse group of people (different races, ages, backgrounds) in a rather safe, open environment. Wrong.

There is no discussion. Instead, we show up to class and get our stamp--yes, a stamp--to prove that we are present. If we lost our "exposure sheet" that gets stamped, we have to meekly ask for a new one. If we are late to class for any reason, we do not get a stamp. We then watch the movie. We then get another stamp. We then have a break. At this point, after the second stamp, we can leave. After the break, we "discuss" the film. Really, what this means is we are asked questions and then the professor gives us his answer--apparently the only right answer--and berates us if we cannot refer to even the most minor character by his/her name, because WE NEED TO KNOW THEIR NAMES! We are spoon fed the characterization, the meaning of all symbols, the deeper meaning of the director's cinematic choices, and the themes. This is our reward for staying in class; answers to the test. We take notes. We go home. End of class.

Oh, and should we talk (ask your neighbor for a pencil or perhaps quietly point out that the person in front of us is on Facebook AGAIN!) at any point during which he requires a semblance of control of the room, even if it's when he's turning off the lights before the movie starts, he takes our exposure sheet and subtracts 5 points. Let me remind you, kind reader, that this is a 400 and 500 level class.

Let's talk about the grading. He literally said to us, on the first day, that grading and learning are disconnected. You can learn a lot and not get a good grade. Conversely, you can get a good grade and not learn shit, I assume. The class is worth 100 points. The exposure sheet is 40% or 40 points. The midterm is 30; the final is 30. The essays are ten points each. Here's how he grades the essays (this is awesome):

He assumes  you've earned 6 points on the essay. Yes, he automatically feels that the essay is worth a D. Isn't that kind? Then as he reads, he adds points or subtracts points. This is his wonderful, clear grading scale (that he told us about after he graded the midterm).

The other 20 points on the midterm and final (I assume) are based around mindless facts and trick questions checking to see if the ONE reading assignment per test was read and lecture notes were taken. Seriously, it's a fucking joke. Two points per the kinds of questions I ask my freshmen ONCE or TWICE a year when I give them pop quizzes to see if they actually read the assignment (and only give that often because they're worthless and meaningless and totally do not inspire anyone to read or care or think or learn). These stupid questions are worth 40% of our grade for the class. Our essays are only worth 20%.

Approximate value that this class is bringing to PSU: $90,000. $3000 of which is coming from my school district to pay for my coworker and me to be there. It's a seminar with 60 students.

As Seth and Amy from SNL used to say, "Really?! Really?!"

So what's the lesson here? Well, hmmm, maybe there isn't one. Except how NOT to treat my students and how NOT to run my classes. I challenge my juniors in the film class that I teach more than this guy challenges us. I know which professor I am going to model my own teaching after by providing my students opportunities for reactions, analysis, interpretation, exploration with scaffolding, clear expectations, and guidance. And I'm going to allow myself a moment of feeling validated by the fact that this offends me and that I am not the kind of teacher who values ultimate control, utilizes humiliation, and disallows actual thought as part of my practice.


  1. wow, what a crazy ass prof. extra surprising given the class subject. i'm so sorry you have to deal with that. i had an anthropology professor somewhat like this once. it was a three-hour, 1x/week class, and EVERY WEEK for at least half an hour he would lecture us about how important it was that we "show up" to "claim" our education. sometimes he would literally spend the entire first hour talking about it.

    he treated the whole class like a game with rules that he made up--very weird tests, he planted a lot of trick questions. and his grading scale was based on improvement rather than achievement. so if someone got Bs on all the tests, they'd get a B in the class; but if someone got a D on the first test, then a B, then an A, they'd get an A in the class. he took the progress as a sign that he had "trained" the student and they were now paying complete attention to his invaluable teaching and life advice. because he is god, obviously! such an egomaniac. i learned almost nothing, and i still blame this guy for a friend of mine (who was taking the class with me) dropping out of college.

  2. That's a rough one. It's painful for me to think that teachers like that are out there. Ironically, I use a similar grading system with my students, but if a student gets a B on his/her first assignment, s/he is almost definitely going to get an A by the end of the semester. I don't think I've ever had that NOT happen. In fact, most of those students are excused from the final. I would imagine that your professor's grading was far more vague as well, whereas my students are given the skills and rubrics at the start of the unit, so they know EXACTLY what they will be assessed for and they've seen examples of strong work. We work really hard to make it as clear as possible to students.