Monday, April 7, 2008

What Students Think - FCQs

I delayed in looking at the comments on my FCQs. First I delayed two months from receiving them to even looking to see if there had been comments. Then I pulled out the 8 extra-graphite scantrons (out of 34 submitted, 46 students) while very carefully not reading anything. The I munched fresh chocolate cookies and watched a scene or two of "Noises Off" before casually reaching over to the very short stack and beginning to read. Reading itself took less than two minutes. Procrastinating and aftereffects took much longer.

Random movements of the universe were favorable for me. The first comment on the stack was the best: "Could be more enthusiastic, I think most of her humor was not understood by the class, but a very good teacher." Contrary to expectations, most students seemed to note that the prompt called for "constructive comments to your instructor", and did not spend just complain. I need to slow down, speak more clearly, pay more attention to student comments/questions, and "cheer up", but "assignments were well-prepared and graded fairly". I obviously made progress: "Once she finished her outside work (dissertation?) it was a complete turn around for the better"; my defense coincided with figuring out what I was doing, and it was developing a plan that made the difference.

But, There's Always One, or so I'm assured by friends who don't teach. There was the One who complained that there was too much work - I tend to agree, although I'm hesitant to accept the opinion of someone who thinks 1/3rd of a 4 credit class is 1 credit, and I'm a bit proud that the lab had more work than the lecture (no readings, four non-cumulative multiple choice and short answer exams). But that wasn't the real One. The real One was the Outright Negative One: "I think she is a pompous TA and needs to tone it down. If she ever became a prof (god forbid) nobody would go."

The delay, chocolate, and movie worked: I wasn't exactly upset by this. Considering, disturbed, even bugged, but not really upset. Obviously this person missed the part of the instructions where it said complaints should be directed elsewhere, since the teacher is the only person to read the comments. Or perhaps they did, and the attack is all the more personal; not couched as "you" directly, but intended to be read by the subject.

Naturally, I wondered who it might be. The obvious candidate, the girl who complained vociferously to many people about getting a D- on the first assignment, wasn't there for FCQs. And then I realized that, completely fortuitously, I'd never thrown away the informational index cards I had all students fill out the first week of class. I pondered upon the ethics of comparison, and ultimately decided that peace of mind gained from some idea WHY mattered more than an implied promise of anonymity. It's not as if I'll ever see this student again, or could have any impact on his life.

"His" because features of letters ruled out every female in the class. I probably identified the person, although there is no reason "why" to be found. Just a student; not one that skipped or failed an assignment or got a bad grade, not one that came to office hours, no one who got any comment in class - although I think I suppose his name wrong sometime late in the semester. Just a student.

Does it matter? The comment doesn't qualify as "representative", so there's no ethical argument against leaving it out of my socratic portfolio (teaching resume) or yearly progress report. No one else ever looked at the comments, and I doubt anyone would do a lot based on just one comment anyway. I don't think it's going to impact my decision to teach. I don't think it will even affect the way I teach. I received one carefully phrased request to give more consideration to student questions, and that will remain in the forefront of my mind. Being called full of myself in the same sentence as a parenthetical request for religious intervention in my career prospects lacks clout. Nothing will change that wasn't already going to change, except perhaps a more jaundiced view of FCQs.

It's not worth having future FCQs filtered for abusive comments; the entire teaching experience can qualify as a unique trial-by-fire, sink-or-swim experience that won't be repeated, so it doesn't necessarily follow that comments for any other class would be as outrageous. I don't even have any reaction to wondering what this student would think at learning that I will be the Lead GTA for the entire department next year. Having worked myself through the intriguing puzzle of handwriting (this person does all r's capitalized, this person all r's and n' one else seems to use a three-line I for the personal pronoun but a one-line I for everything else), it just doesn't seem to matter.

No comments: