Saturday, March 17, 2007

TA Blues

Today, my blues returned a bit- I'm not much looking forward to returning to classes next week. Spring Break was spent reading for my exam fields, spending time with my wife, wandering around Toronto, and shovelling snow. But now I have to get back to recitations.

I've been trying to figure out why the recitations are such a drag this semester. I don't think it's the sad sack students I have because I'm used to them. General education courses at our University are something of an ordeal for those Freshmen who major in vastly different subjects and who haven't quite grasped that they're in college by their own volition. I'm used to seeing a sea of lugubrious faces in recitation. I think what's different this semester is that I don't see the point of recitations any more than the students do.

The idea of recitations for a history course is a bit odd anyway. Sure, the lab section makes sense for a biology course, but for World Civ? When I took the course, back in the dark ages of 'Western Civ', we just met for lecture twice a week. Now, they have to come to lectures as well as sitting in a smaller classroom once a week to discuss a batch of "readings" that most of them haven't actually read. Even stranger, by order of the University, attendance at the recitations, but not the lectures, is mandatory. I have asked why in the world we would be taking attendance in a University course, but nobody can explain this. Isn't attendance a High School phenomenon? Aren't university students responsible for coming to class on their own?

Not only is attendance mandatory, but the recitation work is 40% of their grade. This is intended to force the students to discuss the readings, which they haven't read, in the recitation, where they don't want to be. Also, I have assigned them a short essay to finish by the end of the semester. Otherwise, I'm going fairly easy on them. It seemed to me that I could either assign them a bunch of pointless busy work, like other TAs do, or go easy on them. To be honest, I don't want to grade the busy work while finishing my exam field readings and they don't need to have two classes worth of work for one class. So, we're just having discussions about the lectures and the readings. Essentially, they're weird desultory monologues though, because I'm the only one who is doing the readings or paying attention in the lectures.

Lastly, the readings don't really relate to the rest of the course work. Instead, they're sort of used to fill in things that we might have missed in lecture. So, to recap, attendance at the recitation is mandatory, it is 40% of their grade, and there we are supposed to discuss readings which will never show up on their exams, or anywhere else basically. In fact, the Professor gives them "exam review" sheets, so they knew after the third week that none of this stuff would ever be on an exam. Actually, the readings are only tangentally related to the course work at all. Moreover, the books of readings are godawful because they tend to give short excerpts of classic documents. Why read the Communist Manifesto when you can read 2 pages of it and have no clue what it's about? Rather humorously, the students think that I'm making them read these things simply because they're pleasurable for me. I try to teach how to take notes, or review the lectures, or explain how to site the readings in an exam essay, but it's no use; my job is to waste these kids time each week; they know it, and I know it.

In the past, I've worked for Professors who coordinated the work that we were doing in recitation with the course work. One of them made our weekly discussion topics into essay topics for the exams. Those students loved me because I was helping them with the course, not marching them through a morass of primary documents that have nothing to do with the course itself. Ah, memories.

When I asked the Professor why we don't assign them work for recitations that will be pertinent to their exams, their essays, or some other course material, he explained that "the real point of recitation is that it allows the students to ask questions." Fair enough. But, don't we already have office hours? And email, for that matter? Aren't students responsible for asking questions on their own? What exactly are they responsible for?

The real reason that recitations were initiated for World Civ is that too many students were failing the course. The administration decided that more students would pass if they had an opportunity to ask questions. What they don't realize is that the students who fail have no idea what's going on in the class anyway, and hence, have no questions. So, they come each week to hear me babble on about readings that may, one day, relate to the lectures, review those lectures (themselves a review of the textbook), and ask them repeatedly if they have any questions. Oh, and get pissed off at me when their grades still aren't very good. After the last essay one of them told me: "You're supposed to be making sure we're all ready for the exams!" Well, no, no I'm not. What am I supposed to be doing? To be honest, I'm not really sure. I feel rather stupid about that. I wish I could take these lemons and make lemonade, but I can't figure out how to. A student confided to me last week that the class is boring her to death because it's so easy. I had to stiffle an "Amen!"

But, also, I can't blame the other students for the learned helplessness that is so salient among them; we've pretty much taught them to require help with everything because we refuse to admit that some of them just can't do college-level work, and that it has always been this way. Instead of admitting the obvious, and flunking some students out, we've safety-netted the system into submission. No tuition is left behind. But, quite a lot is lost in the process.

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