Anyone who teaches at a university knows the insanity that comes at the end of the semester. Students who have been putting things off all semester suddenly realize they have made mistakes, don’t have the time to finish, and think that somehow they deserve special exception.

This is everyone else’s fault but mine.

My pedagogical philosophy is that I can’t care more than the students. It’s also that my students are adults, and should be treated that way. I don’t do flexible deadlines. I don’t do special exceptions. I have a policy in my syllabus for that. If students want a special exception, they have to do an additional assignment. Not one that I give them; one that they propose to me. It needs to be of equivalent work to whatever they want an exception for, and it needs to require them to practice skills from the course. I don’t think it’s unreasonable. And yet, I still get these:

“I know the syllabus says I can only miss three classes, and I know I’ve missed nine. Does that mean I’m going to fail?” yes it does. “Can I do an extra assignment to make up for them?” You can do an extra assignment to make up for each of them. “Well, that’s too much work.”

“We haven’t done this section of the assignment. Is that okay?” No. Do you think a surgeon could get away with not stitching up a patient?

“We haven’t finished the assignment that’s due in an hour. Can we have more time?” No. I think the last five weeks have been plenty.

“I’m sorry I didn’t put as much effort into the last paper as expected.” You never handed anything in. “Does that mean I’m going to fail?” yep.

“I didn’t hand in my paper or any of the drafts. Am I going to fail?” yes.

 

Now, sometimes I get good students. Like the one who ‘didn’t put as much effort’ into a paper. I told him he was going to fail. He said “Can I write a second paper with the same requirements and hand them in with the final paper?” Yes. That you can do. Absolutely.

He didn’t complain. He didn’t make it all about him, or try to give me a sob story. He just followed the policy in the syllabus. And when I said yes, he said “Thank you.”

Because I’m not looking to fail them. I don’t WANT to fail anyone. I want them to do well. I’m a teacher; that’s my job. If they learn, I’ve done my job. If they don’t learn, then I haven’t.

But I can only care as much as they do. If they won’t do the work, I can’t give them the grade. That just wouldn’t be fair.

When people ask me how I’m doing, I’ve lately been saying that I live in a constant state of low grade panic. Once they stop laughing at me, they usually ask why. It’s because I’m looking for a job, and finishing my dissertation. And it’s really hard to do both at once. It’s not a question of difficult work. It’s psychologically difficult. I keep forgetting to work on my dissertation because I’m focusing so hard on writing cover letters for jobs across the country.

I bring this up because today I went and looked at my dissertation draft, currently clocking in at 120 pages, and found a note I had written there, a note that was an idea for a book. Actually, it was just an idea for a title. But the title is pretty self-suggesting. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been working pretty hard lately, and the pages are starting to add up. Sometime over the next week or so, I’ll hit a third digit. I’m in the home stretch, as they say. Which is terrifying in and of itself. But while I’m here, I thought I’d look around and write down the observations I have in the form of advice. So think of this as advice from me to someone who is just getting started with their dissertation.

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When I was in college, I was a philosophy major. Twice. I fulfilled every requirement for the major twice over. I didn’t do that because it meant something on paper; I did it because I liked the field. Part of what made me like the field was the idea of how deep I could go into certain things.

Of course, I didn’t know that at first. It wasn’t until a wonderful professor, Marjorie Hass, gave me an analogy of how to really DO philosophy that I found out what I liked about it so much. As an aside, I owe Marjorie a lot; if she hadn’t been sitting at the next table when I registered for my first semester in college, overheard me asking for alternatives to math classes, and spoken up, suggesting I take Critical Thinking (with her), I probably never would have. And had she not given me a book of logic puzzles and then suggested that I take Formal Logic (also with her), I probably wouldn’t have given philosophy a second thought. She started me on a very strange road, and I owe her a lot for that. Read the rest of this entry »

When I was young, my dad once told me a joke:

A wolf comes across a rabbit typing away with abandon. The wolf, curious, asks the rabbit what it is typing. “My dissertation,” the rabbit says. “It’s about how rabbits kill wolves.”

“Rabbits don’t kill wolves,” the wolf says. “Wolves eat rabbits.”

“No, rabbits kill wolves. Come in to my den, I’ll show you.”

So they go into the den, the wolf sure he’s about to have a very easy meal.

Inside the den, a lion waits. He kills the wolf and starts eating him. While he’s eating, the rabbit goes back outside and continues work on the dissertation.

The moral of the story: it doesn’t matter what your dissertation is about; all that matters is who your adviser is.

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The process of getting a PhD is pretty straight forward. You get a bachelor’s degree. Then a Master’s degree. Then you take however much coursework your program requires. Next come exams. Then a prospectus. Then a dissertation. Then a defense. Then, hopefully, a job.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But that’s not how it always happens. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my life, is that ‘the way it’s supposed to be’ is almost always different from the way it is. Read the rest of this entry »

Rules exist for a reason. They give us guidelines to follow, and they show us how to get from point A to point B with minimal fuss. They keep order and prevent society from falling into chaos. At least, most of them do.

Some of them don’t. Some rules restrict us, blind us to possibilities, and prevent creativity. I see this all the time when teaching students to write. They have had the five paragraph essay format drilled into them so deeply that they can’t comprehend any other ways to write; they can’t even conceive that there ARE other ways. They know the rules of writing, and they have to follow them, even though it makes them hate writing papers. They know they are constrained, they know they’re in a cage, but since they can’t see the bars, they can’t escape.

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