Sunday, November 9, 2014

Rebellion in the ranks!!

I teach one of the most essential classes offered to students at my university. It's not popular - not at all. It's filled because it's required, not because people want to take it. I never had to take a course like this when I was an undergrad - and I paid dearly for that in the workplace. It's one of the most stressful courses a student can take. If it had been mandatory when I was in college, I would have done everything in my power to get out of it. But back then, in my liberal arts college, it was not even offered.

This stressful course is public speaking. In my career, I've written speeches for clients; I've helped executives with speech prep. At the university, this is one of the few courses I've taught for more than two semesters. (Next semester, I'll be on my eighth new class prep in eight semesters.) The material we cover is required (not my curriculum - I'm contingent, so I don't have the privilege of academic freedom.) But I generally enjoy teaching this class - I know from work and life experience that the ability to share information and to persuade people to act is absolutely essential in almost every profession. As a painfully shy person who had to break out of my shell to advance in the workplace, I am VERY sympathetic to the terror many students experience prior to their speeches. For most of my students, I see significant improvement in their speeches over the course of the semester - as a teacher, that's quite fun to see.

There was a minor rebellion in my 8am class last week. A couple of the students have friends in other sections who do not seem to have to do the work my students have to do. So several of my students have decided I'm a "harsh" grader. I'm "harsh" because students do not get the much-desired "A" simply for showing up and spewing words at the audience from the podium. They must research the topic, rehearse, re-arrange content, deliver their ideas within a particular time frame. The parameters for each speech are defined in spec sheets and discussed in class. Additionally, the grade sheets I use are posted on the website for the class for students to peruse prior to the speeches - there are no real surprises.

And this is how harsh I am: most students get within the range of a B. A few get Cs. And the ones who work - who do the research, rehearse, revise the content - they get As. It's possible to do well in my class - it's not even that hard. But many students are too busy, too committed to other classes and activities, too unfamiliar with important time management skills, so they do not get the grade of their dreams - which I guess is a nightmare for students. In my seven semesters of teaching, I've learned that a B grade can really rock the world of students who've apparently gotten nothing but As all through high school. But despite their 4.0 high school GPA, they have no concept of grammar and language - their research skills are non-existent - their understanding of the difference between "its" and "it's" is very vague and usually wrong. Some have never, ever outlined anything (so I'm told) until my class.

(I had one student use Cliff Notes and a student paper as sources for a speech on the influence of media and self esteem - it was a difficult semester for us both; when she failed to present her speech on her scheduled day - a day she had picked herself - she had her mother call the chair of the department to scream complain about me for 20 minutes.)

In moments of quiet desperation when grading, I wonder if long-time teachers have noticed a significant slide in the academic preparation of students or if my expectations that college students understand the basics of grammar, research and deadlines are outrageously unrealistic. Should I just trash all standards and join the A Train? But then I realize that I simply cannot, in good conscience, let these students leave this class thinking that mediocre or good work (a B reflects "good" work!) is outstanding. So the battle continues... the rebels have not yet won the fight.

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