This is What Grad School Means

Going over some old links, I came upon this gem of a quote from Dr. Crazy:

My grad students don’t seem to get that “grad school” means “Dr. Crazy doesn’t make class happen.” I gave them some tips, as well as some threats, that may improve this situation next week, but dude, it was a long 2 hours and 45 minutes tonight.

“Grad school” means that the professor doesn’t make class happen. Like any prof, I have a bag of tricks designed to communicate this through action: assorted discussion formats, student presentations, debates or disputations. But Crazy boils it down nicely into spare, clean prose.

How do you communicate to your students—especially in “that” group, the class that stares silently at you and waits for your to serve up the magic—that “grad school” means that the professor doesn’t make class happen?

[Rapid addendum: if you are a student: how do profs succeed in communicating this to you? What obstacles to you “making class happen” might not be obvious to the prof?]

[This is What Grad School Means was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/08/25. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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2 Responses

  1. I have a story a dear person once told me, who just so happens to be a professor.

    The professor assigned important homework that had to be completed for the next class session to be a successful use of time. This particular assignment covered material that was a difficult, key piece for students had to understand in order to be successful in the rest of the class and program of study. Students were instructed to do the assignment and come in with questions.
    The next class session, the professor came into the room and started class by asking for questions. As this professor looked around the room, the blank stares, students avoiding eye contact, he could feel his blood pressure rise. Finally, he asked in a rather upset tone “Did anyone do the homework?”
    More awkward silence. The professor could feel his blood pressure rise to near boiling. Trying to maintain his composure he asked a second question, “Did anyone even bother to look at the homework?”
    Finally, one student timidly raised her hand and said, “I looked at it, but I really couldn’t make much sense of it.”
    Taking a deep breath, the professor looked at the student and said, “Thank you. You are the only reason we are going to continue class today.” The professor proceeded to walk the student(s) through the first problem.
    The class came to class significantly more prepared for the remainder of the semester.

    This might not have been the most constructive or kind way for this (at that time) young professor to teach a class that the person at the front of the room with Dr. in front of his/ her name does not make class happen. However, it is an interesting example of the surprising humanity of the person at the front of the classroom and the ability for students to come into a classroom situation completely oblivious to the reality of how “it works.” Hearing this story deeply impacted my understanding of what higher education classes are supposed to be and how they are supposed to function.

    As a graduate student now, I have had an occasional professor who simply rehashed the assigned reading, conducted a few rushed discussions and then class was over. The way these professors conduct themselves told me that they did not respect the time I put into reading and preparing; so eventually, I stopped doing the prep work.

    Thankfully, I can count these experiences on one hand. Most professors I have build on the material that they assign for class, which gives me the cue that this preparatory work is not only important, but that the time I spend on it is respected. When the professor lectures in a way that assumes I’ve done the reading, conducts discussion in a way that expects thoughtful contribution (b/c either the professor or my student colleagues will challenge appropriately my responses), and creates space for me to ask questions about the material, then I am going to continue to do the prep work.

    It never ceases to amaze me that even in those instances I have colleagues who come to class unprepared on a regular basis. I usually assume that even though they got through an undergraduate program, somehow they failed to learn this simply lesson. This is when I hope that the professor in this class will help them learn it – somehow.

  2. Classroom interaction is a huge component of the coursework in my current program, and though each professor uses his/her own particular tricks it mostly comes down to a stick and carrot exercise. On the first day of class the prof explains very clearly that this is a seminar class, and that students are expected to do the assigned readings and to contribute to the conversation in a critical and informed way. Good participation means a better grade, and poor participation means a poor grade. In other words, Talk or Die. As with most graduate programs the pass/fail line is set quite a bit higher than 50% (it’s closer to 80%), so losing 10-20% due to poor participation just isn’t an option.

    The other thing that seems to facilitate really good interaction and discussion is just the right ratio of talking/shutting-up from the prof. Sometimes the conversation needs a kick-start, but if the prof just rattles on for the whole class, then he/she can’t really complain that nobody else got in on the conversation.

    The other stick that gets used (particularly by the school’s president/NT prof, which makes it even more intimidating) is the cold call-out. If the conversation slows down, he calls on somebody by name to contribute, and offers no life-line at all for the unprepared.

    None of this is fancy, which is one of the reasons that this stuff works. If you expect your grad students to participate, tell them to participate, and then evaluate them based on their participation, then the message comes across pretty well most of the time.

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