February 22, 2005

The Hamster Wheel of Academic Life

(Warning: huge steaming vent ahead.)

I must be on a giant hamster wheel. There are so many things to do; so many that are important, not ignorable, and not postponable. Past experience suggests that the best strategy to get into a position such that you can actually see over the top of the pile of important tasks is to get on with it! (Ok, ok, blogging is not getting on with it, I take your point.) But I'm running and running round this wretched wheel, and it just gets faster and faster. Tasks just keep on appearing and appearing, faster than I can get through them.

Of course, some of this is counter-productive. The faster you get those emails dealt with, the faster the replies come back. Witness the "five o' clock flurry" that can happen when several lecturers are simultaneously trying to clear out their inboxes before going home and a spectacular ricochet effect occurs. (Actually 6 or 7 o' clock is more like it, but 5 alliterates alluringly.)

Another irony: I'm one of those people for whom living in a whirl of tasks is necessary, and if I don't have enough plates to spin, I'll throw some up there just for fun. But there's a fine line between "busy and beautifully motivated" and "Stop the hamster wheel! I want to get off!". I didn't choose the tasks on my pile! When you have such a non-morning person as myself resort to getting up at 6am just try and make a bigger dent in the pile of tasks, then you know it's getting ridiculous. And why is it getting ridiculous? Because this time, I'm determined to try and have what's known as a "social life". Three evenings off per week, I'm attempting! (More fool me, I know.) Work-life balance? Fttttttttttt! Don't talk to me about balance! Go read up on AVL trees for me, then we'll talk about balance...

February 18, 2005

Things students do that baffle me

These include:

  • Failing to turn up to schedule teaching sessions, then wondering why they did badly on the exam.
  • Copying all of their assignment code from another student, get caught, get assigned a zero mark for the work, ....and then whining about how the mark was unfair? WTF?
  • Failing to comprehend the word "no". For some reason they treat the response "No, I'm sorry." as "Try harder! You might get what you want if you push!".Were they not taught manners as children?
  • Confessing to collusion, voluntarily, to my face. (I was too surprised to react.)
  • Being clairvoyant, hunting me down when I am far from my office and should be safe from the constant student queries, and ask for me by name by knocking on the door of the colleague in whose room I have taken refuge. WTF? How do they find me? And furthermore, why isn't it obvious that I'm busy in a meeting with my colleague and thus not available for student queries?
  • Complaining that the exam is unfair because it had some questions on it from the last third of course. (If you want to ignore the last third of the course it's your problem, mate, not mine.)

This post is dedicated to the many students at this university who turn up, do their own work, and have been known to display an understanding of the concept of manners. Gee, it's been a frustrating short-fuse week.

February 15, 2005

Test Bingo

This post from Tall, Dark and Mysterious about how to make maths test marking more bearable is hilarious. That list far outstrips what we get with computing-flavoured marking. Some of them, though, look a bit familiar:

Test grade in single digits
Yes, alas. Computing students are up for this too.
Sentence in word problem solution that doesn't even make sense syntactically.
When they have to write, our computing students seem to manage a high proportion of sentences that don't make sense. Usually in an effort to be fair and nice to students for whom English is not their first language, we try and see whether we can extract any meaning from it anyway.
Bubbly girlish handwriting pleading "Please be nice!"
Check! I seem to average about one "Please pass me" per batch of scripts.
Space below question contains nothing but a massive question mark.
...or is blank entirely.

I could add:

  • Student writes program code that is complete nonsense, not even close to compiling.
  • As part of the answer, student writes out the entire question again, as if somehow the markers didn't have copies of the question paper to hand.
  • Student is asked to define two terms with opposite meanings, and gets them the wrong way round.
  • Student is asked to define two terms with opposite meanings, gets the answer lecture-notes-perfect, and then when asked to give an illustration of each, gets them the wrong way round.

The further we can manage to go in the direction of automated marking by computer, without the marking quality suffering, the happier I will be.

February 10, 2005

I do know better, honest.

I knew I shouldn't have done it. I knew I should have tested the computer lab worksheet on the machines in the computer labs, rather than just testing on my own machine.

Result? Half an hour's worth of firefighting in the lab session today, caused by:

  • 1 missing file containing library code that needed to be tracked down and imported specially
  • 1 library procedure that had gone missing entirely (fortunately there was a convenient substitute to hand)
  • 1 typo in the sample code that I gave to students, so that it wouldn't compile

I do know better, really. With a completely new worksheet, I know to

  1. do the worksheet myself before I set it,
  2. do the worksheet again myself from scratch on my machine,
  3. publicise the final draft of the worksheet in advance to any of my colleagues who are going to have to read it anyway (so their preparation might as well be combined with telling me about worksheet typos before the lab session, rather than afterwards), and
  4. take the worksheet down to the lab (ideally some days later) and test it there all over again.

This method is pretty good at ensuring that typos are down to a minimum, there are no major surprises waiting for you in the labs that could have been predicted in advance, and any remaining errors are usually some combination of {small, ignorable, fixable, only affecting a few students}.

For this worksheet, it took way longer to develop than I thought it would, I ran out of time and so couldn't do parts c) and d), and I paid the price. Oh well. It was still mostly a good worksheet, the students seemed to get a lot out of it, and it was time well invested, given that this worksheet can be used in subsequent years.

February 08, 2005

The 12 Days of an Academic's Week

On the Monday of this week, my office hours brought me:

12 email queries,
11 students knocking,
10 can't write programs,
9 think their grade's low,
8 forms to fill in,
7 slips need signing,
6 boring phone calls,
5 minutes break.
4 need advice,
3 take it,
2 are upset,
and 1 thinks he knows it all.

February 06, 2005

Oops I was too helpful

I like to try and be helpful to students, where possible.

As part of the administrative details one always has to go through at the beginning of a course, I thought I'd be helpful to the students and remind them where they had to go and which time for their computer lab sessions. Just being helpful, yes?

They liked that alright. What I hadn't realised in advance is that by putting under their noses when all the practical sessions were, not only did they get reminded of what time they were supposed to attend, but they also got to see where other sessions were happening at times that they preferred!

The result? All the students down for the lab session at the most unpopular time showed up at a more popular session, and poor old Gerard, the teaching assistant for the unpopular session, showed up after carefully preparing for the lab, only to find.... no students whatsoever. Ooops!

Still, I should look on the bright side. The teaching assistants for the popular sessions found computer labs full to bursting of students keen to do their lab work. That's a marked improvement on what we usually see in the first week of a course!

February 04, 2005

They have Indonesian maps on the internet, you know

Some day I'll get round to blogging about some of the excuses we hear from students. In the meantime, as you might expect, the recent tsunami in Asia has added a whole new extra flavour to the tales we are hearing from some of our international students.

"My house was flooded."
"My laptop was ruined and I lost all my data. I was very lucky to escape with my life."
"50 of my relatives died."

Back here at this UK university, I've been trying to make arrangements for students, so that those who are suffering problems as a result of the tsunami don't have to have their degree courses disrupted any more than they have been already.

One Indonesian student, however, won't be benefitting from any such arrangements. He told a terrible tale of woe about how his house had been flooded and he had had to go back there to help his relatives. And where do he and his poor relatives live? In some place that I've never heard of. But our secretary has, she grew up in Indonesia. Apparently this place is on the other side of the island, far away from any tsunami effects...

February 03, 2005

You want to apologise for WHAT?

Sometimes I really struggle to maintain a polite helpful facade for students, against a strong urge to let my mouth fall open in sheer disbelief.

Case in point: today this student comes up to me and says that she owes me an apology. "What for?" say I, wondering whether she's about to apologise for taking up a lot of my time consulting me last year, maybe? Or maybe she's realised that her accusation that I set an unfair exam - the exam had some questions on the last third of the course, which she hadn't revised, and she thought that was unfair - was unjustified.

No, neither of these. She wanted to apologise for thinking that I was a harsh marker. No apology necessary, actually, I prefer to think of myself as "fair but firm", but that probably translates to "harsh" in student-speak, so I'm happy to be thought a harsh marker, but why in the world did she now think that I wasn't?

It turns out that this is because she managed to scrape a pass in last year's course, and she thought that she didn't deserve this, so she deduced that I must have gone easy on her, I must have raised her mark a bit.

Raised her mark a bit?!?!!!!!!! What, she thinks I slipped her a few marks on the side? While half of my mind was busy being hornswoggled and very offended at the accusation, the other half managed to operate the old jaw-and-tongue mechanism, to very firmly tell the student that every single mark of that was hers.

I don't know why I'm so surprised, though. Students frequently take the view that they deserve more marks that they actually got and the lecturer was being too harsh, why not have the contrary situation too?