Open Letter To A Course Co-ordinator

Thanks for the comments on your classroom visit of a couple weeks ago. You were more than kind; your single criticism is well-founded (and I’ll work on it). So: here’s the final exam for my section. Sorry I’m late. As you’ll see, I’ve omitted some entire topics from the Primary List; please let me clarify.

First of all, please understand that in my opinion, the “Departmental Guide for Final Exam” is an exemplary document. The breakdown of 20% “Easy”, 60% “Medium”, and 20% “Hard” problems, with examples of each level for a wide variety of problem types, is very reasonable (and very easy to follow!). I also approve mightily of the Theory/Methods/Applications breakdown (and am perfectly comfortable with the 25-50-25 breakdown, though — it won’t surprise you — I’d rather see more “Theory” and less “Applications”). The Primary List (include on the final for sure) and Secondary List (assess at some point in the quarter) is also a fine idea (but surely Riemann Sums are primary …).

So what’s up? Where are the “Applications” problems on my test? Swallowed by the brutal schedule is where. This was a ten-week course (the usual format around here: Quarters) meeting twice a week. So a “normal” section would have met 20 times, plus the final. Our section met only 17 times what with two holidays and an “In-Service Day” (while Tuesday/Thursday sections got their full 20). Fifteen percent of the contact hours is a lot of contact hours; probably even a more experienced hand would have had to cut corners somewhere. Anyhow, I’m not a more experienced hand; it was my first time through this material; certain pacing problems are bound to arise as one gets the feel of the wheel.

But … and I suppose this is my real point if any … now that things are winding down and I can get some hindsight, I can say without hesitation that there’s just too much stuff on this syllabus in my opinion. Some of these topics — Riemann sums in particular — appear to require rather a lot of give-and-take: I show you something, now you try it; I correct it (and praise the stuff you did right, of course) and give you a slightly harder problem, you try again; so on. By taking quite a bit more time than the syllabus allows on Volumes, for example, I feel like I got this class pretty much up to speed on that (Primary List!) topic. If by doing so, Surface Area suffers, well, maybe Surface Area was biting off more than this class could chew.

This kind of thing happens all the time, and not just around here. Course Committees usually put more on the syllabi than students can handle in my opinion … and I feel that it bears thinking about. Tentatively, then: it looks like “groupthink”. Nobody on a given committee ever seems to want to be the one to say “whoa … hold on … is there time for all this?” — there’s a (well-justified) fear that they’ll be perceived as trying to “dumb the material down”. Some clod will generally be heard to remark, “Well, I’ve never had any trouble presenting [such-and-such topic] in [so-and-so amount of time]”. But these are mostly the teachers that can teach pigs to whistle (“I taught that pig to whistle; he just didn’t learn it”); their name is legion.

I’m not at all sure this phenomenon is at work here, though. The General Information document (including the Guidelines I’ve mentioned already) is probably the most useful such document I’ve ever worked with … and the fact that it exists at all in this form, rather than having the course creators simply mandate a Departmental Final, speaks very well of those course creators. Just something I think about from time to time.

Anyhow: I hope my too-easy-for-stated-policies exam won’t cause you any trouble, and next time (if any) I’m confident I’ll come closer to meeting the stated goals. I’ve admitted here that I feel I should have gotten more out of this group of students than I did. So put me in, Coach! I’ve probably learned more from teaching this course than from any other I’ve done since getting fired from the tenure track job down the street. Yours in the struggle; yours in the faith. V.


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