What lecturers think when students say…

Now, you might think that I’ve turned into a jaded and cynical old man when you read the following. And you might be right. I should also emphasise that there are many things students say that are not silly or irritating.

As for the rest…

Student: I don’t understand X. [Silence] (Extra points for incoherent babbling between the words “don’t” and “understand”.)

Lecturer: Okay. So you’re going to fix that, right? I mean, there is all that stuff I’ve been saying for the last N weeks, which you’ve been paying money to hear about. Quite a lot of money, if you recall.

Student: What do I write here? (Extra points for saying this after a detailed explanation has just been given.)

Lecturer: What should you write, or what you’re going to write? From the looks of things, you’re going to write total bullshit — oh look, you already have — because your question demonstrates a preoccupation with the mindless act of putting ink on paper to the exclusion of actual learning. Of course, the real trick is to write the correct answer, but this may unfortunately require you to understand all the stuff I’ve been saying.

Student: How should I format my answer? (Extra points for total misunderstanding of where and why marks were actually lost on the last assessment.)

Lecturer: You have two options: you can format it so that I can understand it (looks to the contrary notwithstanding, I am in fact an ordinary human being), or you can make it look like gibberish. Now, having thought carefully about the implications of those two options, you may be inclined to ask how to do the former, to which I humbly advise you to learn your shit and stop conflating your lack of understanding with a mere “formatting” deficiency.

Student: You took X marks off me here — that’s too harsh! (Extra points for inventing a rationale based on a vague and completely fictitious set of Rules of Marking.)

Lecturer: I took X marks off because you were wrong, a fact you’re not apparently disputing. I must now point out that being wrong isn’t a good place from which to be arguing for different marking criteria, since your judgment is now compromised both emotionally and intellectually — a double whammy of fail. In trying to diminish the importance of your first error, you are in fact compounding it with a second one. Perhaps we should revise your mark downwards a bit more…

Student: What do you mean by this question here? (Extra points for not saying anything else at all.)

Lecturer: Is that a trick question? The words are right there on the page. They go together into sentences to represent meaning. Would you like some different words? You know we all love to spend hours flailing around for alternate phrasing without the slightest clue as to what part you don’t understand.

Student: This question is ambiguous. (Extra points for saying “sort-of ambiguous”.)

Lecturer: Ah, now sometimes that does happen. But hopefully it has also occurred to you that a question may well appear ambiguous if, in fact, you have no idea what you’re doing. Let’s not jump to conclusions.

Student: Is the exam going to be hard? (Extra points for having failed everything so far.)

Lecturer: In the far future, science will have unlocked the mysteries of the human mind, and I’ll be able to peer into your head in order to predict the intellectual and emotional challenges that you in particular will face when confronted by a series of questions assessing your personal level of comprehension. Until that time, why are you asking me how hard you will find it?

(In fact, should said future come to pass, I wouldn’t need to give you an exam in the first place, so actually the question never makes sense.)

2nd/3rd-year student: I need some help with [basic introductory concept]. (Extra points for having come to this realisation after an entire semester, or even an entire year, of needing to have already understood said concept.)

Lecturer: Yes, funny thing about university courses (or at least those not yet dumbed down to the point of irrelevance) — you actually need to know the stuff you get taught in first year. Another way to put this might be: you actually need to know the stuff you’ve been paying other people to do for you and fraudulently submitting as your own work.

Student: Yes. (Extra points for saying this in response to something that could not possibly be interpreted as a yes-or-no question.)

Lecturer: You haven’t understood a single thing I’ve just said, have you?

Existence continuation

As you have doubtless deduced from my total failure to keep you entertained over the last month and a half, I have in fact been a little busy. Possible illusions to the contrary notwithstanding, my existence is not synonymous with that of my blog. (At least, not yet it isn’t. This may change later in life when my consciousness is uploaded. I’ll keep you posted.)

First, it may be worth noting that, after more than six years, my PhD thesis is about to be officially approved. I shall thus enter the PhD afterlife, my soul having been judged and marked, and corrections thereto proclaimed. I shall wander the Earth instilling great wisdom in anyone mildly curious about the nature and mechanics of comparisons between different software inspection strategies, for such has been the tiny sliver of human experience to which I have contributed.

Second, I have simultaneously rewritten and lectured a unit on C programming in UNIX, a feat probably not entirely without precedent, although this has been my first real lecturing experience. It is said that writing your own lecture notes gives you much better preparation for lecturing than reusing someone else’s, and this was probably true. In hindsight I would recommend having all this done before the semester begins, though in any event I didn’t have much choice. Over the course of 14 weeks, I developed 10 lectures, 9 tutorial worksheets and associated tutors’ notes, 3 tests (including one exam) plus marking guides, 3 mock tests plus answer guides, and 1 assignment plus marking guide. That’s 26-42 distinct documents (depending on how you count them), whose combined content would rival a PhD thesis (and I know). This was in addition to 24 hours/week of actual face-to-face teaching.

Third, (as any teacher or lecturer will be all too aware) after the teaching comes the marking. Exam marking is easy – there is no feedback to give, and a fairly constrained context for creative idiocy. You get to see what students do well, and what they do poorly, and what questions could be improved for next time. Prac report marking is also relatively easy, though collating them all at the end seems to lead to the conclusion among some students that they just weren’t going to be marked at all.

Assignment marking is hard. In my case, this is partly because programming assignments do not really constrain creative idiocy. There are many ways to write a program correctly, but infinitely more ways to do it badly. It’s not as mind numbing as (I imagine) essay marking must be. The very worst essays (such as the incoherent, smudged dribblings written in high school English Lit exams by none other than yours truly), must be positively soul destroying to read and mark. You can mark a programming assignment partly by running it, but nevertheless, like an essay, it must also be read.

Reading said programming assignments was made at the same time more entertaining and more frustrating by a discovery I made towards the end. Imagine, if you will, twelve student essays (essays being an analogy here for programs) that are identical except for the substitution of synonyms, punctuation, fonts and paragraph breaks. Then imagine the students involved swearing blind that they merely discussed the topic and certainly never copied anything, and that of course they were the same because the question could only be answered one way.  Then imagine – and this is what really annoys me and my good colleague who was roped into conducting the investigation – that a large proportion of these students are, for want of a better term, good students and will easily pass the unit. (At least, they will if my suspicions about the severity of their punishments turns out to be correct.)

Now that’s all behind me, I come to my last (and continuing) major task for the year: trying to find a job. Then, absurdly, I might have some free time.