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?

Where it begins

The Curtin University Student Guild elections have been under way for the last three days, and campaigning for many days before that. Two factions hold sway: Left Action, with its uncompromisingly red posters supporting a range of social justice and funding issues, and Unity, with its simple orange posters endorsing better WiFi and upgraded cafe facilities.

I never found evidence of broader political ideology behind Unity, but Left Action is a political machine. As visible as Unity’s posters were, the red outnumbered the orange maybe tenfold. If that were not enough, chalk graffiti supporting Left Action began appearing on walls, pillars and pavements everywhere.

Some frustration with the omnipresent Left Action began showing. Enter the Curtin Capitalist Society, whose membership ostensibly attend “sexy parties containing canes, monocles, top hats and penguin suits”, and have “a love for scotch”. They fought back, partly in jest, with their own posters brandishing the immortal words “Better Dead Than Red”.

One vigilante further tore down and deposited a large number of red posters outside the Guild offices, with the note: “You left these on my campus”, signed “The Batman”. (The “faceless men” of the Labor Party missed a trick there, perhaps.)

However, it was “Better Dead Than Red” that made ripples. A Google search for “Curtin Capitalist Society” reveals some attempts at creating political rhetoric to counter the CCS, even though it had no part in the elections. There was a suggestion that the CCS was related to the Young Liberals, based on overeager speculation.

More immediately, there was suspicion among highly-strung observers that the poster was a call for violence, and that the WA police ought to get involved (but wouldn’t, because apparently we live in a society where the police only target Muslims and Aborigines). This played out at the blog of John Passant, who humourlessly characterises the CCS as “violent extremists” issuing a death threat. Passant tried to equate, at some level, the CCS poster with the infamous “Behead all those who insult the Prophet” poster that attracted national condemnation.

Not to necessarily diminish the causes Passant champions, he’s making the classic human mistake of overestimating the prevalence and savagery of one’s enemies. This mistake is the same one made by countless devotees of political faiths, and is the cause of much unnecessary trauma. In professional politics, this mistake is actively encouraged as a means of firing up voters’ sense of urgency. In all politics, the mistake is made honestly by people who forget that others have a different political lens through which they bring the world into focus.

I find it interesting to reflect on these low-level political manoeuvrings, because, as illustrated in David Marr’s account of Tony Abbott’s University days, University politics can mould the federal politicians of tomorrow. Indeed, there’s a bit of Tony Abbott in Left Action’s red posters. See if you can spot it:


Failing: a taxonomy of techniques

Not having posted anything for a while, it must be time for another excursion into the minds of the next generation of professionals and experts. Having spent the last month marking assignments, tests and exams, I present to you the following valuable categorisation of failure:

The Rainman: The student furnishes you with one or more curious diversions — simple facts or short calculations — that, in spite of being essentially correct, are hopelessly and obviously beside the point.

The Salad: A mashed-together assortment of words and phrases used in the lectures, often completely backwards and demonstrating a level of understanding lower than that of someone who hasn’t taken the course at all.

The List-o-Matic: A more readable (but no less fanciful) variant of the Salad, in which the random assortment of words and phrases are at least arranged in a convenient bullet-point list. This is sometimes (but not necessarily) employed in the dying seconds of a test or exam when any last hope of coherent thought has long vanished.

The Auto Prompter: In an open-book test or exam (whether restricted or not), an answer copied verbatim from the lecture notes. This tends to stand out when employed by more than one student for the same question.

The Zombie: A non-textual answer (e.g. a calculation, diagram or code listing) based on a superficial, mechanical understanding of some procedure (or perceived procedure), motivated by complete incomprehension of the question and in fact much of the course, and facilitated by the mindless appropriation of whatever random disconnected pieces of information happen to be lying around.

The Motherhood: An overenthusiastic attempt to heap blind praise upon the concepts raised in the question with a slew of sickly, vacuous adjectives.

The Speech: A generally well-written essay constructed based on keywords found in the question, incorporating many of the essential points outlined in the lecture notes, but in which the student has not apparently noticed either (a) what the question actually was, or (b) that it was worth 5 marks out of 100.

The Demonstration: A non-textual version on the Speech (e.g. a calculation or diagram). The student demonstrates great proficiency in deriving a solution that was (a) not asked for, and (b) considerably more difficult to derive than the correct answer.

The Metaphor: Something bizarre and irrelevant, having inexplicably drifted into the student’s consciousness, has been seized upon in desperation as an explanatory device.

The Square Peg: An answer that the student is determined to make fit the question, despite seeming to realise — and sometimes explicitly complaining — that it just doesn’t. This differs from the Zombie, Speech or Demonstration in that the student apparently does appreciate the nuances of the question, and merely refuses to comply with them.

The Hammer: The student possesses exactly one recognisable piece of knowledge, and is determined to use it to answer every single question. The student’s level of awareness of any question here is impossible to determine.

The Relapse: An answer that begins on-topic, with strong hints of a solid understanding, but abruptly halts in a piece of reasoning so monumentally stupid that it wipes out any hope of redemption. See also: the Arse Cover.

The Rabbit Hole: An answer predicated on a misunderstanding of everyday life that no functioning member of society could plausibly have made.

The Deluxe Padding: An embryonic answer — “yes”, “disagree”, etc. — wrapped in layer upon layer of paraphrased versions of the question, apparently calculated to fill up all the space.

The Arse Cover: A mutually contradictory double answer, perhaps intended to demonstrate as much rote knowledge as possible while alleviating the need to apply cognition in pursuit of the correct answer. At least one of the two alternatives, of course, is completely wrong, and the other seldom makes up for it.

The Prayer: A heartfelt plea for leniency, often incorporating some awkward details of the student’s personal circumstances. This often appears as an annotation to another answer that is itself inevitably hopelessly wrong. This only serves to demonstrate that the student is well aware of their own impending failure.

The Confession: The student has finally cracked, and pours forth a brutally honest assessment of their own ineptitude. This is often accompanied by The Resignation.

The Resignation: An artistic depiction of any incidental concept from the question, or previous questions, or anything within visual range of the exam venue. No relevance is intended. This simply serves as a distraction for the student from their own situation.

The land of marking

Those less fortunate among us are, on occasion, forcibly sent to a distant (and somewhat two-dimensional) realm of existence to undertake grueling mental labour: the marking of student submissions.

I have mapped this land from what little remains of my mind after many hours crossing its ragged terrain, with naught but a red pen and enormous supplies of chocolate.

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.