An Open Letter to my Students

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpg(to borrow a meme from La Isis)

Dear Students,

I understand that you took your exams on Monday and that our class meets next on Wednesday. I know that you are anxious to find out how you are doing in the class. Believe it or not, I am anxious to know how well I am in doing in helping you learn the material. But, unfortunately, you are not going to get your graded exams and projects back on Wednesday. You see, I am only human.

After you finished your exams, I taught another class and met with students. Then I went home to my family and had dinner with the neighbors. Afterwards, I had a wired 2 year old who couldn't fall asleep and really, really wanted her mommy. Finally, at 10 pm (way, way, way past her normal bedtime), I gave in and took her to bed with me. After she gave up crying because I wouldn't let her bring "The Cat in the Hat" to bed with us, she fell sound asleep. At 6 am, I snuck out of bed to get some work done, but rather than grading your exams, I ran some laundry so my family would have clean, folded clothes to wear this week.

I've been in my office all day, but I still haven't graded your exams. I've met with students and colleagues, I written tomorrow's lab, starting writing an assignment for another class, and begun to revise the two lectures I'll give tomorrow. I've been working through the logistics of our field trip next week. Tonight, I'll work for a few more hours to make sure that my lectures tomorrow are accurate, up-to-date, and delivered in an engaging manner. Hopefully my daughter will sleep better. If she does, I might get the family's bills paid before they are due. But I am very unlikely to finish grading your exams before I collapse in exhaustion at midnight.

I strive to teach you in the way that respects your life outside of my class, which is why I trust you when I see your panic-stricken face and hear the story about the flat tire you got on the way to the exam. So, Wednesday, when I come to class without a graded stack of exams to return, please remember that your professor is only human and she too has a life beyond the -ology classroom.

Dr. SW

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How about acknowledging that we students pay thousands of dollars to NOT hear you whine about doing your job?

Quit fracking around on your blog and get our exams graded already!

By charlie the student (not verified) on 17 Feb 2009 #permalink

What a wonderful send-up of the assumption of privilege that students claim, Charlie! The real world imposes constraints on our time; this is inescapable fact. You are paying thousands of dollars for SW's expertise and judgment; if she knows that an adequate job on your exams requires more time than she has, you are paying that money to see that she does not do a half-assed job just to meet an arbitrary deadline. I guarantee you are not paying enough to allow SW to hire underlings to grade papers, watch kids, do laundry, and still be there for every needy student. You are getting a fantastic return for your thousands of dollars!

Yes, absolutely, it is in everybody's best interest to get those assignments handed back in as little time as possible. SW, I am certain, wants them out of her hands as much as you want them back in yours. At some point, I am sure she realized that the time remaining was not sufficient to finish the tests properly; at that point, it does not matter if she spends 5 minutes posting here.

But I am sure you knew that; no one could do such a spot-on imitation without seeing the full picture.

I hope that if you are not the only adult in the household doing household chores like laundry, that other chores are being done by someone else.

Wow, I was going to write a comment about about SW's day-to-day workload, and the unrealistic balance of teaching, research, publishing and 'service' demanded by universities. How exactly does one tackle all of this, and also hope to have 'enough' time for personal life? But, Charlies annoying comment distracted me.

I worked full-time as an undergrad & have very high expectations for my professors. Most professors far exceed the bar, but some underperform. We need to aim our critical comments at under-performing instructors, not young inspired professors who are working their tail off.

By working scient… (not verified) on 17 Feb 2009 #permalink

I do agree about charlie's annoying comment, although it may have been intended to be sarcastic (which doesn't translate well to online text, btw). If it's not intended to be amusing, it's a definite sign that today's college students can be completely self-absorbed and out of touch.

Reminds me of the time I told a class I did not have their exams to hand back. One student raised their hand to query if I had their particular exam graded... seriously. (Even if I did, I don't hand back exams until they are all finished.)

For me, an intro class of exams takes me 6-8 hours to grade. Imagine if I handed out a homework assignment that lengthy on Tuesday, but made the due date the next Thursday? The students would be angry - and rightly so. I use the same rule of thumb for grading assignments that I do for assigning them - I give you a week to complete it, you can give me a week to grade it.

And as for those "thousands of dollars" - notsomuch. Remove all the administrative fees (computer fees, activity fees, whatnot), pay the administrators and staff, divide by the number of classes the student is takeing... and you're not really paying that much per professor anymore. I'm guessing your average R1 faculty member brings in more overhead money from grants than your average student "pays" that professor in tuition. (And we don't get money from that overhead, either.)

"I strive to teach you in the way that respects your life outside of my class, which is why I trust you when I see your panic-stricken face and hear the story about the flat tire you got on the way to the exam."

Ah, so you're the nicer than any other professor, and then you wonder why they expect so much. You're teaching them bad habits.

Mind you, I'm also being too nice and teaching my students all sorts of bad habits. I don't have tenure and I need positive evaluations. That doesn't mean I'm not aware of what I'm doing. I know I'm creating my own problem, and I will continue to do this until I have tenure.

Tenure is a valuable thing and so a very strong incentive, and thus people do all sorts of things that are incompatible with sanity in order to get it. Supply and demand.

By i'm not tenure… (not verified) on 17 Feb 2009 #permalink

Nice letter but it won't affect the student you are trying to convince. I feel that 99% of the students are actually quite understanding considering that they have jobs, families, along with school to balance. As I put in my syllabus: "If you work with me, I will work with you."

But there are the 1% who shouldn't be in college and will essentially whine, wheedle, and cajole their way through life. They are the ones who continually ask for favors in a begging, pleading voice but, in a second, will then threaten to go to the chair, dean or the president to terrorize you into giving them the grade they want.

I don't have tenure but I do have a good day job. So, I look the little jerk in the eyes and I tell them to go ahead and file their grievance. In fact, I ask them to testify in my defense because once the little morons open their mouths, they condemn themselves.

What angers me most about these slackers is that they force departments to make rules that penalize the good students who are suddenly forced to deal with unemployment, a failing marriage, or having to care for a sick relative.

And I would suggest to SW that she look at using different teaching techniques other than "chalk-n-talk." These can reduce the grading load on you while increasing student motivation and driving down complaints.

By Part-Timer wit… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Part-Timer: Do you realize you just told a full-time overworked tenure track mother of a preschooler to significantly change her teaching technique? It's interesting suggestion, but it's sort of like telling the guy in the foxhole in the middle of a battle that he needs to go back to the supply corps for a different kind of weapon.

I find that this is one of those things where you should stand up straight and act like it's no big deal. Don't apologize, don't explain, just say you don't have the tests graded and move on to the new material. It's kind of like saying "No, we're not taking the Cat-in-the-Hat to Bed." If it helps, you can mutter, "I don't negotiate with terrorists" under your breath a lot.

Also, as the complexity of my life trended upward, the number of multiple choice questions on my tests also increased. I include an "Explain your answer for full credit" space. Even with that, it cuts down on the grading load significantly.

Hang in there.

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Good for you, professor. I would hope that your students, knowing you, understand (I'm also afraid that at least one will feel put out by this).

I have to point out that it isn't only students who believe faculty are overpaid and underworked: the former president of our school would routinely tell students that "you shouldn't feel uncomfortable about calling or emailing your professors at home - they have it easy, since the only times they have any work to do is when they're in the office or classroom. They view time at home as free time."

It takes time to grade an exam well. It also takes time just to have a life. I would not want to see my exams graded by someone who is sleep-deprived and consequently a little short-tempered.

As a college student, I never expected to see essay exams graded in less than a week (and still can't begin to imagine why anyone would want to see them that fast, unless it was during the last week when they could drop the class!) As an instructor, I always told students up front when they could expect their exam results; a day later for Scantrons and a week later for long exams that required hand-grading. When I had to give an exam less than a week before my dissertation defense, I also let students know that the grading would take a little longer this time. (I still got everything back within a week and a half, and didn't get any complaints.)

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink


I admire your honest efforts to return exams by the next class period. It's remarkable that you're striving for such an ideal -- but it's rarely achieved, and that's okay.

While ideally students would receive feedback as soon as possible, in the real world few people get feedback that quickly. It's quite rare. In the workplace, often feedback is only delivered once a year in a formal performance evaluation.

Yes, instant feedback is best, but students need to learn how to handle feedback when it's not instantaneous too.

Hm. We don't have rules about assignments, but we do have rules about exams. Officially, we should have the grades back to the students 15 working days after they handed in their exams.

Currently, the students have 1 week to hand in their assignments. I take another week to grade them, and provide them with feedback and learning points. Interestingly, they demanded more learning points.

Oy, Charlie. When I was an undergrad I had a professor tell us that each class we attended was $70, about the same as a concert ticket, so why were we skipping so many classes? (He then canceled the next class because of "bad vibes.)

As far as the prompt returning of exams, as long as it's in before the next exam, it's good. Once there was a P-chem prof who had torn up his knee terribly. He couldn't lie down, couldn't sit, couldn't sleep, so he stood on one leg and graded exams all night. His students were terrified when he returned the exams the next day. For most of us the prompt return of exams meant we had all screwed up horrifically.

(And really, Charile, it's called taking a break. All work and no not-work make SW crazy prof!)

By JustaTech (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Last year when feeling particularly insecure about my teaching, I stayed up all night to finish grading exams by the next class period. The students were appalled! They didn't want to see them so soon!

Never again.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Yea yea yea blah blah blah. You commenters can save your lectures for someone who cares. I know SW is busy; she wrote four paragraphs at the top of this page telling everyone so. I am not stupid. I can read.

Here's my four paragraphs of diatribe:

I am busy too. I have other classes, many of which, believe it or not, also have exams and homework and reading. I have a job outside of class. I have to do laundry too. Many classmates have families. Lots of times I am tired or have a bad day or crap just doesn't go my way. Yet I try hard to meet YOUR deadlines and often apparently arbitrary and nonsensical requirements for the class. Do I complain about it? Sure I do, sometimes. Do I complain about it hoping my professors will give me a break? Sure, sometimes I do.

So what's the difference between me and SW? She is being PAID to care about my problems. I don't need to hear about hers. Is this a selfish 'service mentality'? You bet. Do I feel guilty about it? Nope. Purdue tuition ranges from about $8k to $24k, depending on whether one is out of state or not. Basically, it's $24k either way because Indiana taxpayers are picking up some of the tab for in-state students. $24k is a lot of money. About the same as a nice car. Imagine buying a brand new nice car every year and having it COMPLAIN and/or malfunction every time you took it for a drive! Not acceptable. I want that car to simply shut up and take me where I want to go. That's what I bought it for.

At this point, some of you are no doubt cranking up a whine about how professors don't see much of that tuition money. Tough. Take it up with your administration. It's not my problem if you took a job where people cheat you. Besides, according to Purdue's website, the average assistant prof salary is about $67k. How much does SW teach each semester? One class? Maybe two? There are a lot of people -- especially in this economy -- who would LOVE a $67k job where you show up 3-6 hours per week and do something, and the rest of the time you get to do something which basically you presumably do anyway as a hobby. And don't give me any crap about how a prof needs to put in a bunch of time outside of class preparing lectures and stuff. That's naive elitist horseshit. First off, profs are hired for their expertise. If they don't know how to teach the stuff they're assigned to teach, then they aren't qualified and shouldn't have taken the job. Second, LOTS of jobs require 'work' outside of work. Ever tried working a factory line with a long commute and the requirement that you buy and maintain your own uniform and tools? Ever had a big sales project you had to work all night to get done or maybe a business trip with your annoying boss who makes you go but won't reimburse you for anything?

Suck it up, SW. Save your whining for your husband or use it as an apology to your neglected kid. Or just quit your oh-so-terrible job if you can't handle the stress and guilt. Based on my reading here at ScienceBlogs, there are plenty of other young academics who'd be happy to take your place.

By charlie the student (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

An Open Letter to Charlie the Student,

Shall I return your exam to you the next day with a grade of 0 because I only work the 3-6 hours per week that I am in class and the rest is just stuff that I would do as a hobby? Grading is not something I could ever imagine doing as a hobby. It is work and since I only work when I am in front of the classroom then I just won't grade your exams at all and fail you instead. Seems fair enough to me.

You badly miss the point of the post and the point of the blog. I would suggest that you either read more deeply and widely at this site and others before commenting again, or you do your laundry, study for your classes, do your professors' arbitrary and nonsensical assignments and stop wasting your time "fracking" around on the internet.

All my best,

Dr. SW

I know I'm supposed to disagree with Charlie, but there are days when I do ask myself why I took a job where I'm being cheated. Does it say something about me that I took the job? Sometimes I wonder...

By i'm not tenure… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Wow, what an interesting series of comments.
Charlie, I hope you have a lot of money coming from your folks, because you will not last long in an engineering or science job. First of all, you are way to eager to speak about that which you obviously know very little. Do a little more research on what faculty life is like and what faculty spend their time doing. Look up the reward structure and what the requirements for tenure are. Look up the acceptance rates at the top journals in your field. Gather the information you so obviously lack and then you will realize how lucky you are to have Dr. SW.
Profs are not hired for knowing how to teach, even at Purdue. Knowing how to teach something is very different from knowing it, else no one would complain about college professors being bad teachers. In reality, teaching is very complex and requires a wide range of knowledge about much more than the subject. Profs like Dr. SW spend a lot of time designing class time and assignments to set up opportunities for a wide variety of students to learn. If you were in my class, I'd have you teach a class on something new and then base your grade on the class average on a test of that material. Perhaps then you would learn to speak carefully and wisely.

Dr. SW, you rock! As a parent, as a teacher, as a human being. Treat yourself as gently and with as much care as you do your child and your students. I hope I can take you out for coffee someday to say thanks for posting such honest and interesting things.

Not to mention that SW's job description includes more than just teaching. She is also responsible for research, securing funding for research, and service to the department and university. Charlie needs to get a clue.

charlie has obviously never taught or imagined what teaching actually means. Being an expert in something means you have a lot of knowledge about a specific area. Teaching that knowledge to someone else is entirely different ball game and lectures, labs, assignments, and grading all take time. Even when that work is done, figuring out how to distil the knowledge to students so that they can actually understand and learn it takes even more time and practice. If you actually care that the students learn, which SW certainly does. Go SW you are an amazing scientist, researcher and teacher. I wish I had had more profs like you!

Shall I return your exam to you the next day with a grade of 0 because I only work the 3-6 hours per week that I am in class and the rest is just stuff that I would do as a hobby? Grading is not something I could ever imagine doing as a hobby. It is work and since I only work when I am in front of the classroom then I just won't grade your exams at all and fail you instead. Seems fair enough to me.

What kind of nonsense is that? How does it follow that I should get a zero because you don't want to complete a task you assigned for yourself?
Is your PhD in non sequiturs?

Re-read the part where I noted that your job is not special because you might have to do a little work at home. Hint: it starts "Second, LOTS of jobs require 'work' outside of work..."

You badly miss the point of the post and the point of the blog. I would suggest that you either read more deeply and widely at this site and others before commenting again, or you do your laundry, study for your classes, do your professors' arbitrary and nonsensical assignments and stop wasting your time "fracking" around on the internet.

With all due respect, I do not think I missed the point of your post. You were whining, and hoping for sympathy. I could have let that go as a personal weakness, but you implicitly insulted your students in the process. In which case I thought it might be OK to remind you why you are employed, and who ultimately pays your salary.

Related to:

" either read more deeply and widely at this site and others [...] and stop wasting your time "fracking" around on the internet."

Do you see the contradiction?

And besides, I have nothing else to do except frack around on the internet until you return my exam. You see, *I* am caught up on *MY* work.

By Charlie the student (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

"who ultimately pays your salary"

Um, at most schools only a small part of faculty salary comes from tuition. At research-intensive places, grants cover a lot of it. At private schools with good fund-raising machines, donors are covering a lot of it, and those donors are probably not terribly interested in your education. They are more interested in having their names on plaques on big shiny buildings, or seeing the football team win.

You're right that faculty are good at whining, but you are a pot calling the kettles black. Of course, I won't say that without a pseudonym until I'm tenured. For now, every complaint made by a student is 100% valid. As is every complaint made by a faculty member more senior than me. As is every complaint offered by a junior faculty member if arguing with that junior faculty member would cause me trouble. I am 100% sensitive to the needs of everyone except me, because I am not tenured.

By i'm not tenure… (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

It also seems that Charlie hasn't noticed that ScienceWoman and I are not the same person.

Charlie -- SW doesn't work at Purdue. I do. ScienceWoman works at a totally different institution. And I know you're not at her institution, because you included your real email in your last comment. If you can't even figure out we're two different people, then clearly you're not reading our blog carefully enough. Perhaps you're not taking enough time to do so?

Let's hope you're better as a student.

Ah, Alice. You got me. I'm your dean. Just testing. Send me an email.

By charlie the student (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Sorry, nope again, Charlie. My dean's a woman. Why don't you go bother someone else's blog for a while?

Oh, the assumptions one makes...

By Charlotte the … (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

Ah, true true. On the internet, no one knows you're a dog. I still think you should go spend your precious time other than on this blog. Maybe there are some good classes you should be taking to make the best of your time at university?

I have several comments that I'll post without trying to integrate them too well.

1. Ask yourself, where did the expectation come from that exams would be returned in 48 hours? One solution to this would be to announce, in advance, "the exam will be held on Monday. Graded exams will be returned on the following Monday" [or whatever is reasonable for the time required for grading]. Then no apologies are necessary.

2. I think you made a mistake in the letter to students. The parts about your time constraints in the evening, your family duties, and all of that, while very real and occupying a very big piece of your attention, are irrelevant to the professional question about the exams. What IS relevant is the list of other professional tasks that filled up your work day between the exam and the next class. Teaching another class, meeting with students and staff, preparing lectures, field trip logistics ... If those items have required too much of your time to finish grading the exams during your work day, you need make no apology for not grading them outside the work day, in the evening, at breakfast, in the middle of the night, etc.

3. A focus on work obligations during the work day might defuse charlie the student (except for his oh-so-evident desire to be snarky). After all, charlie chose to pay his hard-earned tuition to a school that requires its faculty to do more than just teach his class and grade his exams (those meetings with students and faculty, that field trip preparation, that research, etc are NOT optional items). Because he made that choice, he will just have to wait in line for his turn, along with other professional obligations.

In other words, the letter could be boiled down to:

a. I could not grade your exams during the work day because of other work obligations.

b. I could not grade your exams outside the work day because of family obligations.

c. I am sorry about (b).

But ... (b) does not require any apology.

I suspect that the letter as written is more appropriate to those of us who work in acadmeia, and who regularly do spend punishing amounts of time outside of the regular work day, and try to balance family and work commitments while doing so. But it focuses on (c) above, when the proper focus is (a).

I think.

By ecologist (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

ecologist is dead on.
As a young professor it is important to remember that you are the captain of your ship, not the charlies in your life. You shouldn't complain or explain to charlie.

My husband is reading the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. He was telling me about the chapter on expectations. The gist of it was that you can really influence your audience's reaction to things by telling them what to expect at the beginning. For instance starting off your lecture with, "This an important topic I'm really excited to share with you today." Or, to the point of this discussion, "This is an important test, and I want to give it the time it deserves while providing you with prompt feedback, so I will be getting these back to you next Monday."

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

I'm incredibly grateful that my students are nothing like the annoying commenter who (dis)graced this thread. Thanks to all of those who responded with constructive comments. It has been really helpful for me to realize that my expectation that I return the graded exams at the next class is unreasonable, unrealistic, and uncommon. The exams are now graded, and we'll spend part of next Monday's class discussing the results and key elements of what I was looking for as I graded them. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I didn't send this email to my students. At the start of Wednesday's class, I simply announced that the exams weren't completely graded yet and I would return them on Monday. Then I moved on to how the weather was forcing us to reschedule some of our outdoor labs.

The weather is forcing you to reschedule some of your outdoor labs? I didn't pay good money for you to bitch about the weather! You get paid to take us out to these labs; it is not my fault that blizzard conditions preclude our swamp romp! News flash, SW--I made it to class despite the weather, so quit your whining and pull on your boots!

By Clearly not Charlie (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

You're probably one of those whiny, lazy professors who would cancel a computational lab class if weather resulted in a power outage. Come on, parents are paying good money! Get a treadmill-powered generator and start running!

Or get out the abacus and do the computational lessons the old-fashioned way, you whiner!

By i'm not tenure… (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

Interesting thread and I found the comment from ecologist very helpful personally. As a non-American, I love the capitalist entitlement stuff from Charlie in this thread. Its pretty funny although rather scary!

"La Isis." ScienceWoman, you rock my world.

Now, you tell those students to sit down, keep quiet, and be thankful for the little crumbs of knowledge you throw in their direction. Tell them you can grade their exams in 48 hours, but will probably do so as thoughtfully as if you stood at the top the stairs, threw them, and assigned a grade based in the stair they fell on. You can offer them that as an alternative to waiting a few more days.

I love the part where charlie the student illustrates why college education is not just about classroom larnin'. It is also a place for self-centered adolescent gits to work out that the world is a larger place that does not, gasp, revolve around them. In some cases, it very well might take thousands of dollars in tuition to drive that highly valuable life lesson home...

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 22 Feb 2009 #permalink

I'd like to ask "ecologist" to re-think both their position and the position that ScienceWoman took in her post. Who gets to decide what is relevant? More specifically, what is relevant to one's professional life. I, personally, think that one of the major problems in US institutions is that white, upper-class, heterosexual males have made that determination for centuries. Declaring that personal life is irrelevant to professional life means that we live a bifurcated life, which is unhealthy. In addition, it hides an important part of our humanity, making it harder to connect authentically with each other. Finally, it adds to the difficulties that non-traditional faculty face as they work against centuries of expectaions. I believe that ALL faculty would benefit if everyone were able to see personal life as connected to, and vital for, a satifying professional life.

By Alisha Waller (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink