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Be Nice

Be-Nice-or-Leave-PosterEvaluations. I hate them. Especially when they come back from quality control and you get a sense of how much a class either liked you or loathed you. Most experienced lecturers will tell you to just ignore the nasty comments because those are usually written by the most difficult students, but if you’re having a marginally bad day, the remarks can make you near-suicidal. Luckily, I haven’t had anything too awful written about me yet; though once an evaluation had clear death-threat connotations attached to it, and another said that I shouldn’t get a salary because I suck. But while perusing the bitchiness and constant nit-picking about whether or not I’m old enough to lecture, or if I’m nice enough to talk to, I began thinking, why don’t we get to write evaluations on students. I know we mark their work, but that’s an assessment on how well they’ve applied themselves to a given task. What would happen if their final mark was assessed by their overall approachability, organisation and conduct during class.

Luckily, I have a blog, so here are a few things that I would like to comment on in my evaluation of individual students over the years:

For in-class behaviour

1. Student hasn’t brought any writing implements with them throughout semester. Concerned that they never learnt to write. Perhaps they should learn, come back next year, and try again.

2. Student on cellphone throughout class, with headphones in. I do like the sound of my own voice A LOT, but I can talk to myself at home… in bed… with coffee. So, if you don’t want to listen, please stay away.

3. Student conducts private lecture at the back of the class. I would really like a break so I suggest that you take the whole lecture (on a side note – wait until someone starts giggling for no reason and see how confident you feel).

For assessments

1. Student cannot form a complete sentence. Please go away and don’t come back until you learn to write.

2. Student writes gibberish. When I ask what they meant, they look confused and reply ‘I don’t know’. Please go away and don’t come back until you realise that I don’t speak idiot.

3. Student wrote beautiful essay on the public sphere. Pity they were required to write on postmodernism. I assume their reading level is up to Twi-hard. Just walk away…

Overall performance

1. Student smells. Disturbing other students. I advise deodorant, or more preferably a bath.

…….. Wait, hang on…..

I’ve always threatened to put up a shame board of ridiculous student answers and antics. That could be a way of getting back at the mean ones (you think we don’t know your handwriting and those evaluations are all anonymous… Ah, bless).

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ANC: Stop Short-Term Thinking, Start Long-Term Planning

Last Friday, the Mail and Guardian reported that the ANC has tabled plans to force all tertiary graduates to enter into state internships after completing their studies. This isn’t exactly news. I wrote a post not so long ago about these plans, but I thought I’d spend a little more time explaining why this can’t work, and try to offer a more analytical critique, instead of just passing snide remarks.

One of the first things that I try to tell any student when they first start writing argumentative essays is that they should refrain from making sweeping assumptions.  For example, don’t claim that all South Africans have Blackberries. It might be true that all your friends have Blackberries, or that everyone you know uses a Blackberry, but that doesn’t constitute the entire population, so instead, you should say that many South Africans own Blackberries. This prevents you from being wrong and provides a buffer that acknowledges you understand the actual statistics of the cell phone industry in South Africa. Unfortunately, the ANC appear to making this mistake by assuming that all tertiary education is the same.  By declaring that all gradutes would be required to enter into state internships presumes that all degrees and diplomas offer students a specific type of training that can be translated directly into the workplace. Sadly, this is far from reality, especially when dealing with the humanities.

While doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants could slide quite easily into various internships (they already do to a certain degree), it becomes more of a challenge for those of us who did not study a professional ‘trade’. Personally, I did a degree specialising in Media, English and Ethics – yes, I can hear you all screaming journalist – but none of these subjects actually aimed to teach practical skills, especially English and Ethics. The aim of these subjects, for the most part, was to teach one to think, analyse and comment on various issues. Even Media, which so many assume is orientated around television and print journalism, has closer relations to Cultural Studies and Philosophy than it does to media training. So in reality, I learnt how to discuss the implications (both good and bad) of Lady Gaga’s dress-sense in relation to society’s representations of feminity. Employable, right?

You have to remember that the humanities were designed, hundreds of years ago, as a field for society’s elite. It was for those upperclass aristocrats – usually women – who didn’t have to work and just wanted to help supplement their conversational abilities in the arts and foreign languages. It was never meant as a way to train employees.

Now, ignoring my last point, and assuming that my BA had equipped me for the communications world in a way that the ANC believes it could, there are another two major problems with their plan.  Firstly, there are thousands of university graduates each year, add on another few thousand for diplomas, and even more for correspondence courses. I’m led to believe that UNISA has over 9 000 communications graduates each year. Technically, it’s a flooded field and there are only so many communications jobs out there, especially in state-run communications. Blade Nzimande, however, argues that internships would function as compulsory community service for graduates, and once completed, interns would be ‘absorbed into that service within the public sector’. It’s a noble proposition, if not disturbingly naive, to say the least. Here’s the problem: we currently don’t have enough jobs, so how does the ANC propose to create thousands of internships around the country, that would then result in permenant employment? If they can do this, then why haven’t they been able to solve the current employment problems?

Secondly, it seems unlikely, for the same reasons, that the government would be able to fund such internships. Granted, medical interns and legal article clerks don’t earn enormous salaries, but they don’t work for free either. In addition, medical graduates are also re-located and often live in flats, hostels, or digs, partly, if not wholly, funded by their employers. So again I ask, how does the ANC propose to put this into practice? Where will they get the extra funds, and where will all these displaced graduates live? In essence, how do they propose that these community servants live once assigned a post? It seems to me that this plan has no real foresight, and absolutely no long-term consideration.

All this points to the unfortunate truth, and one which few people wish to acknowledge – an over-priced piece of paper does not ensure a good employee, good, solid experience does. That’s really where all this stems from, I believe. Employers want recruits that know how to function in the business environment, tertiary education does not necessarily do this, and the government sees internships as a way to deal with this issue. Years ago, if you wanted to become a lawyer, you would work as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts, learn on the job, and finally wrote an exam which tested to see if you were equipped to be admitted. Instead of university training, you were guided by a mentor and practising legal instructor.  A University degree was more about highlighting your financial status and still had to be supplemented by practical training before you could be admitted. Today, while a degree is essential, you still have to complete your articles before you can be admitted.

Unfortunately, society has become so concerned with status that many have forgotten that experience is just as, if not more important, than having a tertiary qualification. This is part of the reason, I’m sure, that the ANC believe that this is the solution.  However, the problem doesn’t lie entirely with misconceptions about degrees.  Mostly, it lies in the quality of our high school qualifications.  Overall, they have become redundant and a tertiary certificate/diploma/degree is needed to help  prove that we are literate, then alone trained in a specific field. Perhaps if we raised the quality of our high school education, and didn’t consider 30% a pass, more employers would be open to hiring high school graduates and give them on-the-job training, rather than relying on ill-equipped mediocrity.

Bottom line though, tertiary education should not be seen as a inequitable right. Basic education is. Universities are places that should harness the collective intelligence of the creme-de-la-creme of society’s academically gifted. If we don’t acknowledge this, we will fail to appreciate those who are gifted in other areas, like farming or carpentry. Academics is not meant for everyone, just like playing for the Springboks is not possible for everyone. I can write, so this is perfect for me, but ask me to build a house and I’m a complete imbecile, just like many students appear because this is not meant for them. So instead of trying to fix the problem after the fact, perhaps the ANC should try to add value to apprenticeships, high school education and leave internships to those who will actually benefit society, like doctors, not experts in Lady Gaga.

Why Are People So Stupid?

After opening my email this evening, I was struck with a thought. What makes a person stupid? Actually, my first thought was that it’s illegal to strangle stupid people; then I thought what makes a person stupid. I’m not talking about intelligence here. That’s determined by a number of factors. Just because I can read and write (haltingly), or play the piano (I can’t), or add and subtract vast arrays of incomprehensible algebraic functions (I can’t do that either), doesn’t make me smart, but it does allude to the idea that I have some level of intellect that has allowed me to learn such things. So then why is it that so many people that I come into contact with on a day-to-day basis act like such incompetent, moronic imbeciles? Is it their complete lack of logic, a deprived childhood without fluffy toys, or just an inane desire to annoy me?

Let’s take this lovely email. My students (now, now, don’t judge, they’re people too you know?) have to do group projects which will culminate into a class presentation this Friday. Three weeks ago they were told that they would be put into groups, and to email their choice of topics before the next class so that I could sort them. Some (the good ones) did exactly as they were asked, others (the ummm… bad ones) did not, so I had to randomly place them into groups so that we could move on with the project. Last week, they assembled in class, were given their group listings and were required to continue on their merry way doing the group assignment. One teeny, tiny, little problem – my class is filled with ghosts (aka the umm… bad ones).

And that’s where my email comes in. One of the wandering spirits has emerged, with a message: Choice 1 – Group xyz; Choice 2 – abc; Choice 3: pqr. Sorry, to tell you this Casper, but you’re already part of a group; a group that has already met, decided what they’re doing, and came up with a plan to work around your vaporised presence. And before I hear complaining and whining and oh, oh, oh, oh, that’s so unfair and you need an extension and, and, and, try this – come to class. If you’d bothered to be there in the first place you’d know what was going on. Actually, if you’d bothered to read the material placed online, or your course material, or your emails, you’d know what was expected of you. So, in reply to your plea for an extension: NOT MY PROBLEM!
In reply to your group’s plea to deal with you: IT’S NOT THEIR PROBLEM – CARRY ON AS IF YOU WEREN’T THERE!

Reading this back to myself, I realise I sound incredibly nasty and fed up. But truth be told, I am. And this was just the icing on the cake. When you are constantly forced to deal with lazy and incompetent people (not students!) it does drive you a little crazy. For example, in reply to an email which someone I know sent, they asked where an administrative meeting was to be held, along with a number of other questions relating to administration. The reply from the receiver was: if the student is in Durban send them there, if they are in PMB send them to PMB. Huh? I thought the question was about where a meeting was being held and admin, not where to send students? But at least I’m not alone in dealing with the brainless undead, other people around me have to deal with it too………… HANG ON! Brainless undead?! People aren’t becoming stupid, it’s the rise of the freaking zombie apocalypse! Screw strangling them, bring me my chainsaw!

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Life of a Grad Student

Ok, so this afternoon I realised that most of my recent ramblings have been somewhat serious and far from the lighthearted nonsense of my older stuff. This has upset me greatly, especially when I read some of the other things floating around my inbox, and realise that people who are far too serious really annoy me. So from now on I’m going to try (very very very hard) to intersperse my brilliant (far too obnoxious) opinions with a little bit (a huge big gigantic slice) of my lost inner demon bunny spawn (I know it’s down there somewhere just past my flailing conscious).

And the first thing that pops into my mind is to regale you with the day-to-day frustrations of being a grad student. As the saying goes, ‘we’re not bad people, we’ve just made terrible life choices’. There’s something masochistic about embarking on a doctoral degree; you’ve been through 3 years of undergrad, followed by 1 year of Honours, then another 2 years for your Masters (emerging with a caffeine addiction and sun-repellent skin), and then think hey, I’ve got no life anymore so let’s spend the next 3-5 few years researching and writing something else that nobody’s going to read (I’m not even convinced that supervisors and examiners care enough to read the whole thing – it’s really long and boring).

But while embarking on the self-torture of churning out 80-odd thousand words, you realise that this is not nearly self-deprecating enough.  You also need to subject yourself to cruel and unusual dogwork just to scrape a bit of extra cash together so that the inflation on the thousands you owe the bank doesn’t kill you once you hit the real world (because being over-qualified for everything and without any real skills makes you entirely unemployable). The sucky part of my story is that at the moment, I will probably die of starvation or worse, demonstrating how to use a blog, before anybody pays me. The excuse is that, unfortunately because we have shifted all operations to a new system, everybody has yet to be trained in the new procedures. Um…. Could you tell my bank manager that when I reneged on my loan repayments, or better yet, could you please use your salary to pay mine since you earn more than the president? No? What can I do to make you? Well nothing really, except maybe get you another slice a pie while I do your undergrad marking.
Ah yes, ain’t grad life grand?!
indieBerries

The ramblings of an overworked underpaid grad student in South Africa

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