Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Teacher's Pet

Last week, I began teaching a 6-week microbiology course at one of our local community colleges. This is the first course that I am in charge of from beginning to end. The lectures, the labs, the assignments, the quizzes (bwa ha ha!) , the exams (double bwa ha ha!!)... all mine. The class meets just two days a week from 8:45 am until 3:30 pm. It's a grueling day for student and teacher alike.

I know it's asking a lot of my students to learn all of the material normally presented over the course of an entire three-to-four-month semester in six weeks. It may be asking even more of me to plan, create, and teach such a course. I have literally spent almost every waking (non-eating) moment in the past week writing lectures and quizzes and exams and lab outlines (which explains the recent dearth of fresh bloggage and chattage)... And, don't tell my boss (or my students!), but even though I am a yeast microbiologist by trade, I have never taken a microbiology course in all my days. So, I am learning with my pupils.

Teaching at a community college presents some special challenges. As one professor kindly stated, "Our students are the bottom 50% of the bottom 50%." Which is to say the bottom 25%. As it turns out, this is not entirely true. The ability and motivation range of my students is huge, and I am already impressed by the dedication of some of my students who have faced a great deal of life challenges in their few years. Some have strongly disadvantaged backgrounds, in terms of material upbringing and education ("My favorite part of today's lecture was the part about DNA," one student told me enthusiastically. "Because I haven't ever heard of it before.")

Per my wife's recommendation, on the first day of class, I had my students fill out a "student interest form" with questions like:

Why are you taking this course?
What topics in microbiology are you interested in?
What other biology classes have you taken?
What other time commitments will you have over the next 6 weeks?
What grade do you plan to achieve in this course?
What are your interests and hobbies?
Below please give any other information that you feel would be important or helpful for me to know as your instructor.

None of my students answered the first question by writing, "To satisfy an enduring passion for microbes." Most answers were along the lines of, "Because I have to."

Most of my students (including the one who had never heard of DNA) are aspiring nurses completing a pre-nursing Associates Degree, and this is their final required biology course at the community college. A few are students from local colleges and universities fulfilling a core requirement for their particular undergraduate degree programs or picking up a course which they hope will help them get into medical school. Most at least hope for success in this class-- nearly all wrote "A" or "B" in response to the question, "What grade do you plan to achieve in this course?"

I could tell from the very first hour that one student, however, was special. His reply to the anticipated grade question: "C is for continue."

When asked to provide any other information that might be helpful to me as an instructor, two students informed me that English is not their first language. This is certainly helpful for me as an instructor. Others told me about their time commitments and potential conflicts (like picking their kids up after school or working at the Olive Garden). A couple told me that they struggle to learn but would try their hardest (one has admirably lived up to his commitment thus far, the other I doubt ever truly intended to).

My special student, Mr. C is for Continue, wrote the following helpful information (/warning/threat): "Here at Local Community College our instructors get evaluations from their students EVERY [triple underlined] semester!"

So I better be on my very best behavior.

A few minutes into class on the second day, Mr. C is for Continue announced, unsolicited, that there was no way he was going to remain in class after the final exam on the last day of school (which was still five weeks away), assuming, unjustifiably, that I would (a) suspend my attendance policy on the last day of school and (b) give the exam first thing in the morning.

Taking notes has become tiresome for Mr. C is for Continue (I lecture from PowerPoint slides that I have printed out for my students with blanks for them to fill in--usually a few words per slide), so I am now being tape-recorded for posterity and Mr. C is for Continue's study purposes.

By the third day of class (yesterday), Mr. C is for Continue had begun participating and asking questions. And his performance on the first two quizzes (yes, I give quizzes every single day, can you believe it?!) are surpassing even his expectations (B is for Better than a C?). (To those who fear I am a pushover, I have a handful of quiz grades to establish otherwise.)

Tomorrow is the first exam or, as one of my college professors would call it, the semester's first celebration of knowledge. I am looking forward to it. My students are not. I am offering extra credit for students who will write a poem about microorganisms.

Maybe I am a sadist, but I love writing quizzes and exams. I don't write trick questions, but I do amuse myself by including funny options in multiple choice questions.

Here are a few of my favorites for your self-testing pleasure:

1. How long have microorganisms been on this planet?
a. 3.5 billion years
b. 3.5 million years
c. 350,000 years
d. since Tuesday when this class began

2. Which of the following is NOT a member of Eukarya?
a. Algae
b. Fungi
c. Humans
d. Protozoa
e. Actually, all of the above are members of Eukarya, but thanks for asking.

3. Who is credited with initiating a trend towards aseptic technique in a clinical setting?
a. Ernst Abbé
b. Anton van Leeuwenhoek
c. Joseph Lister
d. Robert Koch
e. Carl von Linnaeus
f. Professor Yajeev

4. Who is credited with initiating a trend toward aseptic technique in the lab for this class?
a. Ernst Abbé
b. Anton van Leeuwenhoek
c. Joseph Lister
d. Robert Koch
e. Carl von Linnaeus
f. Professor Yajeev
(That was supposed to be an easy one, but a few of my students failed to see the humor in it.)

Here are a few from the True or False section:

5. Aseptic technique is so outdated. It’s not as if I should treat every microorganism in the microbiology lab as if it were a pathogen. Please.

6. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is alive.

7. The agent that causes Mad Cow Disease is alive.

8. I am alive. The “I” in this sentence is the test-taker reading it, not the professor writing it.

Don't worry, though. There are plenty (and I do mean plenty) of other questions that are not funny, ironic, or cutesy. However, as promised, tomorrow's exam concludes as follow:

Please write a poem about some thing(s) you learned in this class. The poem does not have to rhyme. The poem must be at least 5 lines long. You must use at least 4 names or words specifically associated with this class to receive credit. Please underline those words. While all scientific facts included should be accurate, the poem does not have to be completely scientific in nature—it can represent the innermost thoughts and feelings you’ve always had or have just developed for some topic microbiological in nature but have been afraid to express—until now. Your instructor will provide you with extra paper, should you find it necessary.

If any of my readers feel so inspired, feel free to compose your own ode to bacteria in the comments section or email them to me at landofyajeev @ hotmail . com


Russ Parker said...

Wanna team teach something? Imagine the moments.

Andy said...

I would love to see some competitive teaching. Imagine two teachers in front of one class teaching two different subjects, mostly talking over each other. Exam scores would determine the winner.

Non-imaginary coworker said...

If you have any problems with grading exams, you can do what my father did when he was teaching a class. When a student came in to contest a grade saying he got one less point than his friend on a question, my father said with much compassion: "I'm so sorry about that, you can bring in your friend and I'll take one point off of his grade".

Avery Gray said...

How did you know I had a burning desire to express my love of microbes and microbial-related subjects in free verse form?! Yajeev, you're a flippin' mind reader, man!

Russ Parker said...

Tag team teaching?

yajeev said...

we could tag team teach a class called Microbial Law (with a special emphasis on the liberal agenda of pathogenic bacteria).

this is how tenure decisions should be made.

non-imaginary coworker...
i had forgotten how important every single question was to college students. my students have not paused to consider the fact that one question on one quiz is worth less than 0.1% of their final grade for the course.

(almost) nothing would make me happier than to read microbial quatrains in trochaic tetrameter. I hope you will send me your poem.

Russ Parker said...

Okay. Who would we verse?

sstc said...

Why five lines? Many of my favorite poems are Haiku's ...

Justin said...

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Enterotoxigenic bacteria will make you go poo.

yajeev said...

you and me verse string-daddy. individually, we'd both fail, but together we at least have a hint of a chance.

good question... many of my students struggled with the concept of poetry (not to speak of microbes)... the five line minimum was to prevent my pupils from mindlessly compiling 4 terms in a nonsensical one-sentence(ish) string of words.

i suspect you've had this one waiting for quite some time. thanks for contributing!