The Awards: 2

The Department of Psychology's Teaching Honor Roll just came out. These awards are based on teaching evaluations in Fall, 2009 term classes. I'm pleased to report that I was named to the Teaching Honor Roll for one class, and the Honor Roll With Distinction for the other two. This is a good news/bad news thing.

It's good news that, generally, students in two of my classes had a very positive experience. But it's bad news that students in the other class did not have a similarly positive experience. It's the first time since 1997 that I have not received Honor Roll With Distinction for an intro psych class. Looking back, I know what the problem in that class was: the room.

The room I taught in is dark. The walls are dark brick, and the lighting is terrible--sort of pot lights, creating dim little spotlights here and there. Making it worse is the fact that I have to turn off some lights so everyone can see the PowerPoint slides. Why is darkness a problem?

If you're (literally) in the dark in a public space, you feel anonymous. It's like you're the only one there and no one can see you. As a result, you might be more likely to engage in behaviours that you might not, if the lights were on. (Don't believe me? Check out this paper, titled "Good Lamps Are the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior".) The behaviour in this case was chatting. I had some students chatting during the whole entire damn class, from the start to the end. In case you haven't guessed, this really pisses me off.

I'm trying my best to provide a certain in-class experience for students. To do this, I require the cooperation of everyone in the room. Now I don't insist on absolute silence or anything. I've got no problem with someone asking their neighbour for the last fill-in word they missed. But if you're talking during the whole entire damn class, why bother coming? I mean, really? What are you getting out of the class? Filling in blanks here and there on a printout is not the same as learning. In fact, it's not learning at all. Even worse, with your nonstop chatter, you're disrupting the other students all around you--the ones who actually do want to learn something. And it also throws me off, too.

If a pair of students continues to chat for a bit too long, I often stop talking and glare at them until they get the message and shut up. (This is not going to happen to you if you're occasionally getting fill-in words from your neighbours.) Social pressure can work wonders. However, if a classroom is dark, I may not be able to see who's talking. That's what happened last term. Although I did stop-'n-stare quite a few times, there were always other conversations that just kept going and going and going. It was so bad, I had numerous students ask me to do something about it.

So I gave my class a stern lecture about respect and taking their conversations outside. That didn't work. So I threatened to remove the talkers from the class if they didn't shut up (which I actually had to do once before). That didn't work; I couldn't see them in the dark. I grew increasingly frustrated, and dreaded going to each class. That's right: I had a class that I did not want to go to. For me, this is a worst-case scenario--disliking a class. And this was just due to a very small minority of people. With a negative attitude, I probably did not do the best possible job for that class. For that, I apologize.

The point of this rant is to get out the message that your behaviour has consequences, often beyond what you might expect. If you're excited to see one of your friends in a class, that's great. But if you want to catch up, do it after class. Go for coffee, or have lunch together. But do not spend the whole entire damn class chatting. Realize that you're not just bothering the other students within earshot, but you may also be disrupting your instructor, thereby affecting the whole class.

Why aren't you studying?

UPDATE: Here are comments from my evaluations in that noisy class:

"class are also often too noisy"
"[instructor] did nothing to actually stop [the class] talking"
"I appreciate you respecting students' desire to learn by reprimanding those continually talkative students. They were the only downside in this course."
"Thanks you for acknowledging the chatterboxes in our class and reprimanding them"
"It was a noisy class!"

The Reading List: 1

This post is not about your reading list. (For that, you should Read The Syllabus.) No, this is about my reading list--the things that I'm reading at the moment. I'm not going to include the endless, neverending stream of journal articles. Here instead are some of the books I'm currently reading...

I've just finished SuperFreakonomics, which is an economics book. Wait wait wait! I didn't say it was an economics textbook, did I? No, I didn't. It's a really engaging book, looking at the microeconomics of... Wait wait wait! It's not boring, really--just check out the reviews at The stories they present are interesting for their own sake, but as a psychologist, I like the intersection of psychology and economics, in what's called "behavioural economics": how our behaviour is affected by perceptions of incentives.

Right now, however, I've just started "reading" Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. Why the quotes? I'm actually listening to it as a audiobook. Although I bought the book when it first came out, I never seemed to have time to sit down and read it. I didn't want to start reading it and then have to put it aside and do work or something. Neil Gaiman is just about my favourite author; every story he writes is like a coconut cream pie with pecans, deep-fried in chocolate and covered with whipped cream. I would not want to put that down. Listening to this during my commute makes the time just fly by. Bonus: The Graveyard Book is up next! Extra bonus: if you're short on cash, these audiobooks are available from the Edmonton Public Library (membership: only $12/year).

I'm never reading just one book. Also, I'm always reading something work-related. Fun, but work-related. Right now, that's The Frog Who Croaked Blue: Synesthesia and the Mixing of the Senses by Jamie Ward. Synesthesia is a curious phenomenon in which people experience a stimulus in the usual way (like seeing a letter), but also having a cross-modal experience (seeing a letter in a particular colour, when it's actually just gray). For many years, it was pooh-poohed, but there a ton of neuroscience research being done on it now. I'm reading this to prep for a lecture on synesthesia I'm writing for my Advanced Perception course.

What are you reading? Tell me in the comments below.

Why aren't you studying?

Read The Syllabus

Q: What's the most important thing to do on the first day of class?

A: Go to class. (Why, what was your answer?)

The other important thing to do is: Read the syllabus. The syllabus (from Latin, meaning "list") or course outline is my blueprint for the entire course. I spend hours writing each syllabus, making very careful choices in what I include--and what I leave out. I try to keep it short, fitting it to one sheet of paper whenever possible. That's not easy to do without going to a 6-point font. So it's really discouraging for me to have someone ask for information that's in the syllabus.

Here are The Top 10 Questions That Are Answered By The Syllabus:

1. Is this class graded on a curve?
2. Is there a textbook for this course?
3. Is there anything specific we're supposed to be reading?
4. When is the midterm?
5. What chapters are on the midterm?
6. When are your office hours?
7. Where's your office?
8. Do I need a prereq for this course?
9. What if I miss a midterm?
10. Is the final cumulative?
I'm not going to say that these are stupid questions. ("Rrrd. Fffa. Ffllabfff." I'm biting my lip really hard right now.) But if you find yourself asking one of these questions, I hope you feel awfully sheepish when I tell you, "It's on the syllabus." I mean, if you can't bring yourself to read and remember what's on the syllabus, how are you going to do on the exams?

OK, so my metaphor for the syllabus is a blueprint. The UofA, on the other hand, views it more as a contract between instructor and student. There's a lot of "Calendar" this and "Code of Student" that. It really is important for you to know what your rights are, otherwise, you're probably going to forfeit them. (When, for example, is the deadline for disputing marks on a midterm or other term assignment? Read the syllabus.)

Interestingly, university administration is thinking about cutting funds for printing hardcopies of syllabi to save money. I find that it's hard enough to get some students to read a piece of paper that been put directly into their hands--what if it's now just some e-document online somewhere? Honestly, I think I'd be willing to spend my own money to copy the syllabus and hand it out in class, if it comes to that.

What do you think? Does it matter to you if you get a hardcopy syllabus or not? Post your opinion in the comments below.

Why aren't you studying?

Update 1/4/2010: Just got the memo (which was supposed to be sent out last month) in my email: the Dean (of Arts, apparently) is "strongly encouraging" us to go with e-syllabi.

Update 5/10/2013: Great comic by PhD Comics: "It's in the syllabus."

What format do you prefer for the syllabus? (Please vote only once.)

Find It