The Teaching Schedule

One of the most important aspects of my job is the classes that I'm assigned to teach. This really defines my life for that whole (4-month or 6-week) term, and what I do in advance of that to prepare for my assigned courses. So: important. This is how it works. In the summer, people in each research/teaching area have a meeting to discuss what courses will be offered, and who wants to teach them. I’ve been put into the Comparative Cognition and Behaviour group because I teach the high-demand PSYCO 282: Behavior Modification course, even though my other courses fit into different research/teaching areas (perception courses are part of Behaviour, Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience, and my human factors & ergonomics course is closest to Cognition). We don’t plan for the academic year that is about to begin, but for the year after that. (Yes, things are planned over a year in advance. There are implications of a professor taking a sabbatical, for example.)

In August, I submit my teaching preferences. However, as the term progressed, I realized that teaching two 400-level courses (Advanced Perception, and Human Factors & Ergonomics) in the same term results in a really high workload for me, because I do most of the marking of the short-answer/essay exams. So I asked that, in 2016/2017 my Advanced Perception course be replaced by PSYCO 367: Perception. The response: Sure, no problem. However, things are not a simple as that.

Many factors have to be considered by a department when deciding what courses to offer. Are there enough sections of each course satisfy demand? Are there too many sections? If someone is going on sabbatical, who is available (and capable) of taking over their courses? And then there’s the pecking order (I hate that term, but the only other alternative I could find was “dominance hierarchy,” which doesn’t sound right either).

Here’s how it works: professors get first choice of what to teach. Then come Faculty Lecturers, and then everyone else (i.e., other Contract Academic Staff: Teaching or “sessionals” and graduate students). This means that if I want to teach a certain course which has low demand, but there’s a professor who also wants to teach it, I’ll get bumped. It’s happened before a few times, like in the upcoming Spring term. In addition to PSYCO 258: Cognitive Psychology, I asked to teach PSYCO 367, but there’s a professor who wanted to teach it, so I got bumped. There’s not enough demand to fill two sections of that class. So then I asked for PSYCO 104. Strangely, though, I did not bump out the sessional who had been assigned to that class. Instead, the department created a new PSYCO 104 course section. This is pretty unusual to do--there is really not enough demand for two daytime PSYCO 104 sections (plus one night class) in Spring term. OK, well, whatever. (I want to be clear that I am not happy to “bump” any of my CAS:T colleagues. Work is hard to find, and the economy is not great. Costing someone a teaching assignment is not my choice; it’s the way Department policy works. I would be perfectly happy teaching Perception and Cognitive Psychology every Spring term, as I’ve done for many years, and not bumping anyone.)

Last week, I finally got access to my 2016/2017 teaching schedule in Bear Tracks--after students had already been granted access. I was shocked to see that the 300-level perception course was not on my schedule, but the 400-level advanced perception course was--and there were people already registered in it. What the...? So this time, I got bumped again--even though there is enough demand to support two sections of PSYCO 367 in Fall term. Clearly, there is some inconsistency in how policy is being applied.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to hate teaching Advanced Perception. I like it. But I had been spending my extra time since September working on developing PSYCO 367 instead. I wanted a year to rethink and restructure Advanced Perception. (I’ve been developing a new lecture on Illusion, Magic, and Perception, which is really fun--but it won’t be ready for this fall.)

So, what about my preferences for what times and teach, and in what rooms? Don’t get me started.

Why aren’t you studying?

On Being Picky

Some students consider me to be very picky, focusing on subtle, minute differences between words and phrases on exams and in marking, to the point of seeming almost completely arbitrary. For instance, the difference between the words since and because. They’re the same, right? In common usage, since is frequently used in place of because. “Since I am allergic to nuts, I cannot eat peanut butter.” Substituting the word because wouldn’t change the meaning at all: “Because I am allergic to nuts, I cannot eat peanut butter.” So, they’re synonyms, right?

What about this sentence: “I haven’t eaten anything since noon.” Substitute the (apparent) synonym, and... Wait, this makes no sense: “I haven’t eaten anything because noon.” The word since refers to the passage of time; the word because is used to indicate causality. In scientific writing, precision is very important, and selecting the proper word is essential when trying to explain something accurately.

Exam questions also frequently depend on particular meanings of words. If you change one word in a definition, it can completely change the meaning of the term. Take a look at this sample exam question:
Who is considered to be the father of psychology?
    a) William James
    b) Sigmund Freud
    c) Willhelm Wundt
    d) Ivan Pavlov
Know the answer? Some students will argue about a question like this. They’ll point out that there is no such person as “Willhelm Wundt”--it’s actually spelled “Wilhelm.” Thinking that it’s a trick, these students then pick anything other than choice (c), and come up with a rationale for their choice. (The answer actually is (c), but it contains a typo--it’s not a trick.) Faced with a situation like this, what should I do? Should I mark their answer as correct, because some random website somewhere supports their choice? (There are websites that support James, Freud, and Pavlov as being the the “father of American psychology.” the “father of modern psychology,” and the “father of Russian physiology,” respectively.) Should I reward their careful attention to detail and critical thinking skills? Or, come on, the answer is actually (c), and they should not get a mark for picking anything else.

Is this issue all about a simple misspelling? Or is the underlying problem really about the question being far too general? So maybe after fixing the typo, I’ll change the stem of the question to read: “According to the textbook, who is considered to be the father of psychology?” Or maybe even: “According to chapter 1 of the textbook, who is considered to be the father of experimental psychology?” (Wanna try, “According to page 6 in chapter 1 of the textbook, who is considered to be the father of experimental psychology?”) As you can see, the question becomes increasingly specific with every iteration. The advantage is that there is less wiggle room for students to criticize the question--but the disadvantage is that the question is becoming highly specific and, well, picky.

The result is that students will no longer argue about the structure of the question, but will complain that there’s no way that they can memorize the entire textbook. Now imagine that this happens with most of the questions on every single exam. Nit-picking forces me to refine my questions over and over, making them more and more specific. There are no longer any general questions, which are the most prone to interpretation and criticism. There are extremely few application questions, which people complain are subjective and arbitrary (even though they are not). The exam is now full of highly specific definition-based memorization questions.

Learning the meanings of and being able to correctly apply terminology is an important aspect of psychological science. In writing my lectures and exams, I select words incredibly carefully for utmost consistency, clarity, and accuracy. But over time, I have also made my exams far more picky than they were to begin with, because my behaviour has been shaped by students. So if I appear to be excessively picky (and, according to, I apparently am), you can thank the students who previously took my exams...and were very picky.

Why aren’t you studying?

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