Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Within five minutes tonight, I was asked for recommendations twice. First was a recommendation of the sort to be expected - a book recommendation for a student. My (as of tomorrow, former) boss emailed asking for recommendations of good books on the Spanish Civil War for a student who had read fictional accounts but wanted to get into the actual historical accounts of the war. Since I am one of only two modern Spanish historians at the university, this is a reasonable request.

I suggested four different works of varying degrees - Sheelagh Ellwood for a basic introduction and easy read; Esenwein and Shubert's collection of essays for a broad understanding of the background and meaning of the war without intense detail; and Jackson and Thomas' tomes if you really want a step-by-step accounting of the war in gruesome detail.

The second request I am much more excited about. A former student, a young woman who took a class I worked in this past spring, sent me an email tonight. I recognize her name, remember her work, but honestly cannot remember her face. [Side note: I do not know how professors who can remember every student for decades do it. I have been teaching for 5 years, have taught well over 600 students since the fall of 2004. I recognize my students, but their names, or their names with faces, flee my fragile memory quickly.] As soon as she mentioned the term paper that she wrote, I remembered it. It was by far the best paper I read all year. Perhaps the best paper I have read in 5 years of grading.

The class was on American foreign policy in the 20th century, dealing especially with cover operations, and her paper dealt with American involvement in Chile during the Allende period. She argued that the American involvement in this particular coup was in part due to their desire to change Chilean economics, which was achieved by placing into power Chilean economists whom had been trained at the University of Chicago and then brought back with aid from the CIA. It was an amazing paper, well-researched, and extremely sophisticated. My only comment was that if she had not considered continuing on into graduate school, she really should do it.

Well, tonight she emailed me saying that she has majored in politics (I'm guessing political science) but now is trying to apply to our graduate program in history. She has written to the American history professor who taught that class, but since she is not sure he will necessarily know who she is, she is hoping that I can put in a good word for her in the hopes that he will write a letter of recommendation for her.

It's the first time a student has asked me to "put in a good word for me" before! So in the past week, I had a student cite me in a paper, and now is looking to me for recommendation help.

It makes me happy, because I feel like perhaps I might actually be making a difference. Maybe some of them really are learning something. Maybe I can be a positive factor in their lives. I hope so. That's part of what I love about teaching. It's the hope of change, the possibility that, beyond teaching them what happened in Europe or in Asia or Africa in the 19th century, they might come away with a greater understanding of themselves, of each other, and might be better for it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Those crazy kids

This weekend was a whirlwind 48-hour grading extravaganza. My university demands that we grading all exams and calculate final grades within 48 hours of the end of the exam time slot. Since my students' exam was on Friday, I get a slight extension, having until tomorrow morning technically. (This all stems from when we were still using hand-written, scantron bubble sheets to submit final grades. Obviously you couldn't physically hand in grades on the weekend, since all of the university offices are closed. This was, oh, two academic years ago? Yeah, not really in the 21st century yet.)

A few times I broke out into song, thanks to Lerner and Loewe - "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? Norwegians speak Norwegian, and Greeks are taught their Greek. In France, every Frenchman knows his language from 'A' to 'Zed'.... Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning. And Hebrews learn it backwards which is absolutely frightening. But use proper English you're regarded as a freak. Oh why can't the English, why can't the English learn to speak?"

So, in honor of 'Enry 'Iggins and his lamentations regarding the non-usage of the English language among native speakers, here are some funnies gleaned from my 2 days of marathon grading:

Students know absolutely no geography. Here are some of my favorite labels from their map quiz.

1. The Black Sea - labeled variously as Montenegro, Slovakia, Lithuania, Macedonia, and Serbia. In my sleepy head, I can only assume that these sea-based states are either the mythical Atlantians or else are canoe-based societies.
2. The Adriatic Sea - labeled as Croatia and Serbia
3. The North Sea - is the Czech Republic
4. Germany - is actually Montenegro
5. France - is either Bosnia or Macedonia, depending on who you ask. These just make me sad. :-(
6. Ukraine - is Bosnia, Serbia, or Macedonia
7. Belgium - is actually Lithuania
8. Denmark - is Croatia
9. Poland - is either Czech Republic, Lithuania, or Slovakia
10. Switzerland - is either Estonia or the Czech Republic
11. My favorite - Austria as the Czech Republic and Belarus as Slovakia - which would have meant a fascinating history of the unified state from 1919-1989, since they were separated a few states...

1. “The Ottoman Empire was defeated by the Japanese in the early 18th century.”

2. “Another imperial problem that Europe faced was the Boxers Rebellion. This conflict started because the Harmoneous and Rhitious fists of China wanted to stop British and western influences on their country. There were also the Indian Muntainy, in which the Indian people fought for their own indepences from European influences. After WWII Europe as a whole was mixed and manggled.”

3. “The rivalry between France & Great Britain since 1789 is like the great college football rivaly of UofA & ASU." ... “The Ottoman Empire was the big man on campus.”

4. In the First World War, the United States “teamed up with France, Germany went with Britain. Prussia even got involved because they were already upset at France.”

5. “The Austrian-Hungarian empire was originally the Ottoman Empire.”

6. Bismarck forced France to give up “Asslance Lorean and sign the Treaty of Versali.”

7. “Tsarist Russia fought on Britian’s side during World War Two, but Russia became a communist country shortly thereafter. Britian strongly disliked communism, and Britian and Russia ended up fighting each other in the Cold War.”

8. Because the French lost the 7 Years’ War, Spain got Canada.

9. Russian imperialism spread to the East, and they conquered the Netherlands.

10. German unification was “done by a genius man named Bismark.”

11. “Imperealism had been a new concept to all the empires but World War II put an end to this.”

12. “The Ottoman Empire rained supreme for nearly 500 years.”

13. “Germany had difficult times in war, because of their lack of embracy of technology.”

14. Russia tried to “go through Afghanistan in order to get to India at the Black Sea.”

15. “From the begging of history, the French and the British have had their differences.”

16. Britain and France signed the “Entente Contical, which in simple terms meant they wouldn’t fight.”

17. “The unification of Germany and Italy was a major event in history. The Germans with Hitler and the Italians with Mussolini. These two powers united seemed undestructrable.”

18. “The American Revolution was not long, in fact once Britain found out that France had funded the American troops and helped them fight, they backed out.”

19. “In 1948 Otto Von Bismarck passed a new constitution, and became unified.” Germany wasn’t Germany until 1948? Dude…

20. “It doesn’t seem Russia ever got their warm water. Poor, cold Russia.”

21. “Europe has had a very long history within itself and outside.”

So many students, so many completely wrong statements! I'm sure the Austrians and Turks would be interested in knowing that they are, in fact, the same people - and so all that fighting they did for 500 years was actually just fighting themselves. And the fact that Bismarck unified Germany in 1948? Wow... I'm especially excited to learn that Britain simply ran back to England - all it took was the basic knowledge that the French were involved to make them run home! As for geography... *sigh* I can't even begin with that. As for their spelling, well, these aren't all that bad, except, perhaps, for Asslance Lorean (Alsace-Lorraine), Rhitious fists (Righteous Fists), manggled (mangled), and whatever the heck "embracy" is. Ha.

Hope these were enjoyable. :-)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fed up

I try really hard to not show my frustrations with my students. I never liked it when professors took stuff out on us when I was a student, so I try not to do it to my own students. But the last few weeks I have been reaching the end of my rope with them. Part of it is due in part to my hellish migraines of late, and so I understand that my mood has been a bit unpredictable.

But lately I have been appalled at my students' complete lack of regard for what I say in class. My students have had two important assignments due this month. The first was a very complicated paper that the professor decided to grade, and that I tried to discuss a few times, and he discussed in class. The second is a much simpler, 2-3 page paper based on the reading of a primary source in their textbook. For a good three weeks in a row, I told all three of my classes that I was going to give them the option of choosing any of the sources they had left to write about. For the first paper of this sort, I made them all write on the same source and answer a specific question. This time, I told them to pick one document and then just pick one of the reading questions connected to their document to answer so they'd have a coherent thesis statement.

That's it. Simple, open-ended, easy to do, right? Choose any of the documents you have liked, pick one question to answer, write the paper. And it's been explained at least three times in class.

You'd never know it was that easy by talking to my students. I would say that a good 50% of my students have emailed me or come up to me in class to ask about this last essay. Some of my favorite questions are the ones that sound something like this:

~ "I've looked in my notes and can't find anything about this last essay. So what do we have to do?"
~ "I know you talked about the essay before, but I don't remember what you said. Could you tell me again, because I need to write the paper tonight."

What I *want* to say are things like, "Notes do not magically appear when I speak. You have to be actually paying attention and writing for that to happen. Therefore, your lack of notes about something I said is not actually my problem. You should have been paying attention."

What I really do not understand is how it became acceptable for students to completely ignore their teachers, repeatedly, then write emails or come in person, admit that they ignore their teachers, and fully expect to get whatever information they need. I refused to answer or told some students that I had already explained this multiple times in class, and they responded that their grades really couldn't handle another bad grade if they did this wrong so couldn't I please help?

Again - NO! Yesterday in class I probably told ten students in a row that what I had said in class still stood - they had no idea what I had said in class, even though every single one of them had been in class. One of them responded, "But I haven't missed any classes. I was there every week."

That's supposed to make your case stronger??? By reminding me that you were never absent, that you were always sitting less than 10 feet away from me, and that you STILL do not know what I said?

I simply do not understand. I have the great urge to tell them on Friday that anyone who emailed me asking what the assignment was will be losing 5 points for stupidity.

I often tell my coworkers that I have no problems with true ignorance - with people truly not knowing something, or not understanding, or even with those few students who really do not have the ability to comprehend something (because sometimes you do get a student who isn't at the same level intellectually, as much as you wish they could be). But what makes me angry is what I call "preventable stupidity" - students making choices that lead to them getting lower grades, failing assignments, or just not understanding things because they don't pay attention, don't work, or do something else that could with a tiny bit of effort have been changed to lead to a positive outcome.

So this week, being sick, being in pain for most of the last two weeks, and preventable stupidity abounding in my students is just making me fed up. I want so much to help them, I want them to do well, I want them to thrive, and I want them to love history. But how can they do that when they don't care enough to even pay attention when I tell them, "You have a paper due in two weeks. This is what I want:.... "?

:-( I love my students, and I want the best for them, but their total lack of caring is getting to me this semester. I fear that I am a poor teacher. If I can't inspire them to care, how can I teach them anything worthwhile?