An Object Lesson in Good Interviewing and Public Health

I have recently experienced an example of a persistent and rigorous interview that yielded an unexpected payoff. I somehow contracted a Giardia infection, a parasite usually associated with contaminated water. The first questions anyone knowledgeable asks are “Were you drinking out of streams?” and “Were you drinking well water?” because there is a problem in rural areas with contaminated water and wells can become contaminated, especially when there is a lot of flooding, as there was this summer. But I am a city person and only drink tap water. No, I haven’t been camping, I have not been drinking out of streams. I thought maybe there was a sick food service worker? Maybe contaminated tap water in a rural gas station in our trip to Duluth? Hard to know.

It turns out that Giardia is a reportable public health infection, so I got a call this week from a public health student. Continue reading “An Object Lesson in Good Interviewing and Public Health”

Clashing norms of deference

I posted this on FB. “How to be deferential but not excessively deferential: If you have a scheduled appointment with your professor and you can tell she is talking to someone else, knock or stick your head in so you are sure she knows you are there, then back up apologetically and say “I’ll be happy to wait.” Quietly waiting without letting her know you are there is a problem because she may prefer to get rid of the person in her office and stick to her schedule rather than run late with you, and she should be the one who gets to decide this.”

In my office configuration I cannot see the hall from my desk and I have OFTEN been chatting aimlessly with someone, telling them “I’m expecting a student soon” and then even “I wonder where my 3pm appointment is, did he forget?” while, unbeknownst to me, the student is sitting or standing quietly and patiently outside the door, never announcing their presence. This drives me crazy, as it seems going way overboard in the deference direction when you have an actual scheduled appointment with someone not to announce that you have arrived for it. Thus, when given the opportunity, I instruct students (as above) about how one can simultaneously exhibit politeness and deference while also honoring schedules. However,  former students (who are now professors themselves) confirm that their own sense of deference would lead them NEVER to interrupt a conversation a professor was involved with.

Is there any hope for this culture clash? I obviously need to return to the sign on my door that says “please tell me if you are waiting for me.” But even when I used to have that sign on the door, I’d have students who either would not notice the sign or not think it applied to them.

gradebook rant

I use what seems to me to be a very logical grading system. I grade papers on a letter grade scale and then calculate grades as a weighted average of these letter grades. Say there are three papers weighted 25%, 25% and 50% that got BC, B, and A respectively. The grade would be 2.5*.25 + 3*.25 + 4*.5 = 3.375, a grade I would then interpret as a low AB. Clear, logical, fair.But as far as I can tell, the course software cannot handle this kind of grading. It assumes that everything is percentages or points. So I cannot use it as an online gradebook. And I have had over the years a large fraction of TAs who cannot quite understand the logic of grading papers with (gasp!) grades. I cannot understand their confusion. To me this seems only logical. Ultimately we will give letter grades, why not set the standards for the grades and grade that way from the beginning? But, instead, they set up their own 10-point or 100-point or 24-point schemes for grading papers, and then I have to ask them, well, so how does this translate into grades? And they look at me with puzzled expressions. I don’t get their confusion.

For things like tests or homeworks that are more point-like, I use linear equations to transform the points to the 4-point range and put those into the grade calculations in the same way. This is a little more outre and would not have been possible back in the days of paper gradebooks, but after all, you have to take algebra BEFORE you get to college, and we have had computers with spreadsheet programs readily available on college campuses now since the mid-1980s.

So I ask you, why do my university and most of my colleagues and students still assume that everything will be calculated on a percentage basis and then curved to grades? For that matter, why are most of you just blindly assuming that everything should be done in percentages even though virtually every school in the US reports grades on a 4-point letter grade scale? There are a lot of reasons why the percentage-point system has problematic properties, but even if you have a good reason to like it, is it really that hard to understand why I’d like my system, or understand why I prefer it? Is it really that crazy to expect that to be an option in campus course software?

Grading Feedback

I’m finally done with grading. Well almost done. I’m still dealing with grade appeals. So what’s on my mind is some suggestions about grading, and I may write several posts on this theme.

It is important to give students feedback along the way about what your records show for them, especially if the grade depends heavily on lots of small things like daily attendance or homework. Even for test scores and such it is good to let the students see what your records show. The fact is, we sometimes make mistakes in recording grades. A system that assumes you never make a mistake is a bad system. If a student is going to challenge the accuracy of your records, you’d like that to happen in a timely fashion, not after grades have been submitted. And you shouldn’t be happy about students getting the wrong grade just because they didn’t challenge you.One way to give students feedback is your school’s on-line grading system. I don’t use ours because the interface is slow, clunky, inflexible and cannot handle the way I grade. Instead, I find it easy to use Word and Excel for this.

If you are part of the Microsoft/Windows world, you can easily generate grade reports for your students using Excel (or Access), Word, and Outlook. This is easy to learn to do and produces very high student satisfaction. Here are the basics. The trick is to initiate the merge in Word and from a Word document link to the data source. Let’s assume you have your grade data in a spreadsheet. The column headings are identifiers like names and the grade components like tests, attendance, homework. The rows are the students.  In Word, go to the “mailings” menu and the “select recipients” menu to link to the spreadsheet page with the data. The column headings will show up as merge fields in the merge field menu. You write your feedback form any way you wish, inserting merge fields as appropriate. You can lay it out as a table, or just free form text. Just don’t forget the field for the student’s name.  Adding a student email field is very useful, too. In large classes, I have found it helpful also to have a field for section number and TA name. Dating the output is a good idea, too. Then push the button to merge to a new document and, presto, you have feedback sheets, one per student. This lets you show students what you have for them in the computer and gives them a chance to correct clerical errors in a timely fashion. You can use the preview buttons to see what the pages will look like before you merge, and it is a good idea to merge to a file instead of a printer so you can double-check the results before sacrificing trees. Also you’ll want to keep an electronic copy of what you sent to the students.

Once you see how to do it, you’ll realize how easy it is to give a tailored report that fits your own teaching style. You can include explanatory text telling people how to interpret their grades or whatever. You’ll also want to include instructions for what to do if there’s an error, and a deadline for correcting errors. When you send/give out the reports, tell students (preferably in the report) what to do if they think there is an error in the records. It will be easier for you if the procedure requires them to use the feedback form you gave them, either annotating a paper form or replying to an emailed form.

The next step can be a bit harder to get set up but saves paper and instructor hassle and once it works it will keep working. If you also have Outlook and get its options set correctly, you can mail merge to email directly from inside Word. If it works at all, it works very easily. You have to make sure that the student’s email address is one of the fields in your spreadsheet/database. At my office, the default configuration did not have this capability turned on in Outlook, but it was an easy tech support fix to get it turned on. You can test this feature now, while it is summer.  Just set up a spreadsheet with name and email fields, and enter your own name and email and perhaps a couple of friends. I just used all three of my own email addresses. Then open Word and create a dummy document. Mine said: testing name <namefield> email <emailfield>. Then merge to email. If it worked, you’ll get the email, that easy. If you don’t get an email, it didn’t work. Tip: when it is for real, put yourself and your email address as the last line in your grade records so you can tell whether the email merge worked when you send to students. For some reason I do not understand, this only works for me if I choose the html option in mailing, and not in the text-only option.

A couple of tech notes: (1) This works the same way if you happen to have your grades in Access instead of a spreadsheet. You might be tempted to use the Access report function. Trust me, it is MUCH easier to initiate the report in Word. (2) If your grades are in a multi-page spreadsheet, you’ll need to create an export page that reads from the different data pages. As far as I can tell, Word cannot run a mail merge from more than one spreadsheet page (or Access table) at a time. Or do a separate report for each spreadsheet page. (3) Computed values will come through with 10 decimal places unless you overtly format them to fewer decimal places back in the spreadsheet. EDIT (4) Learned the hard way. Word reads ONLY the FIRST record in deciding how to format a field. If a field may have text or numbers, you need to make sure it has text as long as any longest record  will have in the FIRST record. This probably means you’ll want to create a dummy first record for this purpose.

Please feel free to use comments to explain how keep records and give feedback in other software packages, for example by using the report functions in a statistical package. I was very sadly and slowly dragged into using MS Word because I really prefer WordPerfect for most tasks, but MS Word’s mail merge function is one of its strengths. I could never get a WP mail merge to work without several trails, while a Word mail merge always works on the first try. My university supplies me with the MS products and Windows machines, so I have not used Open Office or Linux or Mac products, although I assume you can do the same thing more or less easily with them as with the Microsoft products. I actually use Thunderbird rather than Outlook for ordinary email, but Word won’t merge to Thunderbird, and the Thunderbird mail merge isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up data from other programs.

how would you answer?

With the aid of, I caught a number of students in my large class who plagiarized an ungraded book comment assignment.  They were given a zero on the assignment and a formal letter of discipline describing specifically what they did and were and told that a copy of the discipline letter would be forwarded to the dean.  University policy is that if there is no other academic dishonesty on their record, no further action is taken and these letters are not part of the student’s permanent record, no notation is made on the transcript, and the records are generally covered by the confidentiality laws.

One student whose dishonesty was particularly egregious — involving re-submitting a paper that had been submitted by another student in a previous semester (an act I consider to indicate a strong likelihood of other undetected offenses) — was most concerned about whether this would affect her applications to a medical professional program.   I told her at the time that I personally would not want a medical professional treating me who had a habit of cheating her way through school, but clearly and honestly explained the confidentiality policy to her, repeatedly.

Now I get a note from her.  She has to decide whether to check yes or no to a question about whether she has ever engaged in misconduct.  She says “I would never lie” on the application “so if this is info they will have access to I will check yes” but fears that being honest about her dishonesty (if you get my drift) will hurt her application chances (as perhaps it ought to).   As far as I know “they” will not have access to the information, but it is also true that she has been formally disciplined for misconduct.

What would you say to her?  I’m thinking of saying: “Isn’t the honest answer to the question yes?”   But I sort of feel like saying: So you think dishonesty only counts if people know about it?

In her defense (and that of the other students who cheated), the assignment was ungraded, you just had to do it, which led them to console themselves that it did not matter much.  But back on the first hand, the syllabus clearly stated that cheating on the ungraded assignments would be prosecuted as plagiarism.

rite of passage

I spent the weekend at my son’s college graduation.  My last child is now more or less launched.  The graduation ceremony was very well done.  The best part: The graduates processed across the campus to the arena in their regalia led by a bagpipe ensemble (about 20 pipers).  The bagpipes were way cool.  The faculty lined up along the parade route, so the graduates were marching past their professors and being greeted and congratulated as they marched.  My son and his girlfriend both said this was the best part of the graduation.  What a wonderful rite!  Graduations at small colleges are much more meaningful affairs.  I have been at Big State University for nearly 30 years and have never once attended an undergraduate graduation, nor even been asked to attend.   Our graduation is a huge impersonal cattle call.  I love rituals and think we ought to all line up and march around the campus once a year in our regalia, but I can’t get anyone to agree with me.

not blogged

Things I’ve been doing that did not seem bloggable:

1. Writing official letters of discipline for plagiarism cases. I could write a blog about this, but we all know about the problem and it just depresses us.

2. Reading graduate papers. Work, not unpleasant, not bloggable as not anonymous. Could be combined with my own writing trauma into some sort of essay about writing, but at this point I think others are doing it better.

3. Pulling up garlic mustard. This might be bloggable, as I have to figure out what to do with 5 bags of plants that cannot be sent to the land fill and are dangerous to just leave lying around in your yard. Why 5 bags? Because I just this spring learned that a big patch of my back yard has been taken over by it. But do any of the rest of you care about garlic mustard? Is this really a topic for a sociology blog?

4. Misc family things: consulting with my son who is graduating and moving into his first apartment, talking to my housebound mother for 30-60 minutes on the phone everyday, and also less often to my father who is also having health issues, preparing for relatives’ visit to said son’s graduation, attending graduation parties for other young people.

5. Sunday school teaching. Very funny incident that is only funny to liberal Christians: conservative Christians would be appalled that it happened at all, and non-Christians would find the whole thing just weird. Only sociology if it turns into a reflection on the sociology of different kinds of religion.

6. (Edit).  I forgot getting up at 5:30 (I’m not a morning person) to do a public radio interview.  Do you suppose this is what Michael Burawoy had in mind?

teaching question #2

Is there a way I can see something different on my laptop screen than what is projected onto the lecture screen? I use “bad” PowerPoint slides with too many words because I don’t have the personal organizational capacity to keep track of lecture notes separately from slides, so my slides double as my notes. If I could project something different than what I’m looking at on the laptop, I’d be set. Windows XP can handle two monitors, is there a way to make that work for this purpose? What I’d really like is to be able to project the slide show on one screen and look at the notes for each slide on the other. Also, is there some other slide show software that would work better like this (assuming I could solve the monitor problem) than PPT?

teaching question #1

How do you ask questions that guide a student discussion? I realize I’m a little old to be asking this question, but I’ve realized this is a teaching skill I don’t have. I know how to lecture and tell students what I want them to know. I know how to respond to student questions in interesting ways. I know how to run a class so students are comfortable talking and asking questions. I know how to facilitate and organize a discussion pulling together questions/comments initiated by students. I know how to ask good questions of someone who has just presented a paper in process. But I don’t know how to think about planning discussions in advance for a class session. I don’t know how to prepare to ask questions that elicit somewhat predictable answers that will help students “discover” the point you want them to learn or lead them to talk their way into a point you want them to get to, or that will encourage them to dig more deeply into a topic. I get the impression that some teachers do this. Is that right? I don’t think I learned this by watching when I was young because I did not go to that kind of schools. Can you recommend “how to teach” resources for this particular skill? Do you have tips or techniques?

getting credit

This is about giving academic credit on an independent study basis for doing service or work for a community or political organization, where the faculty member is doing this as an optional overload.  It is not about official service-learning courses, nor about official internships that are part of a coherent program.  A number of organizations set up programs where students get academic credit for working for them through the mechanism of an independent study.  Recent requests have raised ethical issues for me, and I thought this might be a good topic for more general discussion and reflection.  The ethical issues such arrangements raise are both academic and political.  Here’s my thinking: Continue reading “getting credit”


I’ve been working with an undergraduate, a senior. She is African American, from a poor family. None of her elders went to college, although a few cousins are doing it. She graduated at the top of her class in an inner-city high school, where she says she never had to do any work to make As. Her writing is markedly deficient compared to the predominantly-affluent predominantly-privileged students here, and she struggles academically. Continue reading “disadvantage”