An antiquated system

As we are nearing the final month of our semester here at Virginia Tech, I’ve been thinking about the semester system which separates the year into fall and spring semesters. It seems a fair assumption to make that most Universities in the south east (if not the entire U.s.) operate on this system. At schools like VT, that means for students to be considered full time they must enroll in 12 hours (many times satisfied by four 3-credit-hour courses).

I take no issue with how the semester system treats late August through November. It allows for a diverse schedule–a student could take one course in literature and another in biochemistry–and affords instructors the time often needed to ease students into course topics. For many courses I would imagine the semester model to be very beneficial, allowing for course material to “sink in.”

I also believe that in many cases instructors aptly prepare students for final work with tasks throughout the semester that end up constituting the foundation for penultimate submissions. However, during my time as an undergraduate and now graduate student, I have witnessed much the opposite with most of my instructors.

Many instructors, practicing poor time-management themselves, often put off major deadlines until the end of the course and don’t allow time for necessary student feedback throughout the semester. In addition it is much easier for instructors to grade students’ final work as a significant portion of the final course score.

This system–which I’ve argued espouses procrastination–also seems to be causing scheduling concerns outside of the classroom. Administrative tasks and other faculty meetings containing issues are often pushed off until the end of the semester, at which in their critical point must be addressed and resolved before the break. Inter-institutional associations are often also affected by the system.

Although it may not allow such diverse schedules, trimester and quarter systems may allow students and instructors with a schedule that provides a bit more focus and a more balanced work load during finals terms. While I’ll be the first to note how good it feels to finish finals work and head home on break, these models seem more appropriate in providing students of modern higher education a more balanced experience.

Student evaluations and their role in higher education

This past week, students in my COMM 2004- Public Speaking course completed a midterm evaluation of the course. Although they were first wary of the phrase “midterm,” they soon discovered that this assignment was similar to the SPOT evaluations they are asked to complete when the course has nearly concluded.

I told the students, in the spirit of J. Mayer, to say what they need to say but also understand that the Scholar “test” would allow me to see who makes what comments. Unlike the anonymous final evaluations, these are often not rude or blunt (like one comment I received last summer that simply stated: “this class sucks”), but contain alot of praise for my teaching and helpful suggestions for the course design. While these provide an ego boost and some info that helps when tweaking the course layout, the idea of course evaluations gives students some power over faculty members, instructors, and graduate teaching assistants like me.

The almighty tenure process among other evaluations of teaching effectiveness make use of these student evaluations I understand. In this way, consistent negative student evaluations may harm the future of teachers and professors. While this may at first appear a good check to make sure that students are satisfied with the instruction that they pay high tuition rates for, this business metaphor will eventually harm universities. For example, I have experienced two types of negative comments: those that criticize an instructor’s effectiveness and those that criticize the difficulty and standards of the course. If we are to think of an institution as selling degrees to these customers, the importance of this second type will be magnified. Why would students attend Virginia Tech for an engineering degree when they could receive one from another accredited school for less money?

The thesis of this blog is this- student evaluations should always be taken with a grain of salt. There will always be students who like the course and those who don’t like the course. For some I would even imagine they are responding with a similar negative attitude to many of their courses, especially those required by their degree like public speaking.



This past week I fulfilled my TA duties by running the scantrons for a large introductory course exam.

I thought this would be no big deal. In past years, I had just dropped off the exam at Innovation Space and received it back through intercampus mail. Unfortunately, this was not my experience.

Most of my Friday was spent preparing the exams, running the scantrons, and subsequently downloading various software programs to analyze and then print the data. This is grunt work, and worse, I was struggling alongside a VT professor who could be spending his time better serving the university.

Blogs, which I’ve heard can be cathartic, are I know not in existence purely for the purposes of ranting. However, I believe that something should be said about budgetary effects that harm rather than enhance the lives and work of faculty members. Luckily the professor I serve as a TA was spared this experience, but I know many others may not be so fortunate.

This seems to be another cut to services, while student fees keep on rising…

Crossing Disciplines

My post last week on the differences between theater and communication work on effectively communicating science started me down a path of thinking on the many disciplines I have come across that often refer to the same thing with different words and perspectives.

A professor at my undergraduate institution once told me that communication and psychology are closely related, but communication is focused on the message while psychology is focused on the mind. Research in various scholarly journals will show that persuasion from a communication perspective looks at how can we design a particular message or document or video (etc.) to persuade a person more. Psychology in contrast looks at how that person receives a particular message. Nevertheless, there is much overlap where the two disciplines do not often agree on terms or how to treat certain concepts.

Similarly, public relations is often analyzed in the communication department and business schools. The particular tone of articles depends heavily on what journal it is published in and who publishes it: a comm or business scholar?

I think this shows a good bit of misunderstanding in each discipline that keeps their distance from the others. But for non-comm scholars it may seem easier to understand the message as a simple object to manipulate in a research study with little bearing on the results. As a comm scholar, I would make the same errors in my understanding of what variables are truly at play.

Post “Communicating Science” workshop

Last night we were fortunate enough to have Patty Raun from the School of Performing Arts visit our class for a workshop about communicating science in a more personal way. This was a very unusual workshop for graduate students outside of the arts and very entertaining.

However, I don’t know if I agree with the role of theater in this context. Yes, on multiple occasions we heard that the goal is not to make scientists into actors but the end goal seemed to be towards making the content more entertaining, or tied at a fundamental level to some sort of human emotion.

This was a fun exercise, but I don’t think it gets at the root of the problem. In order to do this, communication scholars have been working for now over a century towards understanding persuasive messages. Large grants are awarded to faculty members who focus on health campaigns that utilize stories not only in interpersonal communication, but also in traditional and new media. A couple of “bullshit” theories and experiments have helped us to understand this process better (see Melanie Green and Timothy Brock’s 2000 work on narrative transportation from the social scientific perspective, or Walter Fisher’s 1984 narrative paradigm from the humanist, rhetorical side).