Friday, March 11, 2016

Teaching, Grades, and the Impostor Syndrome


The other day I was reading a blog posted by Rebecca on marking and getting a sense of that impostor syndrome creeping in. I love reading posts like these because I still consider myself new to the teaching, even though I've been doing it for a couple of years now.  Some of the things that she describes are things that I have thought or experienced, and some are not.

In terms of an impostor syndrome, it hasn't come out for me with grading assignments.  In the past, when I have momentary panics or thoughts that impostor syndrome is setting in, it's usually around content-area knowledge!  Early on, when I started teaching, I wasn't even a doctoral student.  I was a practitioner and life-long learner, with a little research under my belt.  I knew enough, but I didn't consider myself the font of all knowledge - and that was scary.  What would learners think of me?  What if I was in a 'pop quiz' type of situation and the learners asked me some question and I didn't know the answer? Oh no! :-0

Luckily this only happened for a couple of semesters.  I quickly came to two realizations.  First, it's not possible for me to be the font of all knowledge on the subject I am teaching.  Researchers keep researching, things keep getting published, and it's not possible to keep up with everything in order to be completely up to date so that I could answer those unforeseen pop quizzes from students (which never came by the way).  I am not even 40 yet, so I don't expect to have the same amount of knowledge 'banked' as colleagues who have been active in the profession three times longer than I have.  It's just not a good metric by which to base your professional worth.

Another realization is that I shouldn't be the font of all knowledge.  Students can't just come knocking on my door whenever they have a question about some content area.  What's important is that we are all lifelong learners and that we exist in a network (how connectivist of me).  If we don't know something we can (and should be able to) find it through our network of humans and non-human appliances. As an instructor - a professor - I should have as one of my objectives to help them become self-sustaining, otherwise their degrees become not-as-valuable (some may say worthless) a few years after they graduate.

Once I got comfortable with these two propositions impostor syndrome went away for me.  In terms of grading assignments, I too am all about the feedback.  I dislike grades (The Chronicle had an article on grades the other day). I wish out courses worked on pass/needs improvement for grades as this would better align with how I design classes that I teach now.  As I was reading Rebecca post I reflected a bit on what it was like the first time I taught INSDSG 619 (now 684).

The course was a designed by a colleague to be an exemplar of how to design for online. What you read in the course on a week-to-week basis was also reflected in the design of this course.  I've written before about not feeling empowered to change things (other than changing readings to keep current).  One of the things I really disliked about that course were the rubrics for assignments.  Now, in theory rubrics are a good idea.  They describe to the learners what they need to do in order to pass the assignment.  However I found some rubrics so non-granular that basically everyone who put a little effort into it could get an "A".  There is nothing wrong with everyone getting an "A", however I noticed (over 3 years teaching that course) that the quality of projects would vary greatly, yet learners were still all getting an A or an A-.  That is because the rubric I inherited had only 3 levels, and the differentiators between the levels were so minute (in my mind) that a lower grade was really a result of a technicality (again, this in my view).

In any case, for the introductory course that I taught last summer, I decided to start from scratch and make all assignments pass/needs improvement. This way I can make an assessment as to whether something is passing (or not) and then focus more on giving feedback.  The main issue - when it comes to grades - is how do you differentiate a A, from a B, from a C?  The answer is imperfect: volume!  The more assignments you do that are of passing quality, the higher your course grade.  It's not something I like, but it works for now.  I guess I'll need to brainstorm more about this. The plus side is that I am not feeling impostory, so that's out of the way ;-)
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