Welcome to class

Draft of 2005.11.03 ☛ 2016.12.12

May include: academiapedagogy&c.

I’m glad to see so many enthusiastic faces here today.

I don’t know if you picked it up from the course catalog description, but I need to tell you that this class will be quite a bit different from your previous experience in secondary and college education.

First I want to tell you why. Then I will tell you how. And then we’ll have a ten-minute break, where you can gather your stuff and leave if you like.


To begin, then. Let’s be honest: you are ignorant of the essential facts necessary to pass this class. Yeah, yeah—that’s why you’re in it, I know. But I mean to say that you’re also ignorant of material you are already supposed to have mastered.

At this stage of your life, you don’t know jack about one or more of: the mathematics needed, or the statistics, or the programming, or the critical theory, or the jargon, or the right research methods, or project management, or time management, or the proper manner of collaborating, or the history of the field, or the philosophy of the field, or the current research in the field. You also don’t know the critics that informed and rebutted the direction the field took, or the history and schools of thought that have arisen and been abandoned, the aesthetics of data visualization or prose styles, the names or the impact of the classic scholars. And you don’t know about the other fields, in other disciplines, where they hate the stuff we do in this discipline but still have the same problems and overlapping domains but aren’t willing to acknowledge that fact.

Worse, you don’t know how to ask cogent questions, or negotiate (let alone renegotiate) terms or requirements, don’t know how to discover and get help from your skilled colleagues, or how to disagree productively with one another, or pass on what you’ve learned to others in a legible, permanent form.

You lack, therefore, the skills necessary for life in the Big Old World. And even in the University.

No matter what you might think, this is nothing new or special about you. It has been true in every class you have ever taken since preschool, and will still be true in your Real Life when you’re done here—whether or not you do well in my class. It will be true in the business world, or the academic world. I have several of these same problems myself, as do the Pope and the President and the Dean and your Mom and your favoritest teacher of all time and the smartest kid in the class. Students learn from fools, or they are fools, or they learn useless information and take it as truth, or they never learn anything, or they learn and they forget, or they learn and then choose to stop. They are merely human.

Indeed, all the people who might be able to teach you better are themselves crippled with the same shortcomings.

I differ from almost all your previous instructors in three ways: First, I acknowledge that this is true, whereas they have for the most part lied to you (and themselves) and declared you competent, even though they’ve had to re-train you from scratch in every damned class. Second, unlike them I intend to do something about it. And, third, in order to do something about it, I will let you—no, make you—cheat.

As your instructor I’m obliged do my best to impart a certain amount of fact, experience and what they call knowledge to you over the next few weeks. I am not obliged to constrain your chance to learn by making you “do your own work” (whatever the hell that is, beyond the trash it implies to me). I am not obliged to quiz you, or ask you to write essays, or to make you cram just so I can then bitch and moan in my blog about how stupid “you” are when I’m grading. I am not obliged to drop you into the water just to see if you can swim, nor assume that some predecessor taught you the rudiments and that it’s therefore your responsibility to drown or not, for all I care. I am not obliged to allow you to fail to learn. Even though all my colleagues seem hell-bent on that very thing.

You’re smiling. Don’t get cocky.

To succeed in this class, you will have to ignore certain things you’ve been told since you were first tested in elementary school. You will have to—have to—collaborate with one another. You will have to support one another. You will not be able to compete in this class. You will be forced to talk to one another, and get to know each other, and rely on each other.

This is basic training. As it should be. Because most of you lack the basics.

Those of you who have incorporated the lessons of “good” scholarship into your very beings, and with them the ruthless competitive spirit expected in most academic settings, those of you most eager to outshine your companions and make yourself stand out? You’re at a disadvantage here, in this class. Because you lack the requisite skill of collaborating.

You may want to leave now. Fair warning. Hopefully we can teach you how to act. If not, It. Will. Be. Reflected. In. Your. Grade.

Here’s what will happen.

On the class wiki I have provided a set of 250 homework problems of varying complexity and difficulty. These are your assignments for the semester. These problems are what you are graded on.

Some of these problems can be answered with a quick and simple Google search and some writing. Some would make good Masters Thesis projects. Some have one right answer; some have no right answer; some have many. Some require explanation, some require programming, some require mathematics, some require historical background, some require number crunching, some require experimentation, some require intuition, some require asking the right person, some require advanced domain skills from outside our department. Some are trick questions; some are so obvious you’ll imagine they’re trick questions; some are inherently time-consuming; some have hard and easy ways to solve them. Many are ill-posed, and need clarification. Some are problems you should already know how to answer. Some are problems you might not be able to answer by yourself when we arrive at the final exam.

All of them are important. None are throwaway, or filler, or make-work. I want you to answer each and every one of them.

No, not smiling now. Buck up. It’s not that bad.

You yourself—the individual you—you are not responsible for doing any problem at all. Frankly I don’t care if you do no work whatsoever, as long as you show up for class. You do need to come to class.

I will not grade your personal contribution to any answer, ever. Indeed, no matter how the questions get answered, I personally will not care one whit whether you, Jane Q Student, did the lion’s share of the work, or looked it up and copied it out of the encyclopedia, or took that week off and went to Florida.

But some of the problems must be answered, on the website. On time. Correctly.

I see there are 30 of you in the class today. There are what? Twelve weeks in the semester? 250 questions, worth I believe a total of 7200 points. And then the final exam.

You see, that’s a lot of problems.

Every Thursday at noon I will select the problems that are most important for you to complete in the next week. I’ll publish this list on the wiki.

In Friday’s class we will spend the entire session negotiating the assignment. I will stand up here and tell you I want all of it done, and why. And then you will sit there and (because you’ve prepared for the class ahead of time) tell me it’s impossible for you to do all that in one week. And you’ll ask me questions about what I’m looking for, and you will talk to each other, and you will propose which problems you think can be done by the noon the next Thursday. I may have some problems I really want you to answer that week, and I may try to force them onto your list by cajoling you, or by teaching you cool stuff, or by giving you hints, or by making them worth more points. I may even add new questions to the main list, and delete questions from the main list, now and then.

By the end of class each Friday, we will have finalized what problems need to be done, and how many points they’re worth. You will have, collectively, promised that you’ll try to get them done.

In order for the problems we choose to be answered correctly, you will have to “cheat”. You are not only allowed to search the Internet, you’ll have to. You are not “encouraged to work in teams”, you’ll have to. You will have to ask professors in other classes, and students who took the class before, and go to the library, and talk to each other, and share notes, and make reports, and read things in foreign languages, and write simulations. You will need to do background reading, and express your opinion to one another. You’ll need to edit each other’s writing, and depend on each other’s authority. There will be work to do in the Arts, in the Humanities, in the Social Sciences, in Engineering, in Medicine, and also in about six other disciplines you didn’t even know existed when you sat down this morning.

These are the things that often discouraged and even prohibited in your other classes. Some of them are even explicitly spelled out as violations of our “honor code”, that rag we use to mask our educational laziness and our own unquestioning buy-in of the status quo. If you prefer the other approach, then I suggest you withdraw from this class early on and go back to the status quo, before it makes your head hurt.

One hard and fast rule: your answers cannot include any plagiarized material. In case you do not know what plagiarism is by now, I have provided a handy and very explicit definition on the class wiki. If any answer on any of a week’s problem set is plagiarized from an outside source, the score for the entire problem set is zero, and that week’s questions will appear on your final exam. You may, however, cite the work of others all you want. You may even quote it, so long as fair credit is given where it’s due.

You may (by whatever mechanism you want to work out) decide not to answer some of the questions that week. For each answer, there is a “commit” button, and only when a majority of the class members have pushed that button will the answer count for the week’s assignment. Whenever a substantive change is made to the answer, the “commitment” is reset, though the people who pressed it before will get an email alert. All your (committed) answers must be posted in the class wiki in order to be graded. At exactly noon on Thursday, an archive of the Answers section for that week will be saved for grading. The committed answers will be graded; the rest of the problems will return to the pool to be attempted again later.

Some of these questions are very hard, and some are off-topic. Given a cogent argument to that effect, provided as a committed answer, I will consider eliminating such questions from the roster before the final exam comes around. Such arguments to dismiss work will have to be robust and skilled, not petulant or confrontational. That said, even such questions will be considered answered, and your argument will be graded like any answer would, on all five scales. It may appear on the midterms, too.

So. How will you coordinate? How will you divide up the problems? How will you check each other’s work? How will you find out who knows what? How will you compose your answers?

And how will you be graded?

You will be awarded 25 attendance points per class session. At 12 weeks this semester, I figure that to be 900 points. No exceptions or excuses whatsoever. If the building burns down, you will all lose all 25 points every day until we find a new venue. You show up late or leave early, you get one point for every six minutes you’re here. You go skiing, or your aunt dies, no points those days. Because it will work out in the end.

You (personally) will also get ten points on any day you log into the wiki and add make substantive additions or edits. Doesn’t have to be a class day.

Problems: I will grade them every week, based on the answers saved at noon on the Thursday they’re due. They will be graded on thoroughness, accuracy, originality, readability and context. Thoroughness points are given depending on how comprehensively you’ve addressed the problem. Accuracy points for how accurate the numbers (if any) or written account (if any) end up being. Originality points are awarded for novel approaches or crafty solutions, not for showmanship or silliness or animated gifs. Readability points are given for how well the material is communicated. Context points are given for how well the material is introduced, and for analogies drawn to other material in the class, or for insights made explicit, or for comprehensive and up-to-date bibliographic references.

“Subjective!” some will cry. They always do. But I am standing right here! I have office hours! I have review sessions! We have recitation! We have lab! We have how many? Two real Helpful Graduate Students loitering around the classroom and their dungeonlike rat-warren offices, at your beck and call! And did I not say you could do anything you needed to get the answers correct? You can ask us anything you like, and perhaps we will tell you what we believe to be true as of that moment. If we have the time. We will surely do our best to help. And also you can use the little “TRIAL GRADE” button—see it there, in the upper right?—to submit drafts of your solution (on the wiki) at any time during the semester, and I will do “trial grading” on them. I will “trial grade” no more than one problem per day, and no problem more than once, and first-come first-served in a 24-hour period.

I will even be happy to “trial grade” problems that have not yet been assigned.

Everybody in the entire class will get the same score for the problems each week. There is, after all, just one answer for each.

On Friday, Marnober 16 (just before First Break), we will have our first midterm in the computer lab. You will be set down in front of archived copies of some of the problems, along with your answers from the first part of the class. You score will depend on how much you improve the answers. You can pick the problems, and decide how to improve them: you can focus on hard ones or easy ones, and try to improve any of the five graded aspects. You won’t get “negative scores” if you break one, but you can only get positive points for improving them.

On Friday, Novuary 21 (just before Second Break): we will have a second midterm in the same format, covering all the problems answered so far, including those from the first midterm.

Finally, on Friday, Decay 12, just before Study Period, we will have our Progress Review. We’ll discuss the problems you’ve solved, the points they’ve earned, and look in detail at the wiki. Before the end of our last class the next Monday, you have the option to give some or all of your attendance points (just those) to any set of up to five of your classmates, using a form on the class website. You can choose to give 900 points to one person, 100 points each to five people, 500 points to one and 73 each to two others, or no points to anybody. You may give points away as a reward, or withhold points if you feel they are undeserved.

All point transfers will be entirely anonymous.

At the end of class on Monday, any attendance points you have remaining will disappear. Poof. Only the attendance points you have been given by your classmates will count towards your final score.

Your final exam will consist of every one of the 250 problems which have not been answered with a “committed” answer during your 12 weekly assignments. Yes, there is the final exam now, sitting right there in front of you on the wiki. In plain sight, every question, all semester long! However. During the final exam, unlike the rest of the course, you will be expected to work entirely on your own, with no book, no notes, no calculator, no wiki, no computer. You may have one standard “cheat sheet” of (flat) paper with notes on both sides. The problems will be graded on all of the five bases mentioned above.

If by some quirk of fate there are no problems remaining of the 250, then the final exam will consist of an attendance sheet, which will be graded on the basis of your ability to spell your name.

Let’s take that ten-minute break I mentioned, shall we?