Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Saturday, July 12, 2008


It's a sunny Saturday afternoon. There's just a few cirrus clouds floating high in the sky but I'm inside because of the bumper crop of mosquitoes produced by last week's rains.

I am alternately doing laundry and prepping for class. That's right: In a few weeks I will be back in the classroom, teaching ethics and theories of personality to undergraduates.

It's exciting. I love psychology, and I love teaching. It's fun reading the texts, tweaking my lecture notes, thinking about how I will present information and challenge students to dig into the material, integrate it, use it.

But last semester, my first time back teaching in over a decade, I found that even upperclassmen and women here are not doing college-level work, particularly when it comes to writing papers. My excitement is tempered somewhat by the need to figure out ways I can challenge the good students without leaving the majority floundering.

Some of my colleagues seem to be dealing with this problem by "dumbing it down" to the lowest common denominator. I have seen one syllabus for the personality course which has two single-spaced pages on how not to commit plagiarism. Others have students turn in papers at each stage of the writing process, from topic selection to final draft. We did that back in Mrs. Touchstone's 7th grade English class.

I am not willing to teach a middle-school-level class on how to write an essay. In the first place, I signed on here to teach college, not 7th grade. In the second place, some of these students will be starting work on their doctorates within a year: In my opinion, it's far too late to be cramming remedial English.

But what's the alternative? Wash them out? At this late date? It seems to me that the time for either remedial work or a washout is in their freshman year, not now when they are only months from graduating.

On the other hand, I once worked with a psychologist whose assessment reports were completely incomprehensible. I never received one that I didn't have to walk down the hall and around the corner to ask her to explain. And that's exactly how she got there, I'm convinced: Because her professors kept passing her along even when she couldn't do the work. What's worse, to get a license in this state you have to turn in a work sample: Which begs the question, did somebody else write up the case for her, or did the licensing board give her a social promotion too?

Somebody's got to be the one to say, hey, this kid can't cut the mustard.

I haven't had too much trouble with outright cheating, but I am mindful that it does occur--probably has in one of my courses and I just haven't caught it. Let me just say here that I find it especially mind-bending to be thinking how to prevent students from cheating, or how to catch them if they do, in an ethics class, for heaven's sake. I thought assigning lots of little reaction papers might do the trick, until I found websites offering reaction papers for sale. Is there no end to my naivete?

I knew you could buy a term paper, of course, but I have to admit that I really was flabbergasted to find that students would pay for a two-page essay. What am I supposed to do, "test" them during discussions to see if they've at least read, if not written, their own papers? I didn't sign up here to be a cop. That's what Teaching Assistants are for. I only wish we had a graduate department I could get one from!

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