Monday, April 22, 2013

Of Course It's True That Professors Grade Easier Than TAs

Last week when I was in a cafe waiting for my mediumskimicedmocha, I overhead one student say to another, "Of course it's true that professors grade easier than TAs", and the other student agreed with that statement. 

Of course! I rather liked this indication that we professors might actually become nicer with time, as opposed to more cranky and mean.

But do you agree with these students? (ignoring the 57 million variables for which we cannot scientifically or otherwise account in discussing this issue now in this blog post and comments).

Some considerations:

- If you used to be a teaching assistant and are now a professor, assuming that you have even a shred of objectivity about this issue, do you think you are an "easier" grader now than when you were a TA?

- If you are a professor now and you teach a class with teaching assistants, do you think you are an easier grader than your TAs? Is this generally true?

- If you are a teaching assistant now, do you have any idea how your grading "hardness" compares with that of the course instructor(s)?

Over the years, in some classes I have been an easier grader than my TAs and in other classes I have not, but if I had to generalize over my career, I would conclude that (1) I am an easier grader now, as a professor, than I was when I was a TA, and (2) I am commonly (but not in every case) an easier grader than most (but certainly not all) of my TAs. I gauge the latter by how many complaints I get about TA grading and, when faced with a grading dispute, whether I think the TA assigned a reasonable grade or was too harsh. [The latter case creates the tricky situation of needing to be fair to the student without undermining the TA, a topic for another day.]

There are likely many explanations for the TAs-are-more-severe-graders phenomenon, but some obvious ones that spring to mind are:

- We are more idealistic when we are just starting out in a career. We have standards, and these are not as flexible as they become later, when we have been teaching for years and might be more willing to reward a glimmer of knowledge as opposed to being severely disappointed that an answer is not as correct or complete as it should be. That does not necessarily mean that we old(er) professors are jaded and have lower standards (though it may).

- At least at the beginning, when we haven't had much experience as a teaching assistant, we don't have much of a basis for comparison and perhaps not much perspective to guide us in the more subjective aspects of grading things involving writing and equations and diagramming. When I was a TA, it was the rare professor who provided much guidance about grading issues such as partial credit, so I mostly made it up as I went along. I figured/hoped that as long as I was consistent, I couldn't go too far wrong.

- A related explanation: Some inexperienced TAs don't have the confidence to give partial credit for partially-correct answers. I recall a time -- many years ago -- when I (the professor) provided a TA with a detailed answer key to an exam. Fortunately I looked over some of the graded exams before handing them back to the students because I ended up having to re-grade several questions entirely because the TA had been inexplicably harsh. For example, in the answer key that I gave to the TA, I had indicated that the correct answer for one question was something like "kitty cat". That was the complete, official name of the thing that was the answer to the exam question, but it did not occur to me that the TA would give students no points if they only wrote "kitty". I should have written on the answer key that "kitty cat" or "kitty" or "cat" were acceptable for full credit, but it didn't occur to me that the student couldn't deal with this level of variability in student answers. Anyone who wrote one of those words clearly knew the answer, so why take off any (or all) of the points? I think the TA just lacked the confidence, and for some reason didn't even want to ask me about it while he was grading.

Now I am wondering: Assuming that I have become easier as a grader with time, have I plateaued or does the grading-easiness trend continue with time (and with what slope on a grading-easiness vs. time plot)?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why Did You Say That? (in your talk introduction)

A colleague recently commented to me on the tendency for graduate students to introduce their talks at conference by telling the audience that they are students. I had noticed this some (though certainly not all) grad student do this but hadn't really thought anything of it. My colleague didn't like these "I am a student" introductions because he thought the students were saying it to lower expectations or to try to make it more difficult for people to ask challenging questions.

In most cases, it was obvious from various clues (such as the list of coauthors) or prior knowledge that the speaker was a student, so why mention it?

Perhaps my colleague is right about the motivation of some student speakers, but I think there could also be more positive reasons for why a student would mention their studentness in the introduction of their talk. For example, they could be saying "I'm still a student but I was selected to give a talk to present my excellent results and I am or will soon be looking for a job so please pay attention because I am really good."

A possible argument against that hypothesis is that we couldn't think of any postdocs who mentioned their postdoctoralness in a talk introduction. Presumably this motivation would also be relevant to postdocs, if not even more relevant?

I have no idea what the motivation is because I don't think I ever introduced a talk this way when I was a student. I could be wrong because this was a while ago, but I am reasonably certain it wouldn't have occurred to me to introduce a conference talk this way. Therefore, to find out the answer (or, more likely, the answers), I am asking you, the readers who have done this very thing as students, what your motivation was.

And, to the extent that you can determine this, if you had a specific aim in mentioning your student status, did you achieve this aim?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Life Is Just Unfair To Men

Below is an e-mail message. It seems to refer to a comment (or two) that I did not see, perhaps because they got sent to the spam-box, which I never check. I approve all comments that I see and that are not ads, mysterious links, or obscenity-laden threats. That does not mean that I approve of all comments, just that I don't mind posting things like this. I think they make a dramatic point, though perhaps not the one the author intends.

Dear Female Science Professor:

I notice you haven't published my latest comment.  Some months ago you failed to publish another of my comments which I also thought brought the issues into sharp relief by reversing the roles.

My apologies, the first sentence in paragraph five should read:
"By that same logic, the majority of top scientists, especially in the mathematical sciences have been and should continue to be men."

Do you deny that, with few exceptions (ultra-long-distance swimming being one), the top men are better than the top women at sports?  How can you when the score-sheet says otherwise?  By the same token, how can you deny that the most intelligent men are generally smarter than the most intelligent women, especially when it comes to the maths?

I remember when I was younger watching sports on TV and thinking how unfair it was for the women.  As I grew older, I realized that life was just as unfair to men, only in different ways.  This is why I suggest you read Norah Vincent's book "Self Made Man."  Here is someone who has seen it from both sides and firmly decides that she prefers to be a woman, a conclusion that does not surprise me in the slightest.

As I have been burned by what I now realize is a strong sexual double standard in academia (and not in favour of men) I am not the person to argue these things objectively.  I am still quite filled with rage.  There is, however, a woman on Youtube who argues many of the points I would like to touch on in a way that is very rational and objective.  Her channel is "girlwriteswhat":

I would suggest you check it out as well as Norah Vincent's book.

Kind regards,