Where science and tech meet creativity.

Last Friday I looked at my calendar and had the terrifying realization that I had 3 days of freedom before I started a long series of trips that would culminate in the first day of classes.

Then I realized it was July 18, not July 25, and that I actually had 1 week and 3 days.

Let me just say eek.

My summer has been fairly productive if I ignore how little I’ve blogged. Plans for the International Year of Astronomy are coming along nicely, I got with the help of some friends colleagues frolleagues a grant written, and I have lost track of how many research projects have had steady progress made on them. Life is good (ignoring the blog). I still have a lot I want to do this summer though: 1 more grant, some website theme dress ups, and some general hard drive cleaning. There are also some things I need to do, like, oh, writing next falls syllabus.

Next fall I’m teaching the second semester of calculus based physics for the first time. I’ve taught the algebra based version several times, and everyone tells me this will be easy for me, but this algebra to calculus change means I can’t use the same syllabus. These are also going to be students that had someone else for the first semester, so they are going to come into my class with a set of ideas about “this is how physics is taught” that I’m going to be judged against. As I write my syllabus, I get to give them the first document by which they can judge me, and I get to set the tone for the class.

In today’s wireless, cell-phone enabled, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr world, teaching takes on a whole new set of rules. Any of you remember when the biggest question was “would chewing gum be allowed in class”? Today’s instructor, which would be me, has to worry about technical interruptions, invasions of privacy, and all sorts of new ways for cheating.

As I write my syllabus, I’d really like to make it just 4 lines long:

  1. Please don’t do anything that will distract me or your classmates from learning
  2. Please don’t cheat in anyway. When in doubt, assume what you’re doing is cheating
  3. Please don’t record anyone’s audio or image in anyway without permission
  4. Attendance is strongly encouraged, but not mandatory, and if you miss class but not an exam due to illness or a family emergency, I do not need to be notified.

In reality, my syllabus has an entire page of carefully detailed rules and regulations that every semester get a little bit longer as people find new and more interesting ways to break the system or break me. For instance, students been conditioned some where along the line that if they get sick they need to provide the details to the instructor. I can tell them until I’m blue in the face that I don’t take attendance, but I don’t need details, but they don’t believe me. I do know the profs who require details and documentation. I am not one of those instructors. I do not want to know. I really don’t want you to send me pictures detailing you injury. Please, if you are sick, just tell me, get the lecture notes from someone else, and let’s just move on. Eeewww. Really, I don’t need to know. Thus I have the, “If you are sick and it does not impact your ability to attend a test, I do not need to know. Please remember, your lowest homework is dropped and most students will get sick at least once during the semester. If you are ill for more than a week and need special accommodations, please talk to me, but understand I do not need medical details. I respect your privacy and trust you to be honest.” I’m sure there will still be at lesat one case of two much sharing, but… Is it alright that I am appalled at both the level of documentation some profs require and the fact that students don’t see this as an unnecessary invasion of privacy?

Facebook also presents a whole level of student-professor confusions. I welcome my students “friending” me on Facebook (it makes it easier for me to remember them when I have to write recommendation letters). I do not welcome students to challenge me on quizes about “whose hot” and “Which pinup model are you?” That’s just creepy. This means I have to detail Facebook rules in my syllabus as well.

With Facebook and all the other content sharing sites, I also have to detail that students may not record and then share anything that happens in class without permission. I can’t think of a time when I wouldn’t give permission, but still.

And I know I’m going to forget something. For instance, what should my late homework policy be when the homework is internet-based and the site goes down for the three hours prior to the homeworks due “date” (which is really a due time)? I encountered that for the first time last semester. There is no fair response? And how do I write a rule that states, “If you ask so many pointless and stupid questions that I and all the students want to duct tape your mouth shut, you will not be allowed to come to class.” That is not a political correct thing to put in the syllabus, but I’ve had more than one student who both made me feel unsafe because I was not convinced they were stable, and who made learning/teaching difficult because of their constant badgering.

I’m getting ready to teach a new semester. It’s time to write a new syllabus. I’m confronted with an empty sheet of digital paper.

Chewing gum is allowed in my class.

That’s at least one rule I don’t have to write.