Knowing What the Students Know (And Don’t)
Mar 28th, 2018 by Dr Karma

How can I tell what my students know?

Melissa and I are at the PCA/ACA 2018 Conference in Indianapolis. We’re talking about activities we do with students, related to our forthcoming book on evaluating sources.

But today I’m pondering: how do evaluate my students in terms of what they’re learning/what they know?

An informal survey I did with my students this quarter revealed that 90% feel that they know how to find scholarly sources on the internet.

However, only 63% of those same students say they know how to tell scholarly sources from nonscholarly ones.

Ummm . . .

Our inability to know what we don’t know is prevalent in college and beyond. It’s difficult, of course, for educators to know how to do our jobs better when so many uncertainties abound.

In my classes, I do a whole day on finding sources. We talk about genre (in an attempt to stop the students from calling articles “journals” and essays “novels”); we talk about the limits of open sources, including Wikipedia; we talk about what peer review is and why it’s important. I show them the subject guides, how to figure out who their librarian is, and how to work the databases.

These skills are tested later, of course. I have them do a basic quiz (find me a book on this topic, find me a peer-reviewed article on this topic), but applied knowledge is required when they do their later research. In upper division classes, I ask my students, as part of getting ready for their term paper, to find a peer-reviewed article on their topic and to write up an evaluation. (Many students tell me it’s their first time reading an academic article in their field.)

Quite a few students have problems finding one, never mind doing the analytical work I’m asking for. They try to do the assignment on magazine articles, on news pieces, on book chapters, and frequently on book reviews.

And this is where I get stuck. When my student thinks a short review of a book on subject x is the same things as a peer-reviewed article on x, what’s gone wrong?

Did the student skip that day in class?

Was the student there but not paying attention?

Was the student just rushing/half-assing the assignment?

Did the student know better but was hoping I wouldn’t notice?

Did I explain something badly, even though most people found the right type of source?

Is there a question I should be asking that I’m not even thinking of here?

I’m tempted to put a little check box on all of my assignments.

How did this assignment go?

  • awesome
  • it could have gone better, but I rushed it
  • I never actually understood what you wanted because you were confusing
  • I never actually understood what you wanted because I didn’t pay attention
  • I never actually understood what you wanted because I don’t care

Because I do care.

What I Learned in my Atwood Seminar
Dec 22nd, 2017 by Dr Karma

This quarter, I taught a seminar on Margaret Atwood–we read poetry and short fiction, but focused on The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Alias Grace, and Hag-Seed. It was a great course, and my students were engaged.

A few observations:

  • the current socio-political climate came up during discussions of each book–they’re frighteningly apropos
  • I had to explain second wave feminism, female genital mutilation, the difference between r and x rated films, and many other fascinating things as they came up in discussion
  • my students think Alias is pronounced uh-lie-us
  • a couple of my students, prior to taking the course, thought “feminist” meant its opposite; when one kept saying the commander was being “so feminist,” we cleared it up

My favorite part of the course was on the last day, when we talked about what, if anything, we’d learned together. One of my students said that what all the texts had in common was a warning to pay attention–to wake up to the world around us and to do something about it.

Thank the universe for Atwood.

What “Alike” Gets Wrong About Education
Apr 4th, 2017 by Dr Karma

When we learned multiplication, one of my classmates discovered he could multiply the top by the bottom OR the bottom by the top and get the same answer.

The teacher made him do his worksheet over.

I watched–and learned–do it her way, or do extra work.

These are the moments that people probably think of when they watch the new Pixar film, Alike. The link I followed made this clear, arguing that the film was touching a cord as it skewers school for making us lose our creativity.

But that’s not what I thought about when I watched this film.

I thought about how I had teachers who fought to teach us science and history in a place (the south) where parents tried to get them fired for doing so.

I thought about my theory of knowledge class–where the very nature of truth and knowledge came under fire–where we were encouraged to debate and to test.

I thought about the encouragement I got from an orchestra teacher when he heard me trying to figure out Flight of the Bumblebee without any sheet music.

I thought about the teacher who circled my cover sheet statement that said 600 words. We had written short stories–the minimum was supposed to be 1000 words. My teacher crossed out her circle after reading the story and wrote “A+ — you couldn’t have added one more word without ruining it!”

I thought about the writing teacher in middle school whose comments were always longer than my papers.

I thought about the teacher who paid out of her own pocket for us all to have our own frog to dissect. Something was coming out of my frog’s abdomen already. I asked what it was and she said, “you’re the best one to figure that out.” (The frog had apparently died of an awful hernia, I discovered.)

I thought about my teachers telling me to learn the rules–before I could break them “prudently.”

I thought about the teachers who forgave me for my chronic lateness–they knew my mom wouldn’t get up to take me to school on time.

I thought about the teachers who listened to me and supported me and encouraged me and basically stood in for the support I didn’t always get at home.

I thought about the teachers who had to deal with us–heartbroken, always–and give advice without reminding us that young love is inherently stupid and dramatic.

I thought about the one teacher who knew I was pregnant the same day I knew (because I told her)–and how she made sure I was always “busy” when it was time to move a piano and who complimented me on the “creative costuming” that let my issue stay hidden until the beginning of the third trimester.

I thought about so many of my university teachers–who managed to open my mind even though I thought I knew how the world worked already.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to think.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to read.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to write.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to act.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to sing.

Can education, when done poorly, kill your creativity? Yeah.

But I became a teacher because my teachers opened my world. My teachers gave me a future. My teachers saved me.

Everyone who moves on in education can think of a few bad teachers. And a few amazing ones. And that has made all the difference.

And now I’ve become a teacher–because I want not just education that inspires, but a job that inspires me as well.

PS–why isn’t the current critique of this film about the awful work world too?

PPS–even though I think this kid’s artistic side should be nurtured, he does need to learn to write. (Says the writing teacher.)

PPPS–Yes, I’m also the viewer who thinks the English teacher in The Blind Side is not the bad guy!




Being Dressed Down over Dress Codes: Teaching at a For-Profit College
Oct 26th, 2016 by Dr Karma

I’m fairly sure neither the students nor I wanted to be in our class.

About 15 years ago, I worked at a for-profit technical college, the type so often in the news today.

I had lived in California for about nine months—I had moved out to go to grad school at The University of California, Davis. In return for my teaching, they paid my tuition and gave a small nine month stipend. It was not quite enough to live on, especially as I was a single mother.

“How do people support themselves over the summer?” I asked my grad advisor—it’s not like the rent could go unpaid.

“Hmmm. I actually don’t know that. . . . I think most of them have spouses.”


And so I started teaching summer classes at MTI in Sacramento.

The students were varied—ranging from their early twenties to their fifties. Most were parents. Almost all worked full-time jobs. We would meet three hours a week for an evening. The women primarily wanted to be paralegals and understood the value of the writing class I taught. The men primarily wanted to get a promotion or a move into another business or tech field—they saw the class as another hurdle—a barrier—to what they wanted to do.

When I tried to talk to one man about how to improve his writing, he simply said, “Just give me a C.”

Still, the majority of the students and I got along. Maybe since I had technically been a returning student and was also working my way through higher ed, we understood each other.

The “college” and I are a different story. Perhaps the best way to explain is to talk about appearance.

I had to go out and buy a couple of suits to work there. I managed at UCD with only one—my conference suit—because we didn’t have a “dress code” like MTI did.

We were modeling being professional, we were told.

The students also had to abide by rules, including one that to even be a student, one couldn’t have visible tattoos, as my students informed me.

It’s harder for people with tattoos to get jobs. MTI’s only real marketing point was their alumni job rate (we know that most schools count an alumni having a job if they’re employed at all—even if they have the same job they had before attending). Thus, students who might be hard to place just didn’t get in.


The strangest enforcement of dress codes, though, came when I had emergency surgery.

Part of the reason I came to UC Davis was because they offered healthcare to their graduate students. With pre-existing conditions, I couldn’t get healthcare on my own, not even when I worked for Florida State University prior to moving.

I’d been struggling with immense back pain. After almost a year of trying to figure out what was wrong, I got an MRI, showing a massive sacral disc herniation. (I was 25.)

I should have been in recovery for six weeks, but that’s not how bills get paid, so I was back at work in six days.

The night I came back, the air conditioner wasn’t really working; it was over 100. Halfway through our three hours, I asked the students if they would mind if I slipped off my heels—I wasn’t supposed to wear them with a bad back anyway.

They didn’t mind.

I got an email the next day, saying that someone had looked into my classroom via the 6X2” window in the door.

It said that if I couldn’t dress appropriately for work, I shouldn’t come to work.

Now, this was a “college” that robo called all of us on 9/11/2001 to say that we HAD to have classes as usual—that there would be consequences for deciding not to teach or be taught.

I got on the phone with my supervisor, explaining the situation. She held her ground. It would have been better, yes, to cancel class than to teach barefoot or in sandals.

She suggested that if I couldn’t keep my shoes off, perhaps I should sit behind the desk.

“For three hours?”

“Yes,” she replied, even after I explained to her that trying to keep people’s attention in a hot summer room for three hours is hard enough without losing the energy one gains by standing and walking and using the board.

It would have been disrespectful to my students, I thought, to bore them that way.

My students were horrified when I told them the story in the next session.

My wannabe paralegals wanted to sue, as I was clearly, if temporarily, disabled. I told them it would be more fun to sue on ethnic discrimination. I was raised white trash in the South and thus shouldn’t be expected to wear shoes at all.

Of course, we didn’t sue. We did gripe and let off steam, though.

Why should I be treated differently—and why should they—when my writing class at MTI is supposed to be the same as my writing class at UCD?

I had already published at conferences and had few years of teaching behind me at that point.

I knew how to do my job—with or without shoes.

But that wasn’t the point. MTI didn’t really care about what was happening in the classroom—they only cared what it looked like.

And so we had to cover our tattoos and and put on our suits to dress up MTI.

I have a hypothesis: we need more hypotheses
Apr 30th, 2016 by Dr Karma

As someone who scores straight down the middle on those left brain/right brain tests, I often use science and scientific concepts in my work. (My dissertation was an ethnographic study, and I’m constantly irritating other Atwood scholars by bringing neuroscience into my presentations.)

One thing I particularly want to integrate in the humanities, as a teacher, is the hypothesis. In the sciences, we propose a hypothesis, we conduct research, and we see if we’re right. As long as the research is sound, we’ve done a good job, whether the research proved us right or not. Whether the hypothesis is confirmed or not, we’ve learned something (even if it’s that we need to redesign the study to get clearer results).

Yet when my students approach their papers, they think they need to have a predetermined thesis before they even start to research.

This is an especially bad habit to instill in our students who will go off to grad school, where they will have to tweak their ideas and even abandon their ideas if they discover someone else has already published on that idea–something the grad students will only learn once they do enough research to position themselves in the discourse.

The basic problem: students who have their thesis set before they research will research poorly. They will discard research that complicates or contradicts their thesis (when it could at least be helpful in developing counter-argument). Also, when they’ve found the teacher mandated minimum required sources that confirm their ideas, they stop looking, stop researching, stop thinking completely.

Going into the research process with a hypothesis would allow for better work–the student’s opinion would be more informed, more complex. The student might do what we want her to do–to find more sources than will actually be cited in the essay.

Of course, we would still structure our papers the old-fashioned humanities way. I don’t need my students to tell me their hypothesis in the into, take me through the work (“To test this idea, I googled ‘Shakespeare actually a middle class ten year old girl from the Isle of Skye?’ and then read the first paragraphs of the first thirteen results . . .”), and then conclude with their results. We “show” our work in a different way.

But wouldn’t the paper be stronger if, when the student polished up the piece, that thesis in the intro was for sure an informed opinion based on thorough research?




The Continuing Adventures of Karma’s OnLine Dating (Entry 16): Working for Free
Dec 18th, 2015 by Dr Karma

“Can I just send my students to you?”

I don’t know anyone in my profession who hasn’t heard a question like that.

I was surprised to hear it from another teacher, however.

I was trying to make nice with colleagues from across the campus at the request of my friend Ken, who’d organized a meet up in an attempt to get us to know and love each other (Ken talked about “networking,” but that word makes my ass twitch, so I had to pretend that’s not what I was doing).

A man from our nursing school in Sac asked me what I do. Well, among other things, I teach Writing in Health Science.

My colleague thought that was great, and said his nursing students definitely needed instruction like that. I talked about our workshops and our classes. He said his students didn’t have time for those.

“Can I just send my students to you?”

As soon as I made it clear that I wouldn’t be taking on free individualized writing instruction for all of his students, in the same way that he was unlikely to take on free individualized healthcare for all of my students, he wandered off to network with someone else, and my ass was left twitching in irritation.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Students and former students often want my editorial skills–so do some of my writer friends (cause writer friends always help other writer friends)–but at least they have a right to ask. And they know how to ask (usually) because they understand the value of what they’re asking for.

The students I teach, the people I mentor, and the people I love can and do ask. They also understand that sometimes I can’t help them for some reason or another.

Unpaid labor, though, is much on my mind these days, due to some disagreements about pay that the university and I (& my class of department faculty) are having.

It’s also on my mind as a writer. I wish my friend Chris and I had been in better contact a few years ago, when I was doing a movie blog for someone else–when he came to campus recently for an author talk, he was clear that none of us should ever write “for exposure” (thought we’d need to redo academia and its weird expectations). (The Oatmeal wrote a great short comic about “exposure“–see below.)

And now, the expectation of free labor (you like writing! so you must want to make my shitty writing awesome instead of working on your own awesomeness) has entered my dating life.

A couple of months ago, I got bombarded by messages from a young man while I was in Oxford. He’s in his late twenties, and I don’t think we have anything in common. He wasn’t able to convince me that we did–every message was just a different way of saying he really liked me and that he wanted to be my lover.

I declined to give him my phone number, despite his repeated attempts.

He disappeared for a couple of months, but then reappeared, with the same bland, general declarations of devotion, not bothered in the least by the fact that we’d never talked about anything other than the fact that I wasn’t interested and that he was.

“I don’t want to date you.”

“Ok. Can I call u?”


Several weeks later, which happened to be today, I got this message:

“hi how are you? I need help proofreading my thesis paper. Thank you hun :)”


In his defense, he apologized when I explained the various ways in which that message was inappropriate and rude.

So I guess a free writing lesson happened after all.



by The Oatmeal

by The Oatmeal

A Good Week
May 8th, 2015 by Dr Karma

awardUsually, when my allergy shot nurse opens my folder, I see a picture she took of me years ago in the very front, before pages and pages of records. Today, I saw myself–but it was a different picture–the picture UCD used in celebrating my teaching award here.

This was both flattering and ironic. A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues mentioned that she wasn’t surprised by my teaching award because she heard so many good things about me. It seems she had been to the UCD medical center. When she mentioned where she worked, people asked if she knew me and apparently said nice things about me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it had nothing to do with my teaching–it’s just that I’m at the medical center an inordinate amount (I’ve had four visits for treatments/tests just this week) and that I’m a lovely patient.

Now, though, they may be able to mention my teaching. 🙂


This week started out rocky–I had a flare up of my stomach problems again. I threw up on Sunday and then found myself nauseated for several days after, including the day I got the teaching award. Luckily, I managed not to get sick all over the Chancellor and the Provost.

The ceremony was actually really nice. Several people were being honored, both in the Senate and the Federation. Margie Fergusen, who was my prof in grad school, and who is the current President of the MLA, won an award for teaching graduate students. She mentioned having so many gainfully employed students, which gave me the perfect opening to start my talk. I thanked those who taught me, my students, my friends and family, my union, the Federation, my department, etc. I did an ad for my department, got a couple of little giggles with asides, and told them about my current stand-up class.

Then I told them what I tell my students on our last day of class:

“You’re job, while you’re here, is to think. No matter how stressed out you are, remember how lucky you are. Most people in the world will never get the chance to be where we are.

“Most people would give anything to be where we are.

“I love this all so much that I just moved from where you are to the other side of the desk. Let’s think about what I do for a living.

“I think about stuff. I come into class and tell you what I think. I make you write papers about what you think. Then I tell you what I think about that.

“That’s amazing. I’m incredibly lucky. We all are.”


In other news this week, I got to have short Twitter exchanges with two of my heroes: Dan Savage and Harry Shearer. Dan Savage was interviewed by another one of my former profs, Beth Freeman, at the Mondavi Center. (I do have to say, though, that I’m disappointed that he got downgraded to an interview due to a protest.)

HuffPo contacted Denise and I about recording a question for Harry Shearer. Du didn’t have time to do it, but after about 40 minutes of technical difficulties, I got a question out and recorded for the ages. I assumed that lots of people had been invited–that I would be part of a big Q&A. Instead, Harry was interviewed and my question was the only “fan” one. His answer was insightful, and I’m shallow enough to have let out a little squeal when he called me “Dr. Karma.”

You can see me not knowing where to look and positioned awkwardly in my office at minute 24 in this video.


This weekend, I’m going to try to catch up on work, to have some wine, and to celebrate over two decades of motherhood with my special little guy.

It’s been a pretty good week.

Goodbye, Mrs. Krabappel
Oct 28th, 2013 by Dr Karma

This week, Marcia Wallace, the voice of Mrs. Krabappel, died, just a few days short of her 71st birthday.Marcia_Wallace
Edna Krabappel will not be replaced. She’ll join Lionel Hutz and other voices who have been silenced in similar ways.
Wallace was a wonderful actress and comedian. I think I first became really aware of her work with Bob Newhart, but of course I will remember her as Edna.
There’s something about our elementary school teachers, the good and the bad. They stay with us, in our dreams, our imaginations. They spend more waking time with us than our parents often do at that age. They are experts in all subjects (or at least seem so). They are more patient than I will ever be. They read whole books to us, chapter by chapter, day by day. They figure us out, push us towards new things (at least the good ones do.)
My favorite things about Edna:
1. Her willingness to believe in the love of a certain Woodrow, who couldn’t tell her why he couldn’t be with her, where he was going, or even how he was going to get there.
2. The fact that she has bad days sometimes and she doesn’t beat herself up about it.
3. The fact that she is, in fact, an excellent teacher, as evidenced by her Teacher of the Year award.
4. When Principal Skinner abuses her heart, not only does she refuse to take him back, but she also is wise enough to reject her rebound guy just in the nick of time.
5. On occasion, she has stood up to the administration.
6. After she marries Ned, she also asserts her right to co-parent (and perhaps will help the boys turn out a little less sheltered and helpless).
7. When Ned almost didn’t marry her, because of her “promiscuous” past, it was upsetting. Equally upsetting, though, was when he decided to “forgive” her for having had a sex life before him. Luckily, Edna refuses to accept this and demands that accept her –and love her– for who she is.
8. Through everything–getting her fired, faking serious illnesses, replacing her birth control with tic tacs–Edna has only hit Bart once.
9. Yet he’s kissed her once, when she acknowledged his applied learning.
10. Edna will be remembered for her laugh and, most of all, the way in which her relationship with Bart so defined them both.

on my way to class
May 14th, 2012 by Dr Karma

On my way to class

to teach people how to write

with style

to unlearn bad habits

where I try to make everything

a story

& then I see the blood

smudged all over one hand

from where I’ve unconsciously

picked at my thumb

I didn’t feel anything

but I can’t teach

visibly bloody

so I lick the wound like an animal

test to see if it wells again

walk into class


the blood under my fingernail

will darken all morning.

A little note on plagiarism
Feb 14th, 2012 by Dr Karma

I’m in the midst of writing a response to a student essay on plagiarism. In the essay, the student claims that few people actually steal, that students are “confused” by the accessibility of the internet (thinking that the internet belongs to them), that music sampling is certainly not wrong, etc. The students briefly mentions Malcolm Gladwell’s story about seeing a line he wrote used in play–at first he was angry, then flattered.

The student’s essay lacks focus, etc, but my comments (reprinted below) deal with the lack of counter-argument:

Many counter-arguments to this piece immediately come to mind. For example, as a teacher, I have seen many, many students “wrongfully claim credit and ownership for a project” (1). Students have bought papers online. They have copied off of each other’s papers. They have even claimed that they “had no choice” but to do so because they believe all students cheat, which is an insult to all of us who got through college without cheating. (Even if the cheating students were right about everyone cheating, which they aren’t, they would still have a choice). 

I have been the victim of plagiarism in another way. A paper I had published online was found posted on a cheat site. The site claimed that the author (me!) had given permission for this paper to be used by this site and by students. I had done no such thing. I threatened to sue the site if they did not remove my essay immediately. In a less dramatic example, a man copied an article I published for Mental Floss on his blog. He did not reference my name, the name of the original magazine, or anything else—except his own name. To anyone who didn’t know better, it would look like he wrote my piece.

The cheat site and the blogger were not “inspired” by my research, by my time, by my work. They were thieves. However vague some definitions of plagiarism are, some cases like these are unquestionabl

In terms of the more questionable cases, I don’t understand why these people with questionable cases can’t do what we do in academia. When I want to use another person’s words, I cite that person. If someone wants to use Malcolm Gladwell’s words, why can’t there be a line in the author’s notes about it? If someone wants to sample a piece of someone else’s music, why can’t that person mention it in the liner notes on the CD?

Weird Al Yankovic, for example, always tells you what artist’s song he’s parodying. He also gets permission from artists before using their work. Notably, he doesn’t have to do this, as his creations are protected under the copyright exception made for parodies. While one artist (Coolio) claims Yankovic didn’t ask permission (I don’t believe Coolio’s side of the story here), Yankovic still credited him fully.

The student’s point seems to be that “plagiarism” is too vague a term to pursue action against plagiarizers. In some cases, this is simply not true. In others, reasonable, easy steps can be taken to acknowledge how someone else has inspired us. If s/he has inspired us, doesn’t s/he deserve a respectful acknowledgement of that fact?

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