From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ponder College (3)—Midterm Exams

Click here for the "Ponder College Resource Center"—(all posts available)
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Ponder College"
This is an "long post" (大)—click here for an explanation of Round and Square post lengths.
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One year ago on Round and Square 23 March 2013)—China's Lunar Calendar 2013 03-23
One year ago on Round and Square 23 March 2013)—Asian Ethnicities (4b): Bai.
Two years ago on Round and Square (23 March 2012): Annals of Ostracism: Culture's Bounty
Three years ago on Round and Square (23 March 2011)—Chinese Management: Up the Down Staircase
[a] "Study" RF
It has been a studious week at Ponder College, my alma mater.

It always is. That's how we roll here.
[b] Halfway RF

That doesn't mean that the week lacked anything in drama. To begin, there was a formidable backlash on campus over the remarks that Harrell Morgen '15 made at last week's study abroad round table. If you recall, Morgen had the temerity to say that he planned an international career, but would not go abroad until after graduation–preserving every moment of liberal arts education he could get at this formidable institution before launching himself into the wider world.

Students were immediately critical of Morgen, and he was chastened—shaken, really. "I still stick by what I said, but I do feel that I have been misinterpreted. I mean, I'm not saying that study abroad is bad; I am just saying that I truly value the never-possible-again interaction that I can have as an undergraduate with the best professors in the world. That's all."

"My friends didn't see it that way, though," he continued. "They felt that I was undercutting one of the finest parts of the Ponder College experience. Frankly, I feel a little bit used by Director Garnet. He told me to express myself, and that it would be all right. I don't think I feel as strongly about this as he does. Maybe he should just speak for himself, and not ask students to stir the pot."
[c] Academic distraction RF

Director Garnet was also in for a fair dose of criticism from students and colleagues. Anthropology professor Johanna Greitang was especially critical. "What is our director of International Studies (sic) doing promoting—advocating, really—not studying abroad? Why do we have a director at all, then?"

Garnet himself (a self-confident Frenchman who thrives on such confrontations—and has angered a fair number of colleagues) was unapologetic. "This is an institution of liberal learning. Why wouldn't we want to raise all sorts of scenarios, and challenge even our most cherished beliefs? Isn't that what we are supposed to do? Once we start resting on academic laurels, we are no longer looking forward. We hare just jogging in place (and the idea of jogging is repulsive to a true Frenchman like moi").
[d] Up late RF
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This could have gone on and on, but the Ponder College "news cycle" pretty much moved it off of the front page by Tuesday. You see, midterm exams started...midweek...and students are—as I tell this—packing for a week "off." They couldn't have imagined packing up until just a day or two ago, though. There were too many tests and papers to prepare.

"Why do we still have midterms?," asked Angeline Fredrickson at a mid-semester community forum yesterday. "This is so medieval, and I mean that in the worst sense. It's like leaching...or bloodlettting. I just don't see the point. We're studying; we're working. Why do we need this level of stress...and at the halfway point?"

"It's cruel."

"This is just crap."

This was the retort voluble Christopher Chrislie, who happened to be standing in the middle of the Ann Richards Memorial Auditorium. He held a microphone, which he really didn't need. The popular but abrasive economics professor rarely mixes words, and today was no exception. He did not come of age in an era that put emphasis on how students feel. "I don't care what you think. You're what...nineteen years old, and have three semesters of college under your belt? Whoopdee crapping do. Don't come whining to me."
[e] No midterms RF

Oh, and he wasn't done. 

"I did four years of midterms and finals, and then went through the grinder in graduate school. You know how mean my doctoral committee was? They ate graduate students and assistant professors and spit them out like seeds. Midterms will toughen you up."

Professor Chrislie has been mentioned as a possible candidate for a deanship over the years, but his air of contempt has occasionally harmed his chances. Just last year, in a public interview at Habermas College in Tennessee, he was the odds-on choice among the three finalists for the Provost position. Both the selection committee and the president seemed ready to choose him for this especially lucrative and influential post. 

And then came the public presentation. He was smooth, folksy, and fiercely intelligent. Everything seemed to be going well...until he began to speak a bit off-topic about the social sciences he called "economics wannabes." He particularly laid it out for sociology and psychology. The president (an eminent sociologist) was not amused. Several of his close friends at Ponder College have tried to get him to tone it down, but once he gets on a roll, it is as though some kind of vindictive academic spirit overtakes him. "I can't really explain it," he told me last year after the Habermas College disaster. "I just get carried away. Maybe it comes from the fact that (publicly) we called invited lecturers in grad school 'Distinguished Lecturers.' Among ourselves (and this came from the faculty) we called the question-and-answer 'Shark Fest.' I just can't seem to turn it off, even when I know it's bad for me."
[f] Midterm study RF

More than a few people at Ponder College have wished that Chrislie had a little more frontal cortex control when in public debate. Few would be upset if he left for a position elsewhere.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Sjørn Karlstad picked up his own microphone and actually addressed the student. In a way, he was equally direct, and Ms. Fredrickson was not particularly happy to hear his answer. Nonetheless, he had a point to make. "I hear you, Angeline. You are an excellent student, and raise an important point about the "pace" of the term. I hear you. And do you think that any of us—the faculty here in this room or at the rest of the college—really want to grade another batch of exams? No, we'd rather have a little extra time, too." The audience fidgeted. "You see, I have tried to teach chemistry according to a semester-long pace. Weekly labs punctuate the workload, of course, but I have tried to make the testing comprehensive—testing the whole range of the semester's work at the end of the course."

"And you know what?", Karlstad continued, "it doesn't work."

"No matter how hard you and others say you work, nothing seems to motivate learning like deadlines. I wish it were otherwise; my life would be much easier if it were. Yet some of these things need benchmarks, midterm markers, as it were."
[g] Empathy RF

Recently-tenured assistant (soon to be associate) professor of psychology Tanaka Hiroshi added a final point, and it was one of those statements that makes so much sense—once uttered—that everyone (including the unapologetic Chrislie) wondered why he or she didn't think of it in the first place. "Midterms? You know why we have midterms? We have them because you—or, as we say down here in Texas, y'all—want them." Silence. Then murmuring. "You want them. I have heard this from students and parents for years. Nothing seems to upset people—not even a "bad" grade—as much as not knowing where they "are." 

More murmuring. More recognition.

"Listen. Like my colleagues, I don't want more grading if I don't need to do it. But we do need to. And here's why: two-thirds of the e-mail messages I get from students ask 'How am I doing?' The pressure of the course-drop deadline (right after break) adds to the pressure. Professor Chrislie enjoys talking about the bad old days, but the real point is that the reason we have midterms is because of you...and your parents. It's that simple. You demand them.

And, as if to punctuate the moment, Tanaka repeated: You.

And then everyone packed up for spring break. We'll discuss that next week. Oh, and a hint: almost everyone at Ponder College sees "break" as a chance to learn more.

That's how we roll here.

Sunday, 30 March 2014
Ponder College (4)—Spring Break
Everyone is on break—faculty, students, and administrators. Everyone has a "book" with her...or him. We'll define "book."
[h] Moving on (with a "book") RF

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