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December 16, 2017 / jpschimel

Surprising long term consequences

Sometimes the consequences of decisions made decades ago pay off in unanticipated ways. The first class I ever taught (at the University of Alaska Fairbanks) was general microbiology with a lab. I screwed up. When I designed the class and set up the curriculum, I assigned too much of the overall grade to the exams. UAF had many older returning students, notably a number of single mothers. Those people were often among the best students—dedicated, hard-working and committed—but equally, often not the best at taking tests. There was one woman who was one of those wonderful students who make teaching a joy—but I think she only got a B-, and it pained me because it was mostly my fault. She was strong in lab and wrote excellent lab reports, but her exams were imperfect. I didn’t feel I could change the rules mid-stride and as a result she didn’t get the grade I knew she deserved. In response to that I restructured how I graded that class, and have organized every class I have ever taught since to more strongly emphasize take-home work: lab reports, problem sets, etc. If students are willing to take the time to do the work, I’ll reward that.

So now many years later, Santa Barbara is under fire siege. I was just evacuated this morning as the fire exploded across Montecito. But as the fire grew last weekend, our Chancellor canceled exam week and rescheduled it to the first week of what would have been Winter quarter. I told students that they had a choice—they could skip the final and I would assign grades based on the work done so far—after all the final was only supposed to be worth 15% of the total! For most students, the final is unlikely to change their course grade and so most are taking the easy out.

I’ve been deeply thankful to the incredible work of the firefighters, but also to that one woman, who, more than anyone else, led me to organize my class so that skipping the final didn’t make a big deal in their final grade and so I could ease all of our lives now that they are in crisis.

Postscript: They have cancelled all evacuation orders for Santa Barbara County and it looks like our house should be intact. Whew. And again, thanks to the fire crews who did amazing work.

Post-postscript: Sycamore Canyon didn’t burn. As a result, my creek barely got more than a few feet deep during the brief intense storm last week–the one that sent horrific floods tearing down Montecito watersheds that had burned. Those floods killed 20 people and trashed hundreds of homes. I feel deeply for the members of my community, but remain grateful my house wasn’t one of them.

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