FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
I have compiled the following list of questions based on those I am usually asked during the course of any given semester, mostly by freshmen and sophomores, but also by juniors, seniors, and even some graduate students. They are written primarily for students enrolled in HIST 121 (The U.S. to 1877), but much of the advice is relevant to students in other courses. Everyone should know the answers to these questions intuitively, but too many students--due to experiences with indifferent or overly lenient professors and instructors--believe that they can negotiate their way through a university education entirely on their own terms and timetables. Mature people understand that they must fulfill their commitments and responsibilities, which includes being a conscientious student. Nevertheless, the following are offered by way of edification.
1. Why am I failing or doing poorly?
There are many possible answers to this question. Most students who perform poorly do so simply because of a lack of concerted effort. You believe you are doing the reading, when in fact you are merely engaging in the mechanical act of reading without attempting to retain the information. Take notes as you read, and recopy them along with your classroom notes. Another common problem concerns students' time management skills--or lack thereof. In most cases, not enough time is devoted to studying the material.
For those of you who are new freshmen, university course work demands far greater dedication and effort than you have been used to committing in the past. In order to succeed, not just in my class, but in all of your classes here at A&M-Commerce, you cannot waste much time watching television, playing video games, surfing the Internet, or socializing with your friends, among other diversions (something I was too much given to during my time as an undergraduate). Provided that you don't have to work a part-time or full-time job, only one day and an evening per week should be devoted to recreation. The rest should be devoted to study. The rule of thumb is that you should spend three hours studying for every hour spent in the classroom each week. Some of your classes won't demand that much time, while others will demand more, especially when you start taking upper-level courses, so learn good study habits now and devise a routine that can serve you well throughout your undergraduate career.
Some students in entry-level classes do poorly because they don't believe that a 100-level course should be all that challenging, and are surprised that my course is more difficult than they thought. Just because this is an entry-level course does not mean that I'm going to make it a cakewalk, even if that would mean less work for both of us. I believe in teaching history, and I am not prone to laziness. You don't have to share my love for the subject to do well, and in my classes the lazy will not succeed--much as in life. Again, a change of attitude can work wonders.
If you are failing or doing poorly, and are looking for someone to blame . . . look in the mirror! You are not part of a passive process of being fed information to be regurgitated on the tests. I come to class and lecture on the subject, we discuss the issues from time to time, but you have to go home and do some work in order for all of the subject matter to make sense. Your high school teachers or other instructors might have told you exactly what to know for the tests, right down to questions and answers (in fact, the state-level standardized testing system encourages this), but I do not and will not do that. Half of the effort must come from you.
Academic standards are much higher here, and you don't get points for effort or consideration for what you intend to do. If you are a first-semester freshman, much of this has to do with the excitement of being away from home or being able to create your own school schedule. University professors won't be calling your parents to report that you are absent, or that you are not doing well, and this can cause new students to relax in a way they weren't able to before. Other factors (see above) may also be responsible. Part of it might also have to do with an unfamiliarity or misunderstanding of the standard ten-point grading scale:
A (90 - 100%) = Superior effort far above and beyond the expectations of the professor.
B (80 - 89%) = Excellent effort above and beyond the expectations of the professor.
C (70 - 79%) = Average effort indicating basic competency with the course material.
D (60 - 69%) = Minimal effort indicating a less than basic understanding of the course material.
F (0 - 59%) = Failing effort indicating either a lack of effort or inability to understand the course material.
I once had a philosophy professor who informed his classes that his students started out the course with an A, then descended from that height only through lack of sustaining effort. That is not how I do things. In my classes, students start at 0 and work their way up, and I refuse to make it an easy climb merely because this is an entry-level course. I do not evaluate you based on how nice a person you are, how hard you claim to be working, or the circumstances of your personal life. An A is earned only by those students who are willing to put 100% of their effort into their work. In other words, the grades you earn are directly proportional to the quality (and not necessarily the quantity) of effort expended. The grades you earn are due to your level of performance in the class, and not by any other criteria.
The objective of any course--especially mine-- is for you to achieve some mastery of the material beyond an ability to make witty dinner party conversation. I am something of a taskmaster, and you may think me too hard or unfair, but I make my courses challenging because I want my students to impress and succeed, and not just in my classes, but in all of their classes.
2. Why are there questions on the test that address issues and topics not discussed in your lectures or our discussions?
Because not all of the information you need to understand American history is conveyed in the lectures and discussions. Reading is a vital part of the process, and comprehending the readings is vital to passing the tests. My objective is not to trip you up with questions dealing with insignificant minutiae, but I have to see that you are doing the readings and attending class meetings, so there will be questions on both facets of the course work on the tests. I will not merely supply you with the information necessary to pass the tests (a.k.a. "note giving"), as that is not the point of the course, which is to teach you American history as an organic experience. We won't be able to discuss every bit of primary-source reading that is assigned on the syllabus, but that does not mean that questions on the primary source readings will not appear on the exams--in fact, they will, whether we've discussed them or not.
3. Why do some questions on your exams refer to material that was part of previous weeks' subject matter?
Because learning is a progressive construction process, and I want you to understand that history does not unfold in discrete units like it seems to in a textbook. Just because we talked about the Salem witch trials one week doesn't mean that the lessons learned from that experience didn't inform the thinking of someone in the middle of the eighteenth century. Consequently, a question on the Great Awakening might include some element from the Salem episode as a means of comparison. You may have noticed that in lectures I often refer to people, events, and trends from events that unfolded decades or centuries earlier. This is because there is no way to understand a particular event without understanding the past that preceded it.
4. Why do you make us take so many reading quizzes?
The simple answer to this question is that I have to make sure you are doing the reading, and the fear of an impending quiz does much to impel reluctant students to do their reading. However, the other reason for these quizzes--as well as the absence of a mid-term exam--is so you won't have to try to go back to and recall material from the beginning of the course in studying for a mid-term exam. Consequently, the returned quizzes make for a very nice thematic body of study material for the final exam, which will include at least one essay. Taking thirteen or fourteen quizzes in a semester sharpens your thinking, and you will be better equipped to answer short essay or paragraph-length identification questions, in addition to writing a longer essay on the final exam.
5. Why don't you offer make-up exams?
Because the strangest things tend to happen at the same time as scheduled exams: accidents, illnesses, family emergencies, deaths, breakdowns, alien abductions, etc., etc., etc. Some of them are legitimate, others are not. I will allow students to make up one missed test as long as they can show me that they will not be able to make the exam beforehand, and can produce valid documentary evidence confirming that this is true. Those who cannot contact me until after the test must be prepared to produce the same kind of evidence in order to get such consideration. If you were ill or in the hospital, I want to see the doctor's note with a phone number so I can confirm your office visit. If your car broke down, I want to see the mechanic's bill showing the correct date of service. If your immediate family member has died, I want to see the obituary notice, and if possible, a copy of the death certificate. If aliens have abducted you, I want to see photographs and your contract with the Weekly World News. If you had a situation arise that you could have alerted me to by way of email or a message in my voice mail, and yet failed to do so, then I will not schedule a make-up exam for you. I realize that this sounds harsh and unsympathetic, but you would be surprised at the sudden misfortunes that befall students on or right before exam days and paper due dates.
I will not accept "family emergencies" as valid excuses for missing a test. I know that life can get in the way of your studies, but then such is life. I will not grant allowances for the illnesses or deaths of uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, or even more distantly connected people in your life. I'm not saying that you should not attend those matters just to take my test, but as I just said, life can get in the way, and that is simply the way things are. I will make provisions for those who have legitimate excuses, but for the sake of fairness these provisions will be quite narrow and highly dependent upon circumstances.
6. I am on a sports team. What if my team is traveling out of town and I can't take a test?
Bring me a note from your coach informing me that you are on that team, and I will confirm with your coach before making arrangements for you to make up the test.
7. Do you conduct final exam reviews?
No, mainly because our time is so limited, and also because my testing format and the study guides essentially preclude the need for a final exam review. You should be able to review for the exam individually or in groups, but I am always available to answer your questions during my office hours.
8. What is plagiarism, and why are you so good at detecting it?
Just as all of my syllabi say: "Plagiarism is defined as the deliberate use of anotherís work and claiming it as oneís own. This means ideas as well as text, whether paraphrased or presented verbatim." If in writing a paper you copy bits of text from a book or books word-for-word (verbatim) and make it seem as though they are your words, then that is plagiarism. If you read in a book on the American Revolution that, for instance, "The American Revolution was nothing more than a demagogic power grab by ambitious gentry eager to expand their own power," then in your paper on the Revolution write that "The American Revolution was little more than an attempt by power-hungry upper-class demagogues to increase their power," and neglect to reference the original source, then you have committed plagiarism. In the first example you have appropriated text without using quotation marks or giving a source citation, and in the second example you have appropriated an idea without attribution. Certain things don't require footnoting, such as "The Civil War began in 1861 and lasted until 1865." Statements of historical fact rarely need a source citation, but statements of interpretation and quotations from primary and secondary sources absolutely do. Paraphrasing is a perfectly acceptable thing to do, but only so long as the original source is still acknowledged in a source citation, and it is a skill that should be mastered. Another act of plagiarism is the purchasing of a paper from "paper mills" advertised in magazines and especially on the Internet.
As for my fabled ability to detect plagiarism . . . unfortunately I've had lots and lots of practice at it, since so many think they can get away with it. Some think I'm somehow not really reading their papers, or checking their sources, and therefore won't notice it. Others believe that if they simply buy a paper from a "paper mill" I couldn't possibly notice it since I won't be familiar with their writing style. These are fatal errors in judgment, for I have read extensively in the subjects my students write about, and sometimes a turn of phrase or even whole sections of a paper will sound familiar. Usually a simple flipping through my library uncovers the deception, while a Google search can also be very effective. "Paper mills" almost always offer text samples and bibliographies for prospective buyers, and thus I need only match a paragraph even if I am not granted access to the entire paper. I also have a computer program that can do this even more efficiently. Any amount of plagiarism in a paper will earn that assignment an automatic F, and the greater the amount of plagiarism there is, the harder it will be for the perpetrator.
If I discover that you have committed plagiarism--and I have caught many people at it, sadly--I will immediately confront you about it. The wise course of action for you is to admit your infraction, take responsibility for your action, and accept whatever penalty I decide to impose. A mature and penitent attitude will only mean an F for the paper and the surety that I'll be watching you more closely in the future. However, if you try to defend yourself by professing innocence in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, the penalties will mount in correlation to the vehemence of your attitude, from an F for the course to your being turned over to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for disciplinary action (which in most cases is expulsion from the University).
The easiest thing to do is not get yourself into such a horrific mess in the first place. Familiarize yourself with the American Historical Association's "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct": Plagiarism, and come to me with advice on how to translate the ideas of others into ideas of your own, as well as the art of judicious paraphrasing and source citation. These matters are covered in HIST. 253, but by all means consult with me so that I can help you. Another excellent resource is Purdue University's "Online Writing Lab," which has a very good section on plagiarism and how to avoid committing it either deliberately or accidentally.
9. Can I do any extra credit work to improve my grade?
No. Working on an extra credit project will simply take time away from the work you're already supposed to be doing, and in virtually every case the best result is the student getting the same grade they would have received if they had not undertaken the extra credit project, or at worst actually doing worse because of the time and effort wasted on the project. Concentrate on the work you're already assigned.
10. Do you grade on a curve?
No. You are evaluated according to an absolute standard of what I think anyone taking my class should be capable of achieving. One reason for this is that I don't believe in giving an A to the best student in a class when his or her work is not as good as others past and present who have made or are making the same grade. Another reason is that there is always at least one overachieving student who ruins any curve that I might consider implementing. Grading curves reward and thus perpetuate mediocrity.
11. I must not get lower than a C in your class, or something terrible will happen (I'll lose my scholarship, I'll get kicked off the team, my parents will kill me, the world will come to an end, etc., etc.). Can you cut me a break?
No. There's an old saying: "Lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part," and that applies to our student/instructor relationship. I may award the grades, but I only do so based on the quality of your work, and not on any other criteria. To do otherwise would be patently unfair to everyone. I am not responsible for any unpleasant consequences that may befall your failure to do as well as you should have, so do not attempt to negotiate for a higher grade than the one you have earned, as you will not be successful. I cannot be moved by begging, threats, bribery, or tears. In the case of the latter, tissues are available on my desk.
12. I have been calculating my final grade according to your criteria, and realize that I am one point from the next letter grade up. Am I doomed to get the lower grade?
That depends. If you have attracted my attention by asking astute questions and making intelligent comments in class, or have come to my office with questions about the course material, and in either case have shown an ambition to succeed in my class, then I will certainly adjust your final course average by a single point and you'll receive the higher grade. However, if you have endeavored to remain fairly invisible by not joining in class discussions, asking questions, and especially if you have a less than stellar attendance record, then you will not receive such consideration from me in calculating your final grade. For example, Student 1 faithfully attends class meetings, asks good questions, and makes interesting comments on the course material, and her final average comes out to be an 89 (B--see the grading scale above). Because of her demonstration of initiative, I'll adjust her average to a 90 (A). Student 2 misses a class meeting every other week, is sometimes late, sits in the back and keeps quiet, and thus shows no apparent interest in the subject or her performance in the class. Her final average comes out to a 69 (D). Because of her apparent lack of interest, her final average is a D, and will remain a D. Bear in mind, however, that showing up in my office once or twice, or making one or two comments or asking one or two questions over the course of the entire semester or term will most likely not do the trick. You have to draw my attention so that I will remember you easily whenever I see your name or you in person. Of course, that can cut two ways, as students who are disruptive, disrespectful, or chronically tardy will also be remembered!
13. I got a low grade in your class, but I tried so hard! I did the reading, came to every class meeting, asked questions . . . don't my sincerity and effort count for anything?
No. There are two reasons why you may not have done well in the class: 1) you simply did not try hard enough, and/or 2) history is simply not your subject.
Regarding #1, you may sincerely believe that you put your all into the class, when in reality you did not. Think back to how you spent your time this semester. Did you watch more than three hours of TV each day? Did you spend more than two hours each day on the Internet chatting, emailing friends, surfing the Web, watching YouTube, or playing games rather than researching? Do you normally spend more than an hour each day chatting with friends on your cellphone? Did you devote your entire weekend to hanging out with your friends? If you answer "Yes" to any one or more of these questions, then you have not put your all into any of your classes, including mine. It is also possible that you channeled more of your energy into another class, either because you were inclined to, or because you had to, which is going to affect your performance. As for doing the reading faithfully, there is a difference between the mechanical act of reading and "real" reading. It is possible to read anything while your mind wanders around daydreaming, replaying a past event, planning the remainder of the day, etc., etc. The words are crossing your eyes, but not getting into your brain where memory can seize upon themes and key information. Chances are that if you have done all of the reading, and still did not retain the information, it is because of a lack of concentration. Putting significant effort into your studies requires a certain degree of sacrifice and diligent time management, which can sometimes be a drag, but is well worth it in the end.
Regarding #2, it is an awful fact of life that there are things we will never be good at, no matter how much we want to be. I do not have a proper aptitude for mathematics (I could never get past a 400 on the SAT or the GRE quantitative sections), so I made sure that I did not set my heart on being a scientist, even though I am fascinated by astronomy and theoretical physics. If I were a math whiz, I'd be Stephen Hawking's successor to the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University, who just happens to have an abiding interest in history (ha ha!). I wish I could play guitar like David Gilmour (though I can play Roger Waters's bass lines), but I don't have the self-discipline to make that happen--at least not now, but when it comes to history I do have such self-discipline to be the best historian I can possibly be. History may just not be your subject, for whatever reason(s), but that just means that you are--or will be--very good at some other subject. You just have to find it.
To put this another way--I can only evaluate you on what you do, not on what you think you've done or intended to do. Just because you want something does not mean that you are entitled to it, or even deserve it. Such is life. As wise old Yoda once said: "Do, or do not. There is no try."
14. I am enrolled in your History 121 class, but am not doing well in your class, and wish to drop. However, a Drop-Fail will damage my G.P.A. Is there any way you can give me a Drop-Pass?
Yes! I realize that this is an entry-level course, and a general education requirement at A&M-Commerce, and therefore I do not give students failing my class a Drop-Fail (DF). I do this to prevent students feeling discouraged or frustrated over a course many view as an imposition, though they should not feel that way. I also encourage such students to sign up for my section next time they register for History 121, especially since chances are good that I will be using the same books next time round (though check with me first).
If you are enrolled in an upper-division class, then forget what you just read! The usual rules governing Drop-Passes and Drop-Fails apply.
15. I have really enjoyed my history classes, and would like to go to graduate school for a Master's degree. What do I need to know?
First of all, you have to ask yourself exactly why you want to go to graduate school. Is it because you truly want to continue your study of history, or is it because you don't know what else to do, except that you don't want to get a job in the service industry (which frankly is about all you can realistically expect, even with a Bachelor's degree these days)? Secondly, you have to ask yourself what you intend to do with a Master's degree: go on for a Ph.D., or stop with the M.A.? In other words, what kind of job do you expect to get with a Master's in hand? There are many options you can explore here. Then you have to consider where you would like to attend graduate school, based on your field interests and various institutions' strengths. To an extent this must be examined with your Grade Point Average (GPA) in mind, which brings me to perhaps the most important point.
In order to be competitive for graduate school admissions, certain minimum requirements must be met before you even write away for an application packet. Your overall GPA must be above 3.0, and ideally above 3.3. Additionally, your subject GPA (of all the history classes you've taken) must be at or above 3.3. You will need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) at least once, and your combined score must be above 1000, with high verbal (above 620) and composition (above 12) scores. These are very general rules of thumb, and every graduate admissions office will have different minimum standards, with which you should acquaint yourself for those schools to which you wish to apply. If you have a 2.9 overall GPA and a subject GPA of 3.1, then you would be wasting your time to apply to an elite university such as Harvard or the University of California at Berkeley. Even middle-tier institutions such as most state universities will reject you with a low overall GPA. However, you might be able to get into a lower-tier school such as A&M-Commerce. My overall undergraduate GPA was 3.024, with a subject GPA of 3.33, and I was admitted to the Master's program at the University of Connecticut. Obviously I decided on another path, but my relatively low promise in the early 1990s has been erased by a 3.89 GPA when I got my Master of Liberal Arts in 1996, and a doctoral transcript marred by a single A- in a European history seminar. What is the lesson there? That you can rise to the occasion. I had to, and you will, too, if your undergraduate record is as unremarkable as was mine.
Another consideration is that if you are determined to go to graduate school, you will need to enlist a few of your professors to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. Make sure that you select recommenders who will write really good letters for you. Don't approach someone you took one course from a couple of years ago, or someone you made a poor grade from at any time. Unless you're graduating with honors, be prepared to hear "no," or something to the effect of "I can write you a letter, but it won't be very enthusiastic." This is probably because the professor is not familiar enough with your work, or may not be impressed with your abilities. Approach only those professors with whom you have developed a good relationship, who know you and your abilities well, and that you know will write glowing letters for you.
Graduate school is not for everybody, and if one of your professors tells you that you are not suited to it at this time, don't take it personally. This is because it is true, but that does not mean you are doomed to a life of obscurity. There are many ways to succeed in life without lovely pieces of paper framed on a wall, and your destiny most likely lies along a different path. In any case, you can always return to the idea of graduate school later in life, when you've picked up some good life experience and added maturity.
You have heard others say this before, but life is not supposed to be easy, and real achievements must be earned through hard work and determination. We live in a society that has been systematically lowering intellectual and ethical standards for many years, and as a consequence there has arisen a culture of entitlement that rewards effort without results, or results that are generated by dishonest means. You do not get good grades simply because you come to class every day and want to do well, or believe that you deserve to. Not everyone in my classes is going to pass, and not everybody who passes is going to pass with an A or B. It is the way of the world.
Photographs courtesy of Paramount Pictures and www.startrek.com.
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