Stereotypical liberal college professor

Today I’m handing out the first exam of the semester in genetics, and some of the students are a bit anxious. I’ve been getting all these email questions about how to prepare for this exam, do I have to complete it in a set amount of time, am I allowed to talk to other people when I’m working on it, are there security things I have to do (man, high schools are warping students’ minds), etc., etc., etc. They seem discombobulated by the fact I don’t run the class like a drill sergeant, and that the exams are all open book, open notes, all this slackness you ought to expect from a liberal college professor.

So this morning I had to post a note to the class explaining that yes, it’s true, I have some rather loose and tolerant policies in my teaching. It’s OK if you work with other students on the exam, it’s not cheating, it’s called learning. What a weird thing to have to spell out!

I’ve heard some questions about how I run the class, and what my expectations are. so let me clarify a few things about class policy. It really is as relaxed as you might think it is!

Lecture attendance: I don’t take attendance. I assume you’re all adults who are paying for the opportunity to take this class, so I’m not going to nag you about showing up! If you have to miss class for any reason, you don’t need to ask my permission — all I care about is that you understand the material. All the slides for my lectures are put online before the class, I provide synchronous access to the lectures on Zoom, and I lay out all the reading assignments in the first slide of every lecture. If you miss something, my office hours are 9-12, M-Th, and I’m happy to answer any questions or go over any material. The big advantage to coming to class is that you can ask questions, and I encourage interruptions and digressions as long as they’re about genetics.

Lab attendance: You’ve got to do the lab, but again, I don’t log attendance. So much of the lab work has to be done outside the scheduled hours that it wouldn’t make sense to do so. Do try to come for the beginning of your scheduled lab, when I’ll lay out all the tasks you need to accomplish that week, which are also listed on the whiteboard. Inevitably, you might miss a lab or two — we have a wave of COVID absences right now — but that’s why I require that you work in groups, because the flies are on an express train to an end result, and someone needs to keep up with them. If you miss a lab, it’s not me you’ve got to talk to, it’s your lab partners. Accountability arrives when I assess your lab reports!

Exam policy: I regard exams as a learning opportunity for you, in which I give out a collection of problems and ask you to solve them. They’re all online, open book, open notes, free collaboration exercises! Go ahead, Google the answers, if you can! I used to do in-class, closed book and notes exams, but have found since being less of a tight-ass about it, I still see the same range of scores, with, I hope, less anxiety. The challenge is about comprehending the genetics behind the problem in order to understand the question and see how to answer it. You’ll often find that if you know what you’re doing, the problems open up easily, which is exactly my goal…that you discover the insights behind genetics that make comprehension follow.
It’s OK if you don’t find everything instantly obvious. There are always smart students who nonetheless struggle to see the patterns and connections, and that’s all right. Come see me at my office hours and we can try to work together towards understanding.

The bottom line: you don’t have to ask permission to skip lecture or lab, but you should work with your peers to make up what you miss. Exams really are wide open — these aren’t exercises in memorization, but in comprehension and application of the principles.

Basically I’m saying, chill out, my dudes, we’re all good.

Oh, man, I didn’t even bother to explain my policies on pronouns. That’ll give conservatives the heebie-jeebies!


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    You’re just luring them into a false sense of security. You make them think you’re all cool and chill, then WHAM! You hit them with your despotic WOKE, Antifa, BLM dogma, demanding that they renounce America and Jesus, gay marry, and crap in a litter box in class!

  2. says

    My kind of professor. Unless you know your work open book exams don’t give you any advantages. They are actually an incentive to properly organise, summarise and cross-reference everything. Mind maps are brilliant for that
    The team project approach has one drawback when one or more students don’t pull their weight leaving the workload to other students. That was the bane of both my stepsons student life. I told them if they are worried to discuss it with their professor. If they are worth their salt they’ll know who’s pulling their weight. Sure enough the professors reassured them. My youngest hasn’t had an easy run. He’s had to cope with his father having terminal cancer. The university cares and has a good counseling service. He lost his dad towards the end of last semester and understandably dropped the ball. His early finishing subjects were both distinctions but he failed to complete another two after his dad died. The Uni is talking to the scholarship provider to help him out. I’m not their father but I’m proud of both of them and their achievements. Mind you I’m proud of my own son too.

  3. kovacen says

    If the exams are collaboration exercises, how do you exclude those who don’t make any effort and only copy the other student’s results?

  4. says

    #3: I have a process of peer evaluation on the lab reports. Slack off, get slapped down by your lab partners.

    #4: I let the students handle that. Students who don’t contribute tend to gradually find themselves left out of study groups, and end up facing the final exam alone.

  5. says

    Sounds like one of those hippy-dippy new agey colleges where you can major in spiritual growth, grades are cute animals rather than letters, and most of the lab work involves yogurt and tofu.
    I went to one of those once. I got a polar bear in foot massage.

  6. mordred says

    Reading something like that reminds me about the changes I saw in the physics department of my university here in Germany. I started studying physics in the late 90s (changed majors soon after) and had most lectures by professors close to retirement. The lectures on experimental physics were great. The professors really had a blast playing with the basic experiments and laughing the loudest when something failed (again). Some student’s questions led to interesting discussions about the nature of reality, what scientific models really are or the history of science.

    To get the credit you only had to show up to the study class and do some calculations on the blackboard once or twice. One professor told us that he simple assumes we are all in his class because we are interested in the subject. If we are not, we will fail later anyway, so he did not see any reason to take attendance or otherwise pressure his students.

    Towards the end of my time at the university most of the older physics professors had retired and been replaced by younger ones with a very different style. It seems now attendance in the lectures was mandatory, there was graded homework and a final test. The lectures themselves seemed now more like classes in school. I didn’t think that was an improvement and now being a slightly senior software developer who occasionally has to deal with coworkers fresh from university I’m quite sure that the best thing you can teach a student is to think for themselves and how to be curious. Simply cramming knowledge into someone’s brain is not helpful in the long run.

  7. says

    Science isn’t:

    • Built around an arbitrary 14-week (or, for those on the quarter system, 9-week) calendar with a predictable end point

    • Built around being rewarded only for being able to redo what others have done before (key point there being “only”)

    • Built around an artificial scalar evaluative metric to equalize and compare scientific understanding with that achieved in the same calendar-slice concerning the history of Central Europe, or Elizabethan drama not labelled “Wm. Shakespeare,” or whatever other course carries the same number of credit hours that term

    • Built around never referring to outside materials to help understand and explain current inquiries

    So I applaud experienced Professor Myers for actually importing more reality into his “exam policies.” (Do not get me started on exam policies in either the hard-core humanities, if that’s not an oxymoron, or the law.)

  8. ANB says

    Jeez, 12 hours of “Office Hours” a week. I seem to recall that my profs had one or possibly two office hours a week, with a couple of notable exceptions.

  9. fredbrehm says

    Wow! Open book exams! It seems that my Electrical Engineering, Math, and Physics professors back in the late 60’s must have been hippies. That’s news to me. :-)

  10. says

    I never used attendance as part of a grade. I would tell my students: You’re adults and I assume you’re here to learn this stuff. I will not reward you for just showing up, neither will I penalize you if you miss, but remember that you are responsible for all of the material we cover.

    I always assigned homework exercises but I never collected or graded them. Again, I would tell the students, if you want to learn this, you must do the work. If you don’t do the work, it’s likely you will not pass, and even if you happen to squeak by, you won’t survive the follow-on courses. The goal is not to get through this program with the least amount of work, it’s to understand and to be able to apply the material. Presumably, this will be the beginning of a career. Why would you want to sabotage that?

    Regarding exams, I went full circle on that. I started with closed-book. Then, for a while, I had open-notes/open-book tests. Unfortunately, I discovered that many students would not study because of this. Then they would spend the entire time flipping through their book, frantically looking for a solved problem like the one on the test. In fact, I would sometimes receive perfectly solved problems on tests, but they weren’t the test problems, they were the ones from the book. Sorry, no credit for being a stenographer. Finally, for major exams I decided on allowing a cheat-sheet. They could bring in a 3×5 card with anything on it. It was just a mental crutch, but I would tell them to go through their notes and condense them, looking for the big concepts. Do that on multiple passes until you can fit all of the good stuff that you have trouble with on that card (not by just writing small). What I knew was that this would motivate them to take better notes, and the process of condensing the info would also help them understand it better. I just sort of happened on that process on my own when I was an undergrad. I found it to be very effective.

    Grading, in general, has issues. Our school uses a strict A/B/C/D/F system. Every now and then some faculty would suggest going to a +/- system. I was against it. It gave a false sense of accuracy and precision. Instead, at the end of the semester I would look at the grade distributions and look for clusters. The people in a given cluster got the same grade, even if the B-to-C breakpoint was 78 or 82, for example. I stole this idea from an old calculus professor of mine. And don’t get me started on GPAs. Anyone who thinks that you can boil down a two or four year college experience into a two digit number is hopelessly naive. And any company that places extremely high value on GPA is probably not a company you want to work for (I hated the companies that would only interview graduates with >3.4 GPA or some such).

  11. anthrosciguy says

    Toughest test I took from K-12 was an open book test in advanced biology; the teacher gave us the questions (pick 3 of the 5 and answer them) a week in advance.

  12. says

    It used to drive me nuts to know that when I got a real job, I’d have reference books available. In my case, manpages but I memorized stdio. Machinists have machinery’s handbook. Lawyers have libraries, etc. Expecting students to memorize stuff they will be able to look up at leisure is just stupid.

  13. says

    I used to teach customers how to deploy security systems, and I had a certification exam that was 5 essay questions that built on eachother. I told the students “this is not a writing test, just show that you understand the material.” One student answered the questions brilliantly with a few sentences for each. Another pointed out a flaw/shortcut in my questions that allowed for a remarkably simple answer. It taught me a lot, too.

    I think the whole time I was remembering the Neils Bohr barometer story.

  14. Bruce says

    This is all great. But my college told me I must take attendance because some students have financial aid from veterans benefits, which obliges the college to document when they attend.

  15. wajim says

    What?! Pure communism. Why, when I took tests in college I had to donate a pint of various bodily fluids just to get the TA to accept my answers! What she did with them I’ll never know, but we got married six years later. After 37 years I give her a ‘B’. Hey, that’s a high pass, so, yeah, Liberals . . .

  16. anat says

    Great on not requiring attendance. The only college class my son failed was one in which attendance was required for the grade, just in the quarter in which he had pneumonia.

  17. anat says

    jimf @11: I thought the only practical use of college GPA was for acceptance into graduate programs.

  18. euclide says

    My science teacher in your equivalent of middle school had the same open book policy (but no google, it was in the early 90’s)
    His justification was simple : one day, you will have a job, and your boss will never tell you to do your work without using the manual, but if you know your subject and where to find the answers quickly, you will have better results.

    Sadly, none of my other teachers until my engineering school had such policy

  19. says

    Yes, I had to take attendance too, for financial aid reasons. That didn’t mean that I had to use it for grading purposes.

    Regarding the argument about “all of the resources you’d have access to on a job”, that’s true, and you’d also have more than an hour or two to do it, but any job assignment is going to require far more effort than the sorts of comparatively simple questions you’d get on a test. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to tell a freshman electrical engineering student that they need to commit Ohm’s Law and Kirchhoff’s Laws to memory, and know how to apply them without looking things up. And you should know that Mega is 10^6 and nano is 10^-9, just like your ABCs (which you could also look up).

  20. says

    @11 Was your calculus teacher named Ed Migliore? Because I learned the same grading strategy from my second semester calculus teacher at Monterey Community College. I didn’t teach for long before my health failed me, but I found that grades did clump. Great teacher: all my community college math teachers were really good, so were some at University.

  21. says

    @11 Was your calculus teacher named Ed Migliore? Because I learned the same grading strategy from my second semester calculus teacher at Monterey Community College. I didn’t teach for long before my health failed me, but I found that grades did clump. Great teacher: all my community college math teachers were really good, so were some at University.

  22. brucej says

    Whereas my college (where I am but a humble IT monkey) is here in idiot land where they take great care to separate the students from each other during exams, the exams (electronically administered ) are randomised per student, and they have to take them with the &#^$% Lockdown Browser that blocks anything on their computer but the exam, lest they “cheat” and look up the answers. All to often it locks down their computers from doing anything, period.All for a profession where the practicioners have extebseive reference sources at hand at all times (pharmacy) because killing people by getting the wrong drugs and doses is kinda frowned upon…

    The best professor I ever had ran his courses on the same principle as you; and drilled into us “a good scientist doesn’t know everything, they know how and where to look up everything”

  23. VolcanoMan says

    This is exactly the kind of way education needs to evolve. I’ve been taking a diploma program during the Covid-times (started in the fall of 2020), and the entire first year of it was mostly online (we did have an average of 3 hours of labs each week, which were obviously done at the college). And my instructors were all SUPER PARANOID about cheating and collaboration, and all of that stuff, because every test (save for lab competency evaluations, and our final examinations) was done online (*See note below) at our home computers. We all had to have our cameras and microphones on, and the instructors were like, trying to detect cheating by watching peoples’ eye movement (like wtf? how can you differentiate between someone reading over a question and trying to pick up on its meaning, what it’s really asking, from someone looking at unauthorized material?). One instructor even spoke to the whole class with her microphone, 5 MINUTES INTO A TEST, to say “C’mon guys, I know you’re all cheating, stop it!” Like…way to stress people out, letting them know that the minutiae of their facial expressions, their gaze, their “resting thinking face” which people have when they are trying to puzzle out a question, are being analyzed and judged. Maybe people were cheating, I don’t know, but I do know that because of that stress, my own cognitive processes were disrupted (I was second-guessing everything I was doing, lest I be perceived as committing academic dishonesty), leading me to get a really bad score on that particular test, when I should’ve done okay.

    The way to safeguard online exams against cheating is actually pretty simple – create better exams, ones that require that students put pieces of information together in unique ways that are not easily Google-able. Easier said than done, I know, but in this new learning environment, it’s absolutely necessary. If questions are involved enough, sure a student might be able to answer them correctly after 5 minutes of googling, but given that most of our tests gave us an hour to answer ~50 questions, you could never rely on cheating to pass…you’d have to know the subject really well. Or…you can just go PZ’s route, and allow students to write their exams with no restrictions on what they can look at, or who they can talk to. Prioritize learning over rote memorization.

    *Note: This has now evolved – now that I’m doing my practicum portion of the program, all exams are administered in person, in supervised computer labs. Also, subsequent cohorts in this program are having to write certain subject unit tests in computer labs too. I think it’s mainly just Anatomy, I guess because they figure these are the hardest classes, but also the hardest classes to write creative, cheating-proof exams for (like, you label a structure on a diagram or CT scan or whatever, and ask someone to identify it…that kind of question will always form a part of this subject). Whatever the reason, it is unfortunate that things have gone down this path.