Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Grading criteria

Coming to terms with grading

To my students:

It is difficult to explain how much you mean to me. Without you, my work would be meaningless. You never fail to amaze me with your ability to accomplish great things. I see so many of you working so hard, struggling with balancing lives that incorporate so much more than your studies. I know that you have dreams and goals and are working hard to accomplish those goals.

And then I have to assign a number and a letter to your work. I have to look at it and decide whether it is worthy. I have to sit in judgement and pontificate as to the merits of the work you have done. While I am sometimes surprised at the work you have done, I am also often surprised as to the reaction to my judgement. Sometimes I see delight in a grade higher than expected. Other times, I see disappointment in your faces. I really believe that neither of these is necessary. You should know the criteria according to which I judge your work.



This work is below the level that any college student should ever submit to the instructor. The work may have been received after a due date. Significant aspects of the assignment are probably missing. Numerous, serious errors appear throughout the assignment. The work shows a lack of understanding of the material or worse, a disregard for instruction. Any of these criteria constitute adequate grounds for failing on an assignment.



The work may have excellent potential, but fails to meet the level of work expected at the college level. Some portion of the assignment may not have been accomplished. The work may appear not to have been edited for spelling or grammar, may not follow an approved citation format or in some other ways falls short of basic standards that should be expected of all college level work.



The work is acceptable, college level work. The assignment might still contain insignificant stylistic errors, but has clearly been edited and proofread and redone to correct the majority of them. Everything is done precisely as it is required in the assignment. If the assignment requires four sources, there are four sources. If the assignment requires a 5-7 minute speech, the student gives a speech between 5 and 7 minutes. If the assignment requires the student to state an opinion, the student states an opinion. The list could go on indefinitely, but the student is doing precisely what the assignment says and is performing at a college level.



The assignment not only accomplishes all requirements precisely as stated, but some aspect of the assignment has exceeded the quality expected of a college student. If there are any errors in style at all, they are rare and incidental. Often there is a level of professionalism and polish which moves beyond what the assignment could require. Sometimes, the execution of the assignment shows special insight into the nuances of instruction. Other times, the student has found a way to incorporate their own personality in new and creative ways.



The assignment vastly exceeds the quality of work expected of a college student. All requirements of the assignment are met and most are met with an extraordinary level of professionalism and/or creativity. Additionally, the student may have worked within the confines of the assignment to do something bold and innovative.

I hope that reading this chart can help you. I am relatively certain that most of my instructors and professors in college held similar criteria. In fact, a few of them shared their criteria with us early in the semester. I remember being thankful for their clarity. I think you should be comfortable knowing that if you do what the assignment says, you are always going to pass. I also think you should know that if you really do work that exceeds the requirements of the assignment, that you will be rewarded with a grade which is better than passing.

** edit 8:40 7/20/11 because I saw a spelling mistake.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Sweet Ride.

Coming to terms with debt, frugality, hope and junker cars.

My wife and I have degrees, and the debt that comes with them. Actually, we have more significantly more debt than people do who get out of college, but I have a PhD and she had significant family issues in college both of which caused a pretty severe accumulation. If we pay on them like we are supposed to, I will still be making student loan payments with my retirement checks. We don't want to live that way however.

Lately, while the federal government has been making plans to raise their debt ceiling, my wife and I have been actively working to reduce ours. We have quickly moved out of consumer debt and now only have those student loans on which we can make payments above and beyond the official plan.

Living within one's means when one's means are massively reduced by student loan debt is not easy. We have made sacrifices. We have missed out on things. Our lives are struggles, but we are not just struggling to make ends meet. We are struggling to see those ends disappear. I have taken extra assignments and teach extra classes at work. We live in a tiny apartment. We drive junker cars. We are going to do this.

Still, we have to live. We need groceries, electricity, transportation to and from work and fun. We need these things even while we are living in a tight way. So we have to make these things cheap. We've generally tried to live with just one car between us. It is an old car, bought with cash, and requiring no payments. Still, it really isn't enough. Most days we can mash sharing the car with bus schedules (the bus stop is only a mile away) and make it work. Sometimes this is really, really difficult.

Furthermore, our cheap, old car is really not the best for getting some of the cheapest fun around. We live in a town on the edge of the beautiful Gila National Forest and the Chihuahua Desert. Hiking, camping and nature are obvious and free-to-cheap fun. Our little car, however, doesn't do well on Forest Service roads.

So I needed something with better clearance and that I could drive maybe once or twice a week to work. The problem was that it would have to be a second car purchased while living on our tight budget. I found one. I bought a car this morning for only $250. It meets all our needs.

To me, finding any functional automobile at all that fit in our budget was a miracle. You might say: "That hunk of junk! How is that a miracle?" We can afford it. It can get me to work a couple days a week and will be a great fishing, camping and hiking car. It's perfect. It's a miracle. It gives me hope.

Furthermore, I really think that junker cars are usually a better deal. I always drove junkers growing up. My dad always drove junkers. One day, when I was 19 and knew everything, I decided I was tired of buying junker cars. So, I went into debt to buy a "reliable" car. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra. I bought it for $3000. According to an online inflation calculator, that would be 4355.56 in today's money. I ended up spending more on repairs every month than I did on payments and to make both I took out that first student loan.

Junker cars save alot. According to an article originally posted in Kipplinger's Personal Finance, the average American spends about $479 per month on a car loan. To me that means that if you buy a $500 car about every two months, you're money ahead. The truth is, that no car I've ever bought for this amount has lasted fewer than three years. See how much I haven't spent?

Now, don't misunderstand me. If I thought I was going to have to live this way forever, I'd be borderline suicidal. I don't believe that. I think that finding a car for $250 is a miracle. I think that miracles happen like this all the time if a person is managing his or her finances correctly. I believe that more miracles are coming and that we will be able to get out of debt much sooner than our creditors think and that when we do, we will be able to buy very nice cars, with cash, and no car payment.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Excited about budgets

Coming to terms with Budgets, Math and being a nerd.

The story.

I recently posted on my status on Facebook:
So, in case there was any doubt as to whether or not I'm a nerd, I'm really excited about our fiscal month budget for July 15-August 15."
My brother responded with "porque" and the answer became something much longer than should really be on a Facebook status. So, it is now a blog.

Reason #1: it's Math and I Can Do It.

There is probably just something about my nerd nature that makes me love budgets. I've always been a nerd, more comfortable with my imaginary friends than with real ones, but I couldn't always accept it. First of all, I really wanted to be cool. Secondly, I wasn't really good in math in grade school and high school. How could I be a nerd if I didn't like math?

I didn't like math because I wasn't good at it. I wasn't good at it because I had trouble keeping things in neat rows. That meant that it was hard. My teachers were always frustrated because they could tell I understood the concepts, I just got the answers wrong. Not being good at math continued into college. It wasn't until I was in graduate school and had to take statistics that I learned my way out: spreadsheets. Spreadsheets keep everything in nice neat rows anyway. Furthermore, when you use spreadsheets, the concepts and the data are all you need. They make it neat for you. So, I like it. I feel like I can do math because I can make the computer do math. It is like a blind man suddenly seeing.

I like it when all the numbers add up and it all just works. Really, since I use a zero-sum budget, ultimately, I am excited that 1-1=0. I have no money at the end of each fiscal month, exactly as it should be. I enjoy watching it all come together as I enter the data. Each bill paid with money that hasn't come in yet feels like a foe vanquished. I enjoy a filled out zero-sum budget because it lets me imagine a future and causes that future to come into being.

Since this blog is primarily a response to my brother's question, and since we are both table-top role players, I think he will understand this: It is like filling out a character sheet for a role playing game. You put in your abilities, their modifiers, relate them to weapons and can imagine how such acts will work out in "real life." It is the same with budgets.

Reason #2: we're winning and we know it.

My wife and I fell off budgeting when we were between academic jobs and having enough money to buy groceries was all we could hope to accomplish. Since we have come into a better position, we went back to the zero-sum budget. Every month as we work out our budget, we can see real progress. We use goals advocated in Dave Ramsey's Seven Baby Steps to gauge our progress. It seems like every month we move closer to our goals. As we do so, life becomes easier.

In the next fiscal month, we will be completely free from consumer debt and we have already been able to vastly increase our payments on student loan debt as a result. We've also been able to start saving seriously for a second car, a trip home for Christmas and other necessities. All of this will be happening while simultaneously increasing our individual discretionary spending: that means money we can play with. That is something that can really excite a person. It isn't just that we are paying our bills and can feel okay, the budget puts it all there in black and white. We are improving our lives. I didn't get a raise, I just have more money all the time because when I get money I know how it will be used.

Reason #3: Because I am a nerd.

I like budgets because I like budget-type things. I set goals for each week and each work day and put them in little charts and cross them out when they are done. Each week on Wednesday I draw up a menu for the entire week, go through the cupboards to see what I don't have to cover that menu. Then I make a shopping list in which I buy everything I need to make everything I need that week. The shopping list is a function of the budget and the menu.

It is fun. My motto is that you can always change your plans if you have plans. I like plans. They give me comfort. Today is July 8th. Do you know how much you are spending on groceries the week of August 8th? I do: $45. I may go as low as $40, but $45 is my max.

Now, things happen that are unplanned. A good budget has contingencies built into it. If I get a speeding ticket or the car breaks down, we can make it all work. If a person gets the attitude that since there are contingencies there can't be a plan, it all breaks down.

So there.

That, my brother, is why I am excited about the budget we just created for 7/15-8/15.