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Teaching and Learning FAQs


I think college should be fun. It should be fun to be here with your friends, hang out, learn about new people and new things, and try out all the ideas and thoughts that you couldn't act on in high school. College is a gateway to adulthood, and, for most of you, some portion of college will happen after you achieve adulthood. Many of you already have important experience traveling the world, serving the nation in the armed services or the Peace Corps, or in similar experiences. You come from all over North Carolina, the United States, and the world. We all have experiences that we can and should share; this richness of experience is what makes college a time in your life you will never forget.

It may not surprise you (I am an academic!) that my years in college were among the best in my life. But to get the most out of college, you need to act responsibly. It's OK to work hard and play hard, and it's none of my business how you play or how much you play. But your scholarly work is my concern. It is my duty as an scholar to teach the material I know in a way that you understand it and can use it in your career and your life. It's also my duty to learn how to teach the material in a way that's interesting (not entertaining, necessarily, but interesting) and understandable.

My duty to teach you and to fairly evaluate your work does not negate your responsibility to work hard at learning. Learning at the college level requires hard work, even if you found high school really pretty easy. And at large universities, such as the ones I've attended (University of Oregon, Rutgers University, University of Washington) and where I've worked (SUNY Albany, NC State), a great deal of the burden for managing your education is placed squarely on your shoulders.

If you are not prepared to work hard--harder than you may ever have in your life--you are not prepared for college. I learned this lesson the hard way during my first term of college when, walking into my dorm floor with a beer (!) in hand,  I asked my buddies "what are you doing?" and they said, "studying for finals." "Finals?" I laughed. Finals were the last exam of the marking period in high school, and nothing to get excited about.

I bombed my finals, and got the worst grades in my life. Lesson learned! I wasn't ready for college! But I got help, read a bit about how one should manage one's time in college, and I did buckle down the next semester and got past the rough parts, and it all went well after that. And when you're working hard, making the marks you want to make, and feel good about your work, college is fun.

I think your experience may be different than mine, particularly if you are an undergraduate. I do believe that, in many ways, today's students--both graduate and undergraduate--are remarkably attuned to professors' expectations. But in many ways, students don't realize how their requests and behaviors make their professors doubt students' commitment to scholarship. Regardless of what you believe, academics are the most important aspect of the range of experiences you will have at a university.

I have a great deal of confidence in your ability to do the work. Gaining admission to this university is a significant achievement, whether you are an freshman or a beginning Ph.D. student. Your orientation was likely much better planned and delivered than was mine, which was about three hours overall. Your professors and all the things you find here--from the computing labs, to the library, to even the food service and the gym!--are here to help you learn (and not just book learning), succeed, and to be prepared to do great things when you leave here. So while you must be prepared to take charge of your own education, there's a lot of people here ready to help, if you ask and are serious.

With this in mind, here are some questions I get every term, and some explanations.

What do you assuming about students in your courses?

If you are in a course I teach assume

  • That you are able to write clearly in Standard English.
  • That you are familiar with using the research tools available to you in a modern academic library, including on-line catalogs and databases.
  • That you know how to use basic tools in a professional manner, such as word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software.
  • That you have a basic understanding of American politics and government.
  • That you care about particular issues of public policy and politics, and are motivated to work toward addressing public problems.
  • That you are committed to the course and that you intend to fully participate in the course and in the assignments.
  • That you are able to manage your time in such a way as to meet your commitments to this course.

Students who do poorly in my classes often fail to fulfill one or more of these assumptions.


Why are you so strict (up tight?) about writing?

Writing is the primary method of communication in professional life. Poor writing marks the author as seeming ignorant, uneducated, and inattentive. Poor writing also makes good ideas incomprehensible. Better writing conveys ideas in a way that people can understand and use.

Many students learn poor writing habits in high school, or were never taught good habits. I will attempt to provide feedback on writing, but, since I do not teach college writing, I cannot fully diagnose writing problems. But I can share tips and resources. In the end, just like being able to do advanced math for a physics or engineering course, you are ultimately responsible for your own writing, and poor writing will be marked down regardless of whether you show mastery of course content. My bottom line attitude is that college students should know how to write before starting college. But I also believe that you can become a better writer in college. My feedback is intended to help, but you may need additional assistance.

Do you grade on a curve?

No, and you don't want me to! Here's why, based on my understanding of what a grading curve looks like:  To grade on a curve the teacher has to assume two things: the average expected grade, and the spread around that grade. Let's imagine I graded against what we call the "normal distribution," or the "bell curve." Under such a scheme, an "average" (that is, median, although we assume that the mean and median are close) grade would be a C. I would divide up the normal curve in such a way that:

  • 2.5% of students get A+
  • the next 13.5% get As
  • the next 17% get Bs
  • the middle 34% get Cs
  • the 17% get Ds
  • Everyone else (the other 16 get Fs)

(Given trends toward grade inflation, the middle grade would probably be closer to a B-.)

This works great in a class with, say, 100 students, where the average and median score is 70, and the scores are normally distributed. Of course, you'd rather set the mean at what the mean score really is, and let's say it's a really hard test. So let's say 100 students take a test, the mean is 50, and the standard deviation is 10. This means that any student who gets a 71 or better gets an A+, anyone with 50 gets a C, and anyone with less than 40 fails the exam.

But let's say that the test is really easy, or that nearly everyone studied really hard and got a lot of questions right. Let's say the mean is 90 and, since everyone worked really hard, the standard deviation (the amount of "spread" around the median, or middle, score) is only 5.  In this case, assuming the maximum is 100, no one can get an A+, since that would be off the scale, and an 84 or less would mean a failing grade. Would you like to get an F if you got an 84?

This is why I don't grade on a curve: if you are learning and I am teaching well, some students will still fail under this idea of a curve, and that's not right. What I do for large classes for exams with lots of points is this: if my exam has 100 possible points, and the best mark on the exam is a 95, then I make 95 equal 100 (that is, every point is worth =100/95 or about 1.05 points). This accounts for the difficulty of the test without assuming right away that some number of people must get either As or Fs, which is what must be assumed under most students' understandings of a "curve."

What is your attendance policy

Attendance is mandatory in all graduate seminars. The only acceptable reasons to miss a seminar are unavoidable illness, required military service, or accidents deemed beyond your control. I will not accept previously scheduled weddings. yours or anyone else's (really--this did happen one semester), vacations, or avoidable work obligations (or those that can be rescheduled) as an excused absence. I will be sympathetic to one such request a semester, but a repeated record of missing class will have substantial consequences.

I will not move the final date to accommodate your vacation. If you have a job, and you sign up for my course, make certain that your supervisor knows that your presence in my class is required; if you have already scheduled a lengthy out of town business trip, it would be best not to take my class during that semester, unless, as I often do, I give you a "one free no-questions asked absence."

Along those lines, demanding work schedules do not relieve you of the obligation to attend and participate in class discussion. I will make some exceptions for reasonable, extraordinary circumstances, but students who take my courses have to make their commitment to their studies their primary commitment.. 

You lose any attendance points for being late, or if you use electronic devices inappropriately during class time.

What should I do if I am going to miss class?

Email me no fewer than three hours before class to let me know. 

What should I do if I am going to be late for class?
You should email me or call my office and let me know. If you do come in late, you must not disrupt the class in any way. I am much stricter about tardiness for undergraduate students, because I presume that undergrads live near campus.

Do you accept late papers?

Yes--I don't reject them outright. There are penalized one letter grade for every day late, until they are four days late, at which point a failing grade is given. I will not nag you to turn in papers--you are responsible for turning them in yourself. Most papers are to be submitted via email to tom_birkland@ncsu.edu.

Do you accept printed papers?

No. I only accept written work submitted via email. The only formats I accept are .doc, .docx, or .rtf. I expressly do not accept PDF files.

What is your policy on the use of electronic devices in class.

Laptop computers may be used in class. Howver, surfing, shopping, playing games, or using the computer inapprorpiately during class time will result in appropriate sanctions, from lost attendance credit to an outright ban on laptops in class.

If your cell phone rings during class, and you do not quickly mute the phone, you will be marked absent for that class. Text messaging is similarly prohibited. Answering a call in class will result in your immediate dismissal from the classroom. If your cell phone is out and you are looking at it I will assume you are using it to text and will grade accordingly. Turn off your phone before class. If a potential incoming call is so important that you cannot turn off the phone, you may warn me if there's an emergency situation I should know about.

Is there a study guide for your class?

I generally do not provide "study guides" (cheat sheats, crib sheets, for my classes. The syllabus, textbooks, your notes, and other materials are by definition study guides. However, for my undergraduate policy course I will likely post any Powerpoint slides and the question pool to the web site.

Do you give makeup exams or assignments?

No. Missed exams earn a failing mark. Of course, some circumstances beyond your control will require a make-up exam or assignment, but I rarely see circumstances that are completely out of your control. In case of bad weather or similar emergencies, if the university is open, and I can get to my office, then no excused absences will be allowed, and no make up exam will be provided.

How can I contact you?

If you believe I will be in the office, you are free to call my office phone, 919.513.7799. However, it's usually better to email me at either tom_birkland@ncsu.edu. You can also schedule meetings with me at http://tungle.me/birkland

Please note, however, that I do not have my email on all the time (and neither should you, actually!). During the school year I usually respond on the same day, and most often within 48 hours, but please do not count on instant responses to email -- email is not a form of instant messaging.

What courses do you offer?

The courses I typically offer are listed on the teaching page. When I have a new course to teach, I will announce it on my web site and through various other means. In recent years I have taught the PhD and MPA level course on the policy process, a course on grant writing, and my course on U.S. natural disaster policy.

Do you give extra credit?

Somtimes I provide extra credit opportunities in exams. The only credit available is that outlined in the syllabus. Requests for "extra credit" are usually attempts to rescue poor performance right at the end of the semester, and are therefore not honored.

There is one exception to the extra credit rule: if you find errors in writing on any web page, and let me know about them, I will certainly give you some extra points for your sharp eye and diligence.

Can you sponsor my independent study?

As a rule I do not sponsor undergraduate independent study projects. Most independent study ideas can be easily accommodated within existing courses.  The only exceptions are case-by-case, and are given only to students with an exceptional record of self motivation who come with a very well thought-out idea and sechedule--in other words, students must, in essence, write their own syllabus, promise certain deliverables, and deliver them on time. Since in most cases the ideas are insufficiently developed, I don't sponsor independent studies.

I am interested in your research and would like to work with you. Do you have jobs available?
Why do you sometimes cancel a class on the syllabus? I paid good money for that class!