Now that summer is in high gear, is it OK to blog about our students since we know they can’t possibly be reading this? Granted he’s not blogging since he writes for the New Yorker, but Louis Menand seems to think it’s OK to tell stories out of school. Even though this may be the new “Higher Education Is Dying” magnum opus of the week, it’s this personal touch at the beginning that I liked most:
My first job as a professor was at an Ivy League university. The students were happy to be taught, and we, their teachers, were happy to be teaching them. Whatever portion of their time and energy was being eaten up by social commitments—which may have been huge, but about which I was ignorant—they seemed earnestly and unproblematically engaged with the academic experience. If I was naïve about this, they were gracious enough not to disabuse me. None of us ever questioned the importance of what we were doing.
At a certain appointed hour, the university decided to make its way in the world without me, and we parted company. I was assured that there were no hard feelings. I was fortunate to get a position in a public university system, at a college with an overworked faculty, an army of part-time instructors, and sixteen thousand students. Many of these students were the first in their families to attend college, and any distractions they had were not social. Many of them worked, and some had complicated family responsibilities….
Soon after I started teaching there, someone raised his hand and asked, about a text I had assigned, “Why did we have to buy this book?” I got the question in that form only once, but I heard it a number of times in the unmonetized form of “Why did we have to read this book?”
Menand thinks that last question was designed to jumpstart a philosophical discussion about the reasons people go to college. I, who by now have probably been teaching at that second kind of university longer than Menand ever did, would classify that question as plain old whining, probably because that particular novel was either too long, too boring or perhaps both. Call me a monster, but my response to that question would have been “Because I say so.” You don’t have to like what I make you read (indeed, if you critique it systematically and intelligently I’ll give your paper an “A” in a heartbeat), but you have to take it seriously.
When I got my lower-tier Ivy League undergraduate education, we at least had the common sense not to deliberately antagonize our professors by putting our anti-intellectualism on display for all of them to see. Unlike Menand, I know they don’t want to do the reading. Still, I believe there has to be some amount of compulsion in education. If there’s not, your students walk all over you and, worse yet, get a lot less out of the class than they would have otherwise.
I think this same principle applies to attendance policies. A couple of weeks ago, I went to our Provost’s “Student Retention Summit.” I wasn’t planning to say anything, but everyone else’s comments made me curious about something so I polled the room on this question: “How many of you make attendance mandatory for passing the course?” It turns out me and a guy from math were the only ones. The way I frame it, this doesn’t mean you have to attend every class. In a fourteen-week class that meets three times per week, I’ll give them four absences without asking for sickness, acts of God or whatever else they see fit. [Actually it’s five, but I put four on the syllabus.] After that, I’ll start taking points off their final grade and at eight I reserve the right to fail students outright regardless of performance in other aspects of the course. In short, attendance is not part of the grade. It’s a pre-requisite for being graded.
After explaining this policy following my poll, one of my colleagues from the scientists explained that he does not require attendance in the same way that I do because performing the functions of the lab are what you are being graded on and if you aren’t there you can’t do them. I have great sympathy for that position, but I’m not sure that many of my students think in those terms. When I first arrived on campus, I asked the Dean of Students at the time whether he thought I should require attendance. He said I should in order “to help them help themselves.” I’ve never gotten the attendance based version of Menand’s question. It might go something like, “Why do I have to show up to class if I write the papers and can pass the tests?” If I did, I’d probably still go with “Because I say so,” because a more polite answer would sound too much like what we tell our 6-year old son when he asks why he needs to eat all of his salad.
I recognize that what I’ve written so far seems a little harsh. It is. But in my own defense I do go to great lengths to explain the value of the books I assign after my students have read them. Also, I almost never have to fail someone solely on the basis of attendance because they fail anyway on other things. Tenured Radical had a really thought-provoking post the other day about whether students are a “captive audience” in the labor law sense of that term. I try really hard not to abuse the power I have in the classroom.
Still, at some point, you have to get down to brass tacks and remember: “I’m the teacher. You’re the student.” If you compromise on everything, they aren’t going to learn anything. After all, you’re teaching at a college, not a Montessori pre-school.