“Because I say so.”

2 06 2011

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.




10 responses

2 06 2011
Music for Deckchairs

As a fellow parent of the salad-averse, it turns out I’m way more permissive than you about all this both at home and at work. No doubt this is consistent with my increasingly florid charlatanism on that other topic …

I teach a research intensive course in a very dry area (cultural policy). I don’t assign textbooks or even course readers. Students come to my lectures, or don’t. I record the lecture and some choose to access it that way, or flounder on without it, but about half the class show up. This is, as it turns out, on the high side of lecture attendance at my institution. I do require a weekly contribution online, and I do require this to show evidence of research, but I’m pretty easy going about making this up asynchronously. (In fact, as this is the last week of the Australian semester, the combined energy currently being put in to the catch up effort is probably visible by satellite.)

So for me, it’s the opposite of “because I say so”, and if I were actually to make the speech, this would be it: “This is your education. You’re accruing real debt to be here whatever you make of it, whereas I am paid to be here. I know this topic well. So mere presenteeism makes no sense for you at all (and in fact makes much more sense for me). So if you’re coming to class but you’re really on Facebook, then by all means save the environmental impact of driving to be here and stay home on Facebook.

But if you commit to being here and being present and thinking, and you do the independent research I’m asking you to do, and you write something every week and read what other people are writing, by the end of semester you’ll know more than you did when you started, and you’ll be better at expressing what you know. If you don’t, you won’t. The financial cost to you is the same. You do the math.”

And the class does tend to sort itself out into those who fail, those who scrape a pass (and sometimes that’s a strategically smart choice on their part), and those who flourish to the best of their ability. Above all, they all learn a big lesson about the steep learning curve to effective self-management.

So, much as you might expect, it’s the Montessori approach for me. Hmm, Montessori Online Charlatan is really acquiring quite a ring. I’ll need a bigger shingle.

2 06 2011
Jonathan Rees


You’re going to make me backpedal again so that I don’t feel so judgmental: To each their own. Of course, I mean we teachers, that only works for students in the Montesori format.

3 06 2011
To Be Announced.

As a student, I am on the fence. I have been in lecture classes where the professor reads exactly what is on a PowerPoint (that is later posted online) and tells me exactly what is going to be on the test the day before it occurs and to top it all off, they expect me to sit there in class for an attendance grade. Not that I want to be home on Facebook (I think it is one of the greater atrocities of the 21st century because it has become a place where individuals can ramble their opinions without saying why or having any evidence to back it up so it becomes an automatic complain button that further allows lack of thinking to my generation), but I’m sure I would much rather be reading a book or doing other research than sitting in a pointless class that I can review later online.

However, I also believe that if a class is effective and thought-provoking, the attendance will come naturally. Throughout the last year, there were days where I just did not want to go to class but nine times out of ten, I wanted to be there in the atmosphere because I knew I would learn something that I would not otherwise. I think if a professor effectively engages a class (clearly Menand did not), then the students will naturally want to be there and the attendance grade becomes nothing more than a grade booster.

Maybe I’m naive about students in general and maybe some do not care, but they are paying for it and in this economy, I would expect them to want to get something out of it.

3 06 2011
Music for Deckchairs

TBA, I really like what you have to say here. I think you’re absolutely right that if what we’re doing is reading from slides and giving you content that we then want you to give back to us to prove that you got it, the fault is squarely on our side. And yes, I think the harsh fact is that if students aren’t coming (and there isn’t an obvious institutional problem like the class is at 8.30am and they all live two hours away) then we need to shape up.

3 06 2011
Matt L

I sympathize with Jonathan’s attendance policy. I am teaching summer session and just had the registrar drop a student who didn’t show up to the first week of class for a five week course. The student still wanted to ‘catch up’ in week two! I penalize the students heavily for missing a summer class.

I do something that is halfway between Jonthan and MfD during the regular school year. I send around a sign in sheet and tell students that it is their responsibility to show up to class and I don’t give them points for something that should do anyway. I tell the students that the people who don’t show up tend to do poorly on the exams. Later in the semester, if a student is struggling in the class and want’s to know why, I whip out the stacks of attendance sheets and make them count up their own absences.

Once a year I have a student who games the system. He or she does well on the exams, but misses a slew of short assignments because they never came to class. So they end up with a C in the class when they could have earned a B or an A. But I think that is OK. They are managing their time and clearly making a choice to accept a lower grade so they can go do something else (work, study for another class… who knows).

3 06 2011
Matt L

more to the point about Menand’s question: I rarely get the “why do we have to read this book” question anymore. I take time in the first class meeting to explain what each of the books is supposed to accomplish in the class. Then, when possible, I remind the students when we are reading it how it connects to class.

I think this is one place where the edu-speak-assessment-jargon is correct: tell your students at the beginning of class and remind them often how the assignment or reading is supposed to meet a learning objective. Most of them are willing to play along if you can give them a good reason for doing something. They will accept even a half-baked learning objective as long as you are not patronizing.

4 06 2011

Interesting discussion. I got stuck on the question of “why did we have to BUY this book?” My answer would have been, “You didn’t. There are multiple copies available of this book either in the library or on Prospector (the Colorado and Wyoming interlibrary loan system).”

(Am I the only person in the world who after I got a syllabus at the beginning of the term first went to the library rather than the bookstore in college and grad school? I guess I must have been back in the day, because the library copy of the required books were usually right there in plain sight just waiting for me to check them out!)

4 06 2011
Middle Seaman

It’s late to comment, but I want to. Louis Menand’s quote demonstrates clumsy writing that may be a reflection of a clumsy mind.

Students are adults; it isn’t my job to help them be responsible or do “the right thing.” I raised three kids and tried not to make them do anything that they didn’t want to do; they are doing fine. Similarly to you, my wife doesn’t agree with me; that’s fine too. I like students to challenge me. If I cannot counter punch comfortably, I should reconsider or I should seek another job. We are far from being right all the time. We should all try to see school more as a dialog or a friendly exchange rather than Zeus talking to illiterate slaves.

As the old sages said: we learned a lot from our teachers, but we learned more from our students.

5 06 2011
Vertical thinking | Music for Deckchairs

[…] The higher education learners of the day after tomorrow are already making video clips and blogging and connecting across schools and learning in large open plan multifunction spaces where they move from activity to activity apparently without distraction. This will affect the way that they view traditional lecturing, and certainly our heavy reliance on Powerpoint, given that most of them can already design presentations using more sophisticated applications. When we ask them to sit in classrooms, turn off their mobiles, tablets and laptops and listen to us talk, they’re going to want to know why our assumptions about learning make sense. […]

6 06 2011
Because I Say So — Teaching College English

[…] the title of an article in which I found this statement: A couple of weeks ago, I went to our Provost’s “Student […]

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