Monday, November 13, 2006

POW! Us Versus Them Is Not Going To Cut it If We Want To Sort The Classroom Out

You never know how it's going to turn here at RYS. Here, a reader goes against some of the recent grain and gives us our "post of the week."

I get plenty of bizarre and inappropriate requests from my students for extra help, second chances, or special treatment. So I'm more than sympathetic to the problem that Hang Together describes ...... but not at all to HT's solution. Because I also get plenty of perfectly legitimate requests for extra help and second chances.

The student whose sister was murdered mid-semester certainly wouldn't have been helped in any meaningful way if I'd been an asshole and refused to grant her request for "special treatment." Nor was the integrity of my teaching blemished even slightly because I gave her carte blanche to decide when she would complete the course requirements. Those circumstances so clearly warranted a deviation from the rules laid out in the syllabus that I felt bad that I couldn't do more to be helpful.

Of course, most requests for extensions are much harder for me to adjudicate. But that's precisely why I always include some sort of "drop the low grade" or "choose four of six assignments" or "flexible due dates" option on my syllabi. Not because it improves student learning, but because it allows me to spend more time concentrating on actual teaching and research, and less time trying to decide which sob stories are bullshit and which are genuine crises.

This system also makes it much easier for my students to really see themselves as adults (rather than "kids" or "cherubs"), since it visibly puts the responsibility for balancing their workload (and their lives) back on their shoulders. They have to decide for themselves when/if they want to burn up their droppable assignments, and this makes it that much tougher (which is not to say "impossible") for them to ask for "special treatment" in December when they know they made poor choices in October.

I can guarantee you that none of this makes my students feel like they're being "coddled" or like my courses are "dumbed down." My students routinely tell me that they have to work harder in my classes than they're used to -- and I'm quite happy to have earned a reputation as a "tough A." If HT is suffering from a plague of students who feel over-entitled (and who of us isn't?), it's certainly not because faculty like me are offering students five chances to turn in three papers. Demanding that "faculty should hang together" isn't the solution here -- and not only because it's a really poor choice of phrase (unless, for some perverse reason, you want to invite people to respond with "get a rope").

This isn't a war, after all, students aren't the enemy ... and what a hardline/"us versus them"/"zero tolerance" approach to teaching says to me is that it's not always the students who need to learn how to behave like adults.