Monday, February 20, 2006
"A" for effort, or, The challenges of professional culture shock
It took me a couple of months to understand that there are really, truly, ultimately no consequences at all if my students decide not to do their homework. Their entire grade for my class comes from the standard exams at the end of the year, so they have the whole year to get ready. If they decide to prepare for our weekly classes, it's out of an idealistic sense of "wanting to learn." Teachers, like Serbs, tend to be cynics, so I'm surprised that my colleagues assign any homework at all. While this system seems odd to American sensibilities, it does make sense according to a certain logic. As long as you can pass the test, it doesn't matter how you get there; if you can teach yourself better than the professors can, then who are they to assign useless tasks? The logic falls apart, though, when you consider that attendance is mandatory. Students are obliged to show up, but it's up to them if they want to listen, participate, or do any work. All of this came up in conversation this evening with my 7:15-8:00 class. Although we've been meeting since November, they picked tonight to ask for details about my personal version of the attendance policy. Specifically, they wanted to know, "Can we still get your signature if we haven't been in class?" A little questioning revealed what the signature is: I'm supposed to sign their official records at the end of the year to certify that they have met the attendance requirement. My answer, then, was "Of course not. If you weren't here, you don't get credit for attendance." The students said that some of their other professors waive the attendance requirement, but recognized my right not to. Understanding that I care about such things, a couple of students started going over my attendance records to point out days when they had been out sick. (This gets them an excused absence.) One of them had even brought doctor's notes. Imagine that - doctor's notes! In college! Since we were off today's class topic anyway, I asked them about homework. "What reason do you have to do your homework?" I asked. "We want to learn," one student answered. I nodded knowingly. "And what happens if I assign something and you don't do it?" "Nothing. We're not in high school any more." Interesting. In my college days, there were certain classes I would only attend on the day the paper was due.