Every semester I run a hypothetical past the students in my academic (first-year) writing course.
I present this bargain: First, everyone in the class gets “A’s.” Second, class never meets. There are no readings, discussions, or assignments. Nothing is turned in. From the moment we engage in our bargain, we will never see each other again.
Third, for obvious reasons, they can’t tell anyone about our little agreement.
Here is where I pause to allow you to consider what percentage of my students say they would take this bargain. Some additional information for you to chew on:
1. I teach at a liberal arts college with a strong emphasis on undergraduate education.
2. The course is required for all students and not particularly beloved.
I present this hypothetical as part of a larger discussion about “college,” what it’s for and why we’re there. The course seeks to model the “academic conversation” and I use this topic as a introduction to this mode since it’s one in which they all have a stake and a stance. I also like the hypothetical because it gives me insight into their attitudes not just toward the course, but their educations as a whole. One of my core teaching philosophies is transparency, so I prefer all cards on the table as we begin the semester.
Enough delaying. What’s your guess? What percentage of students say they would take this bargain? 5%? 20%? 50%?
I have yet to teach a class where the percentage who would take the “A” without meeting class or doing any work is less than fifty. Usually it’s 70% plus. At Clemson, when I would teach the required “sophomore literature” course and ask the same question, the percentage was routinely higher than ninety.
This is where I definitively do not launch into a rant about how this generation of students is somehow unteachable or needs a radical attitude adjustment.
Because what else have we asked them to believe about the purpose of class, of school? They are not cynical in the slightest, only sensible according to the rules of the game society has established.
They have likely been subjected to high stakes standardized tests for the entirety of their school experiences. We have signaled to them that all knowledge is to be boiled down to multiple choice, that the very purpose of learning things is to pass an evaluation created by (usually nameless) authorities.
Consider how most colleges and universities present themselves, the way we talk about the value of a degree, or the amazing achievements of our alumni. We’re selling the future, not the present.
Why should students find value in the doing when all that’s mattered previously is the having done?
Some point out the “value” of an “A” not just in and of itself, but the additional time of that guaranteed “A” will result in improved grades in the other courses where they actually have to do work.
Others express either skepticism as to the value of the course or a longstanding dislike of writing itself and the thought of getting an “A” brings nothing so much as relief from an experience that they’re certain was going to be unpleasant.
As a student, I wasn’t all that different. If the same deal had been offered in my physical sciences requirement, I would’ve taken it in a flash.
There are of course some students who would not take the deal, who declare that they’re in college to learn things, and who am I to doubt them, except that they’re always in the minority.
Maybe I am perverse, but I sort of relish these attitudes. I enjoy teaching creative writing as well, but there’s something too easy about everyone in the class being enthusiastic. From the very first day of fiction writing it’s like we’re ready for a big group hug, members of the tribe recognizing that they’ve found their place.
I guess I like the challenge of proving the value of studying writing and composition not just for their future coursework, or employment, but because they may also break through to experiencing the pleasures of knowing their own minds and being able to share that knowing in conversation with others.
It is in these moments when I most feel that I’m doing the work of education.
Occasionally Twitter offers me an education.
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