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The Importance of Classes
February 8, 2011 - 9:30pm

On the 3rd of January, I showed up bright and early for my Comparative Politics class and was peeved that only 1/3 of my students showed up. One student who was due to deliver an oral report said she wasn’t ready because “she didn’t think I would hold classes that day.” I was similarly aghast that many of the faculty members from my Division were also absent that day. The Arts and Sciences building felt like a ghost town--the habitués having decided they needed an extra day to recuperate from their holiday hangover.

This is, sadly, part of a larger cultural malaise besetting my home institution-- the tendency NOT to take classes seriously. This is indicative in the way administrators set meetings, consultations and celebratory occasions within class hours (7am to 5pm, Mondays through Fridays) and suspending classes to give way to them. Apart from early January, faculty members routinely do not hold classes on the first week of the semester (arguing for attendance in “opening exercises/programs”) and a day before and during the Christmas Lantern Parade. Many also routinely miss classes on account of moonlighting activities (our professors are poorly paid). While it is standard to require the holding of make-up classes for these absences, many times faculty members are not as judicious given difficulties of scheduling. And so they just send the students away with loads of additional assignments and film showings. Predictably, students also imbibe this lackadaisical attitude; they anticipate these “informal” class holidays and go on long vacations, show up late in classes and max out their quota of 7 unexcused absences.

I do not know when and how this norm of undervaluing structured engagements between the teacher and the students in a classroom emerged. Granted, our bi-weekly hour-and-half sessions are quite long and some schedules are during un-holy hours like 7am and 5:30 pm, but classes are identifiable measures of learning for which students could readily assess if they are getting their tuition money’s worth. Classroom instruction is the staple of a teacher’s job. Despite arguments in favor of “virtual” classes, person-to-person contact in real time through classes also favors building a community. Every class missed is also a missed opportunity for building lasting connections.

Against this tide, I am swimming resolutely. In the past, I have managed to conduct classes religiously by scheduling research fieldwork and writing on weekends and during semester/summer breaks. Recently, it has increasingly become more difficult given the amount of travel I do for conferences and meetings in Manila and abroad. I have moved some of my class time online, having students submit papers and consult regarding reports, assignments and thesis by email, but still hell-bent in conducting make-up classes from 4-5:30 pm most days. In retrospect, I am spending MORE time on my classes (answering emails, reading student papers) on top of the number of missed hours which I make up for anyway. Like a parent, I obsess and am guilty about not being physically present for my students and I overcompensate for it. And like children with absentee parents, my students only remember the times when I was not around and are merciless in their evaluation of my class. “She should cut down on her travels”; “she should slow down”; “she drives us crazy with her make-up schedules”-- these are some of the more benign comments I get.

The pressures of teaching and producing scholarly work do take a physical toll. My workday starts at 4am and ends at 7pm when I arrive home from my make-up classes. I do class-related work even when traveling officially. The internet is not answering my dilemma of losing the physicality of classroom engagement. I want to inspire my students, get them thinking, listen to what they have to say-- and the only way I can do that is if I am seen and felt. I know intuitively that the solution is to cut back on my travels and to learn how say “no” to additional assignments. But I am always afraid of missing out on professional opportunities when I do so. The struggle goes on.

The Visayas, the Philippines

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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