Responsibility and the Ethics of Classrooms

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

Something’s been bothering me of late. It has to do with college student responsibility. Why is it bothering me? A couple of reasons. I find more students not observing the time and date of my meetings with them. I did not determine these dates and times, though I agreed with them in consultation with my wonderful English Department chair. I entered class a few weeks back and found 4 students waiting for me. 4 out of fifteen, more if I count the roster.

I’ve been teaching in various capacities for about fourteen years, more if I count student teaching as TA and GA. I have, therefore, a span of time to work with in terms of tracking how my experience of the classroom has changed. It’s changed dramatically. At UT El Paso, I began teaching Composition courses. I would typically start out with courses full of students and end semesters with about the same amount of people. These days, writing courses start out pretty much loaded and I end semesters with less than half of students submitting portfolios. Not all of them will meet the requirements for success. Attitudes have not changed; behavior has.

One reason for diminished student success has to do with the amount of stress students lay on themselves during the course of a semester. I find that many more people are not participating in course work in addition to their lack of attendance. Lack of attendance and missed meetings stresses a student’s experience. Here’s a scenario. A student misses a class where I go over how to organize and deal with counterargument or I provide examples of analysis in a section of an argument. The object here is to provide practice. If a student misses this discussion, they miss the subject entirely or won’t pick up on its variations later on.

This is fine to a point. People can’t always attend. Stuff happens, and we work with students who have other responsibilities to balance.

Nevertheless, I find that behavior is affecting my own attitude and and my own ability to teach. If a few students miss, I can catch them up and see them to the next level inside the course. If many students miss, I have to move to the next level and hope the students somehow catch up. I have to rely on several students staying alert with the readings. If not, I’m essentially teaching to an empty room and speaking to people who really don’t know what I’m driving at. My main technique is the Socratic method. I enter, ask questions, play with the responses, and build to deeper questions that leave students wanting to find out more. But this method–lecture, debate, discussion–needs a variety of opinion and a variety of response. If the majority of students don’t read on the subject, questions about the topic have no context.

Most faculty, I would argue, put a lot of preparation into what they do day to day. Their time between teaching–what some people call breaks–is taken up with prep, catch-up, field work, and revision. The good teachers I know never stop what they do. They’re also adding to their approaches with weblogs, wikis, xml technology, database use, new emphases to teaching approaches, and the ubiquitous upgrades to equipment. Councilors and other support staff hold long hot hours, bolstering systems, and working with students to get them where they want to go. Throughout the year, most faculty fulfill their responsibilities; many I know break their backs on behalf of students.

We have our duds, too, people who give colleges and universities a black eye, who take advantage, who ruin. We always will have them. I have my own horror stories about the faculty member who fucked up by forgetting to challenge. And I can still see the eyes rolling in the room when Dr. Whatshisface opened the book and started reading from it. I also remember meeting up with other students to make up for the loss.

It’s my belief that liberal education at college should remain a choice. Literature courses should be offered at colleges and universities. Hopefully students will want to take them, or, if they have to take then, as directed by their degree requirements, they should channel their best efforts towards learning what a course has to offer because that costs nothing. It is also my belief that students who do not want to take a literature course should not do so, even if their degree requires it. To extend that logic, people who don’t really want to attend college, should try something else out for a while, or find success on another life track (college isn’t the only game going). However, if a student, regardless of reason, choses to attend, then they must understand that certain expectations come with that choice.

The Fallacy of Subjugation

People often have odd reactions to form in essay writing. They see a 12 point font or MLA requirement as somehow taking away from their creativity or from some other area of their time. My answer to the typical “Why do we have to do it this way?” is, “You don’t.”

“What is the MLA’s reasoning” is an entirely different question.

Fact is:

1. Form can be learned.
2. It doesn’t require much time.
3. It can add to depth of study.

“Why in CSS is border:none non compliant?”

Everyone must deal with form: in law, politics, engineering, and architecture. The larger point here is that we all must learn to negotiate with a variety of forces external to us. Citation requirements, reading lists, and academic demands are simply three examples of such learned negotiation. But if a person doesn’t want to comply with simple forms or read, then they don’t have to comply.


Intellectual Bootcamp

What follows is a list of ethical position I think students should take in a college environment. Each one of them embeds a related ethic for college and university personnel.

1. They should take on an aggressive urge to learn things. This one is key because it costs nothing. There are 24 hours to the day. It can be taken up with work, worry, study, or any other activity. Over a three month period, a person can study and get a lot out of a design course or not attend and get nothing from it, all within the same time span.
2. They should demand a rigorous curriculum. Carpentry is not easy.
3. They should seek out opportunities to apply learning and to question what we think we know.
4. They should try to beat the learning environment at its own game. All the good teachers I know want their students to challenge them and their discipline, to push them and it forward. I want people to provide different readings and reflections of Othello, to acquire and use their growing knowledge in meaningful and new ways.
5. They should expect to earn the right to a hearing. This ethic can’t be purchased.
6. They should seek out complexity. Not because atomic structures are complex, but because people are.

This is a duplicate post.


One response to “Responsibility and the Ethics of Classrooms”

  1. susan says:

    I’m reluctant to post my answer because of my obvious lack of experience except as a student (for five years) at Tunxis and limited observation of the faculty as well as the student body. God knows, this issue has been studied and argued by academics and sociologists. But being me, I can’t keep my mouth shut when something tweaks a brain cell.

    I would submit that attitude determines behavior in this case, and attitude has changed even more dramatically than action. What I’ve seen to cause the apparent lack of responsibility stems from many things.

    First, the fact of a two-year college where many already have tried their way in the world of homemaking and career and found that a degree or training was a necessary part of success. Their goal–unless specific to an area of career–was just to get the diploma, not necessarily learn. But looking at the typical student, they have jobs, many have kids, and studies are not primary in their lives. They take on a full courseload and while I admired so many of them who took it seriously and worked their hardest to achieve good grades, it’s nearly impossible to do well under those conditions. The majority of these students have a “passing grade” mentality. Often the harder a teacher tries to help them and bend the rules, the more they come to expect to skate.

    What I see as another huge difference that reflects this lack of responsibility is a lack of respect for authority. Unfortunately, this is reinforced in the average college classroom. It is indeed beneficial and vital to teach young students–especially those coming out of high school–to question authority and authority usually means government because I’ve never heard any professor complain about managers and corporate heads. But to question is a lot different than to ridicule. With carte blanche on calling high officials dickheads, is it any wonder that any and all below that status are possibly considered even bigger dickheads?

    Going along with that, this first-name basis with an instructor promotes a sense of equality which needn’t be there. After all, aren’t you, with your education and experience superior to those you’re teaching in a classroom? While a teacher always learns much from students, the course itself is something he knows, is being paid to teach, and is being taught to those who don’t know it yet. Why do you assume they’re on your level in this environment? If you endow students with the idea that they know as much as you do, why wonder at their attitude? I’ll tell you something I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to you before. In my entire academic pursuit I’ve only cut two classes; one was in Spanish at Tunxis when I was mentally going through some problems at the time my friend was dying and I spoke to Professor Chase about it. The other was one of your classes in creative writing. It was the day after a Narratives meeting in which you suggested to a member that she submit to two lit journals a poem that frankly, stunk to high heaven. For me, you had lost your credibility in your encouragement overall and a touch of my respect for your word. The point here is not that I was right or wrong because I came to understand the process, but rather that that (undeserved and temporary) lack of respect is what would cause a student as hardheaded about authority as I to rebel.

    While age is not truly a factor, upbringing is; students of my age were taught that the teacher is the authority figure and in any classroom, regardless of the fact that I was older than any of the instructors, I considered them in absolute supremacy within that classroom. Students coming out of high school (and even here there’s a lack of respect for authority seeping in) go from having to listen and toe the line, to a college atmosphere where suddenly they’re of equal status with the instructors. They’re expected to be adults; magically transformed over two months of summer vacation, and they have the freedom to attend class or not without worry of detention. Well heck, this is what they’ve waited for all their scholastic lives.

    The workforce does its own mental breakdown on attitude as well. Very rarely can anyone get fired for doing a poor job; but they can work for thirty years for a company and get let go because the bottom line is the stockholders want to make a larger profit. So why put in the effort? They’ve seen their fathers end up driving a schoolbus just to make ends meet after losing a life’s work towards making a home.

    This lack of respect and responsibility extends to not caring that these courses they take and then drop or flunk out cost money. Doesn’t matter if it’s been paid for by parents, scholarship, or came out of their own pocket. When it comes down to what they want to do and what they need to do, want wins regardless of cost.

    At a community college where a good percentage of the students are older, the curriculum is out of whack to accommodate them. Take into account for example that to get a degree, four semesters of a foreign language and three of math–that’s 7 out of 20–were spent on classes I will never use again. Well-rounded is necessary for students coming out of high school, and even Algebra teaches something other than its purpose, but some flexibility to allow for student interest might be considered.

    Sorry to have gone off on a rant here, but your post struck a nerve. In this era of everybody’s equal, everybody’s smart, everybody’s a star, there is a prevailing idea that nobody has to earn it.