Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Laissez-Faire Approach To Academic Administration

Schooling is compulsory, in the United States, through high school. College is optional. You may not be able to get a halfway decent job without it, but it is not truly required, in the get-arrested-by-the-truant-police sense. We choose to be here, we pay to be here, we went through a rigorous (or not-so-rigorous) process to get accepted here, and whether we learn the things that are being taught generally requires us to pay attention, do the homework, and actually try to learn.

So what I don't understand is why some professors, and some school administrators, are still trying to keep things compulsory. Consider, for instance, attendance policies. I complain about them every semester. If I can pass your tests and succeed on your projects and homeworks without attending your lectures, why should I go? If nobody will attend your class if the attendance isn't part of the grade, then you should make your class more interesting. I have had classes, required for my degree, that embodied this painful paradox. I could have easily passed the tests without attending each deathly-dull lecture, yet attendance was a large part of the grade, so I had to go. I have hidden headphones beneath my hair to listen to music or watch television shows on my laptop during classes like this, and I've read books, checked my e-mail, done other homework, or any number of things, just to turn the useless lecture into a productive (or at least entertaining) period of time.

This is college. No class should be boring enough, and easy enough, that you need an attendance policy just to fill the seats. You can put a unique spin on anything. If your class is bored, you have two good options: entertain them or challenge them. Successful professors do both, and the students learn.

But, if you do have a boring class, and an attendance policy, at least don't ban laptops. This is another practice by professors, and perhaps some administrators, used in an effort to make presence compulsory--as if only the presence of the student is necessary for learning. Laptops let good students take notes in a speedy and organized way--and it is also "green," if you're into that. Laptops also let bad students--or students who already know all your material and are just there to get their ticket punched--play games, hang out on Facebook, examine TVTropes, and just generally ignore you. Count it a blessing; otherwise, they would either be talking to their neighbors, thus disrupting the education of those around them, or harassing you while you lecture. Banning laptops (and banning sites like Facebook, if you have such power) will certainly get students to hate you. It will not get them to respect you or pay attention any better.

The better approach is this: make your class as good as you can, and otherwise keep your hands off. You want the students to learn, but if they already know the material, you can't teach them more by holding them captive in a classroom. Moreover, if students don't care to learn, or will learn better from the book at home, by all means let them skip class or use their laptops for silly things. If you do your tests properly, the grades will reflect what they should.

One final note: I do believe in taking attendance for the purposes of knowing which students are "good" students. Attendance does not correlate with grades for every student, but if a student is failing, and he never shows up for class, you have no reason to give him an extra credit opportunity when he comes begging to your office hours. Conversely, if a student does show up to every class, and seems to be putting in the effort, it would be reasonable to push them from a C- to a C, to let them pass the class if you see fit.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cooking and Swimming

Cooking and swimming are similar. Before you know how to do either, you desperately hope you won't be thrown into a situation where such knowledge is required of you, and do not know what you will do if it happens. You may depend on frozen dinners or life-vests, and certainly on other people, seeing the skill you lack as something large, mysterious, and perhaps altogether impossible.

Then, once you learn it, you realize it isn't so difficult after all. I can't cook like Julia Child or swim like Michael Phelps, but I can cook well enough to feed myself and swim well enough to have fun and not drown. I can't remember what it feels like to not be able to swim, as I had proper swimming lessons when I was perhaps eight or nine years old, but I definitely remember my paralyzing inability to cook, which has only been changing this school year.

Before I started learning, I had this idea that cooking was some big, difficult, mostly magical process that was easy to screw up. I had no idea if, once I learned some basics, I would be one of those women whose cooking was playfully mocked at every dinner party--as if I even attend dinner parties. I thought perhaps I'd be able to follow a recipe, if I know how to "braise" or "sauté" or how to cook multiple dishes at the same time, but I didn't know how some people can make up their own recipes and have them taste good. I didn't know what tasted good together or how much salt to add or how to cook a piece of chicken so that it was safe to eat and not too dry. None of it made sense. Are all spoons and spatulas simply magic wands disguised?

This past summer, I suppose I decided that I didn't want to spend another school year living on Easy Mac, Rice Krispies, and Chick-fil-A, and that it was high time I, too, learned the wizardry of the kitchen. My mother taught me how to cook chicken and steak on the stove, and I realized that to cook meat, you basically need to make sure the outside is cooked and the inside is safe, and if you can do that with a stove or a grill or a campfire, you're fine. During the school year, I started to realize what kinds of things can be mixed together. If things taste good together, put them together. If you can blend them with a sauce, go for it. Little rules started pulling themselves together. It was like realizing that all you have to do to "swim" is push the water down and backwards.

Now, I'm no fancy cook. I can't do anything à la anything, and I still can't determine how many people a recipe will feed. But I can cook well enough to eat decently well, and I know enough that I am not afraid of the whole institution anymore. Similarly, I don't know the difference between the butterfly stroke and the freestyle, and I'm pretty sure my "backstroke" is completely wrong except that I actually go backwards, but I can stay alive in water, and I can maneuver comfortably.

Moral of the story? If you don't know how, try it anyway; it's less scary than it sounds. Also, don't do it alone if you don't have to, just to make sure you don't drown or burn down your kitchen while you're still learning.