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.

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