Saturday, December 16, 2006

Parsing the Dilemma Ethicale

I started to respond to the comments in the last post from Lee, FrenchieF, and Kate, but as the waffling became more and more prodigious, I decided it deserved its own space up here on the big bad blog.

I definitely understand the necessities that both Lee and FrenchieF bring up: failing a class for not meeting a set standard is:
1) Good for first year students (and all students, really), as it teaches them to understand boundaries and expectations
2) Only fair to the students who managed to do the work as it was assigned
3) A reminder that they must take responsibility for their own education and actions.
All of these things are indubitably true. My difficulty this semester, however, is that these kinds of expectations assume that the course is a relatively stable system. At the end of the summer, I designed this course with certain expectations of the students and their abilities, and also with a few predicable projects in mind. What I found in the classroom, however, was not the set of students that I had expected. My students were neither dumb, nor lazy, nor irresponsible. But they were 18 years old, living in a dorm with roommates for the first time, exploring the boundaries of a new kind of social freedom, integrating themselves into all different kinds of communities, trying to understand what was expected of them by 5 different professors, learning academic etiquette, etc. When you think about all of the new learning tasks that we set for first year students, all of which they must take on simultaneously, it's quite easy for me to understand how certain assignments fall off the map. As adults, psychologists tell us not to voluntarily undertake numerous stressful life changes all at once. If you're changing your job, try not to move. If you have to change your job and move, try not to start or end significant relationships (partnerships, marriages, etc.). Avoid all of the above if you've had a relative, spouse, or close friend die. In your first year of college, you manage at least three of the above situations.

While the students may think that I'm omniscent, as Lee says, I'm far from it. Halfway through the semester, I revised the syllabus, took out some assignments, redesigned others. The purpose here was not to drop the standards, but rather to retool the work to suit the students' developmental needs. What was more important to their learning--a third analytical research paper, or a reflective essay in which they examined what and how they had learned over the course of the semester? Which was a better use of class time--a two week interdisciplinary content unit or devoting that same two weeks to continue work on experimental digital collaborative project, focusing on extensive revision via group work?

When I first designed the course, I assumed that the students would come in ready to go, and be eager to take control of their education. Not so much. After all, how do you learn to exercise responsibility in freedom if you've never had it before? The next time I teach this class, I will build in the kinds of periodic checks that I usually avoid as overly disciplinary (mid-term conferences, periodic feedback on ungraded work, etc.). Because it was clear many of them needed that. But for this semester, there was nothing but triage--what's fair to the students, given that I designed a system that misunderstood their psychic location, and drastically retooled mid-semester?

You'll all be happy to know that in the end, I did indeed hold to the amount of content specified, but dialed back on the expectation of the quality of said content. Because pedagogically, in the end, it was more important that they engaged in the process that it was that they created a perfect product. And with those standards in place, 3 students will fail the course.

It is important that we set up standards and hold to them for the sake of the students' learning. For me, it's also important to examine my own fallibility in the design, maintenance, and clarity of those standards. In this case, I learned that holding rigidly to the standards I'd set up before I met the students was punitive rather than educational. Abandoning them altogether was cheating the students who worked hard. I hope that I've found a middle ground between these two positions.

Grades are due on Monday. I have 33 papers, 2 internship evaluations, and 11 blogs left to grade. I'll be returning to this post in January, when I begin to write syllabi for the spring. We'll see if any of my learning from this semester stuck.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came late to your discussion of your dilemma, but for what it's worth, I've been teaching firsties for the last three semesters, and I have been baffled at the cavalier attitude to assignments that I have repeatedly reminded them were important. Usually, these are similar to your blog assignments. Even when they *know* how much their grades will suffer for not doing it, some of them don't do it. When I said something this semester about how I did not understand why so many of them had not completed the assignments, they got very concerned that I felt they did not "respect" me! Honestly! I am all for taking into consideration the adjustments first-year students face, but on the other hand, it seems pretty clear that many of them went to high schools where they were allowed to get away with this crap. My attitude is, the syllabus is a contract - I stick to my part, including the percentage each assignment counts for, and they can choose to stick to theirs or not. If they choose not to, then they get the grade they *earned* - end of story.

Of course, after teaching only firsties for so long, maybe my sympathy for them has been tapped out!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 11:24:00 AM  

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