of Rules and Relevancy

url.jpegAn instructor comes to me with a quibble about late policies in my department’s composition courses. I’m feeling ornery and rushed when he e-mails, I’m feeling curious and obstinate, so I ask him: “What is your pedagogical reason for penalizing late work?” I know when I ask this that it’s not really a question that needs asking. Is it? Penalizing late work is an assumed practice in teaching. Not unlike the way that “you’ll sit there until you finish your vegetables” is an assumed practice in parenting. Or teaching your dog to sit is always part of dog training. But this morning when he e-mails me and I’m feeling ornery and curious (and I really don’t want my decisions on the subject challenged), I ask the question.

I know, asking it, that I’m actually asking the question of any instructor. I want to say that, as educators, we have both the privilege and the responsibility to ask the questions. But I think it may be too early to say that. I ask the question, this particular question, pretty much whether I should or not.

The response comes back something along the lines of: “I enforce deadlines because there are deadlines in the real world, like taxes, etc.” It’s the response I expected, the response I think just about any instructor would give me in answer to the question. I’m far from satisfied with the answer, though. This is a composition classroom, I want to tell him, and not a course on teaching young people to turn in their tax forms on time. Not only is that decidedly not one of the course objectives, it’s not a responsibility – as an English teacher – I want to take on. I will feel plenty sorry for the student who doesn’t turn in his taxes on time, but I won’t go so far as to blame myself because I didn’t enforce a paper due date.

In part, I’m being deliberately obnoxious here, and I’m also aware that I’m raking this poor, unnamed faculty member across the coals for an answer, frankly, I couldn’t expect him not to give. When I’m ruthless, I’m quite aware of my own ruthlessness.

But the fact is, the problem of his response alarms me. I did not become a teacher to help students learn to meet deadlines set by the Federal government, their future employers, or even other teachers. I became a teacher because I am interested in genius. To me, the cultivation of genius is the only really interesting thing about hanging out with students (or, really, anyone). Grading, paying dues to rubrics, monitoring attendance and tardiness, plagiarism, and the problem of due dates (especially in a writing classroom) are boring. Any time a student or group of students gives me the leeway to throw these pedacratic trappings out the window, I’m thrilled.

That said, I want to get back to the question: “What is your pedagogical reason for penalizing late work?” To me, penalties are only useful because they coerce organization and order in the classroom. Should such coercion be part of the classroom dynamic? While organization and order are not unnecessary, if we use penalties to enforce them, aren’t we assuming that the students will not, of their own accord, organize and order themselves? Is it necessary to take that power from them in order to create a workable classroom? Could it possibly be better to establish an environment of trust? This particular faculty member also supplies that he believes the disorder that would result from allowing students to turn in work “whenever they want, without penalty” (a strategy I was not championing) will cause undue stress, added discussions with individual students, and that these will collaborate to take away from the time he could spend teaching.

Which then draws the definition of “teaching” into question – (when is discussion with an individual student not teaching?) – which is, ultimately, what I want this blog (the whole blog, not just this post) to do.

img_0144_2.jpgLet’s go back to beginner’s mind, and to the example of teaching a dog to sit. When I first got my dog, Max, I felt certain he needed obedience training, if only because he had four furry feet and wasn’t training necessary for any dog? But as soon as I started to train him to sit, to wait for his food, not to bark, etc., I found myself questioning: why are these behaviors necessary for Max? Or am I teaching him these behaviors in order to exert my dominance over him, in order to control him? If the latter is the case, isn’t it enough that he can’t eat without my permission, can’t exercise without my help? Isn’t he already dependent enough on me? So, I began to think about revising training to make it relevant to Max and his well-being. Teaching him to sit would be extremely helpful if, one day, he were walking with me off-leash and I needed him to wait up ahead or behind me. I mean, what if a car was coming and he didn’t know how to stop in his tracks and sit? Teaching him to wait for his food kept him from becoming anxious about eating; and training him to wait on a little padded bed in the corner of the room while I did yoga allowed him to be near me without interfering with my practice – saving me from frustration and him from confusion. In other words, training him should not be a matter of convenience for me, but a matter of improving his and my quality of life together.

I could go on, but my point is clear: teaching really is only about relevancy, and not relevancy to us teachers, but relevancy to our students. We are put in the most unique spot of coaching learners into a world of knowledge. What we need to remember is that their world of knowledge may not align perfectly with our own, their process may not fit our schedules, their ideas may not synch with our own. Ultimately, what they learn will be a combination of that material we provide for them, and the material provided by their lives outside our classrooms.

And then there is the fact that most students already deal with the world in some capacity. I don’t think that teachers can make any sort of argument that our students are any more isolated from the “real world” than we are… And don’t we learn a vast majority of our practical lessons (like turning something in on time) from worldly and not classroom experience?

What is the classroom meant to be? Should it be a microcosm of an unforgiving world? Should it be a retreat from that world? Should it be some kind of safe synergy of novelty, rigor, and relevant experience? And if it is this last, what “rules” must we establish in the classroom to keep our pedagogy intact?


5 thoughts on “of Rules and Relevancy

  1. Fascinating post, Sean, here’s some ramblings on the various subject you raise:

    A classroom is a space for experimentation. It’s a space where ideas don’t necessarily need contexts. A space where students can play with the putting on of different roles–the putting on of different intellectual modes.

    Due dates are important only insofar as they help certain students structure their thinking and the work they do to support it. Our culture has trained us very well to recognize the importance of (and even to rely on) deadlines and due dates. I’ll be completely honest. I love due dates. Very little would get done in my life if I didn’t have them. I’m used to them. I find them comfortable and reassuring. That doesn’t mean that I think they’re good. They serve a function for me, but I also know that my utter reliance on them is ultimately more stifling than productive.

    A few perfectly reasonable (and even pedagogically advantageous) situations where due dates ought to be irrelevant:

    “I just wasn’t ready to complete the assignment. My thinking hadn’t gotten to the place it needed to in order to do the assignment justice.”

    “Even though I started the work with lots of time to spare, I wasn’t finished when the due date arrived. I didn’t want to stop working cold turkey upon the arrival of the due date, because I had more to say, more to offer, more thinking to do.”

    “Something more important came up.” Perhaps a medical emergency. But whatever it is. A student needs to be able to (and has the right to) determine their own priorities. Work done at the expense of other more important priorities isn’t *good work (not for the student or their learning). Whether it *looks like good work is, again, irrelevant. I’ve done a lot of so-called “good” work that didn’t do *me any good.

    And, what about, “I was lazy and just didn’t do it”? Well, would the assignment be useful to the student even if done well after the due date? Do we have the ethical right to take away an opportunity for learning? I’m of the mind that we don’t. I have one (and only one) utterly firm due date when I teach. The end of the course. I will accept any offers of work until that moment. And, even this, I question. Is the “semester” an artificial construct? A frame erected around the borders of this-learning-happening-here. This is something I must continue to ponder.

    Or, how about, “I thought the assignment was dorky and knew it wouldn’t do me any good. The assignment felt like busy work.” I really love this one and wish that students felt freer to utter it more often (something I certainly try to encourage). At this point, the due date becomes utterly irrelevant, because the student really shouldn’t be doing the work at all. My response is to suggest some other thing for them to do, or to ask them what would be useful to *them. And, then, I have *them tell *me when this alternative project will be due. And while they usually give me dates, “sometime before the end of the semester when I’m finished” is usually equally acceptable to me.

  2. Jesse, I’d love to be in your classes!

    My own approach to due dates changes every year. My favorite from an idealistic point of view was the year that all assignments were accepted late, without penalty, until that student took the unit test/completed the end-of-unit project. What point is there on testing a student on something if you haven’t let them complete the work you assigned to help them learn that thing?

    The problem with that approach has been all practical, but don’t dismiss the practical problems. I found, quite simply, that I couldn’t keep up with the flow of “late” work. I’d love to give them the sort of freedom Jesse does, but since it would come at the expense of my already tiny sleep and free time schedule, I had to cut back some. It was a little hard to do, because I still agree with the ideal that learning isn’t constrained by deadlines, but I can’t be a good teacher on 4 hours of sleep a night.

    I do thing that allowing a certain amount of leeway is still good… I allow a free late pass a marking period, and I tell my students to come talk to me ahead of time if they know something is going to get in the way of completing an assignment. I also try to cut down on the amount of homework I assign, at all, so that the responsiblity to get it done in class if they can makes me consider what is important enough to even assign.

    Your last set of questions are somewhat loaded–of course a classroom should be “some kind of safe synergy of novelty, rigor, and relevant experience”.

  3. I’ve just started to read some of your stuff but this post did leap out at me.
    Firstly you take the example of your classroom being one for composition and not for teaching how to complete deadlines. Some of your students may well go on to be journalists or even writers whereupon they will need to be able to meet deadlines in order to complete their tasks, therefore there is nothing wrong with reinforcing that idea in classrooms. Note I said reinforce not enforce. Along with yourself I don’t go in for whacking penalties for late work, but try to encourage timely completion.
    Secondly you say you are only interested in genius…how can any teacher be only interested in one (probably small) section of their pupil community. If you are only “hanging out” with the genius’ you are missing out on what a good proportion of the population can bring you.
    Most students I know still live in the real world whilst inside the classroom and most classrooms should in some way reflect the world outside simply because that is what we are trying to prepare our kids for.

  4. Thanks, Penelope. I’d love to be in yours too. The fact that your response to due dates “changes every year,” as you say, is telling enough. I love teachers who don’t rest on their laurels, who are constantly evolving and experimenting with new approaches.

    I know what you mean about how accepting late work leads to more work for us. I’ve tried to mitigate that somewhat by not commenting as much on late work, but I’m not always so good at that. When I have student work in front of me, I tend to get really engaged in it and end up commenting on it like crazy. Accepting late work pretty much across the board also require me to be pretty organized, otherwise I’m sure I’d be buried under piles of papers.

    For me, it’s not as much about what I do with the work after I accept it, though. Just the *fact that I open my hand and receive it makes a difference, I think. It’s a sort of acknowledgement to the student that the work they do has value.

    And, in response to Adam, you raise some really important points here. Writing is, indeed, an act that depends upon a relationship between writers, editors, readers, etc. (and timeliness is important to that relationship). When I’m teaching beginning writers, though, struggling with finding their voice–struggling with learning how to enjoy the act of writing, often for the very first time, I figure the idea of deadlines is secondary (something I “encourage” but don’t staunchly “enforce”).

    And, I guess I think of every student as capable of genius. I haven’t run across one yet that wasn’t. That’s how I read Sean’s remark about genius.

  5. I can’t believe someone is writing about something so important and with a response similar to mine! I have come to accept late writing since I think a writing class involves writing when it gets done. I have quit worrying about whether my students are taking advantage of me and read their papers when they come and returned them with comments. Many of the point Jesse makes reflect much more articulately where I am at now. The teachers who work with me find my thinking rather strange especially since my predecessor was very strict about due dates.

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