Exploring Demands #OLE-F15

The range of courses surveyed similar in nature to the core classes offered in the Department of Focused Inquiry (particularly Focused Inquiry I & II and Inquiry & the Craft of Argument) all put emphasis on specific skill development within the course and express expected learning outcomes after successful completion.  Many of these skills and expectations are fairly uniform: written communication, research, critical thinking, and some descriptor for collaboration (sometimes identified simply as “teamwork“).  Moreover, several syllabi indicate the importance of process when researching and writing, where the the student’s research persists over several weeks and is documented by journal entries on the articles compiled and read, ultimately culminating in the foundation of the research paper capstone assignment for the course. To help in skill development, the courses include readings from composition textbooks–some made by the specific departments themselves–and have names that include either something like “First Year-Writing,” “A Guide to Writing,” or “Essays on Writing.”  Some even included the full schedule for the semester (though not many).

Of course, these things seem normal for any syllabus in any discipline for any course.  A standard syllabus highlights the course description, the objectives of the course, what one needs to buy for the course, how grades are break down for assignments, etc.  They also include a lot of policies, both for the specific classes and for the university at large.  What’s interesting to note, though, is that these details at times come in ways that go beyond mere prescriptions and veer towards ostensible scare tactics.  First, there is a lot of a bold throughout many syllabi.  I understand the intention to punctuate important parts of a syllabus or a schedule (I do it frequently); however, not all highlighting is equal.  I understand the importance of prescriptions, but it doesn’t seem like they should parallel the importance of the goals and design of a course.  Consider the following  from Indiana University Bloomington:

Students are required to attend all classes, arrive on time, and be prepared to work: you will earn one point for each class you do so. Points available during a missed class cannot be made up. Remember: this is not a correspondence class; if you are interested in doing the work, but not in showing up to class, you should register for the online version of ENGL 111. If there is an appropriate reason for a student’s absence or late arrival, the student must let the instructor know
(in advance if possible), and it is the student’s responsibility to find out what was covered and to make sure you are prepared for the next class (check Class Sessions on Blackboard).

STUDENT BEHAVIOR STATEMENT: Students should always conduct themselves in a
respectful manner. No conduct will be tolerated that might endanger or threaten anyone in the class. Disruptive behavior, substance abuse, downgrading or disparaging remarks, and any other behavior that shows a lack of respect for the instructor or other students will not be tolerated. This includes use of mobile phones and laptops. We are in class for a reason: to improve your writing. Playing on laptops and phones not only wastes your time and mine, but it distracts others in the class. Neither should be used during class. At the instructor’s discretion, a student causing problems may be asked to leave the class for the session. If a student persists n causing problems, further disciplinary action may be taken, up to and including dismissal from class and/or the College.

These points come immediately after the introductory list of course goals in the beginning of the syllabus–coming way before the details of course content–suggesting that they are high priority issues regarding course identity.  If so, the syllabus suggests a class ethos that is built more around what not to do rather than what the course will offer pedagogically.  (And introductory comp classes can’t afford to frustrate or scare students, especially off the bat.)  Here is a similar point in the grade breakdown from a syllabus from University of Texas Arlington:

The Z grade is reserved for students who attend class regularly, participate actively, and complete all the assigned work on time but simply fail to write well enough to earn a passing grade. This judgment is made by the instructor and not necessarily based upon a number average. The Z grade is intended to reward students for good effort. While students who receive a Z will not get credit for the course, the Z grade will not affect their grade point average. They may repeat the course for credit until they do earn a passing grade.

Although I find it compelling to offer students a do-over without grade point average penalty, the creation of a new category of grade only seems to feed into a punitive system where performance is reduced to a letter while also adding to the criticism that grade marks themselves are arbitrary. What’s the point in making up new grades for students that are necessarily juxtaposed with standard letters of evaluation?

I see the merit in these moves, though I can only help but think they’re small attempts at covering up systemic problems.  No syllabus will be so dazzling that it will convince all students to always come to class and turn in their work on time or so motivating that it will enhance student performance.  But, they also don’t have to foreground the alternatives.


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