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Saturday, April 29, 2006

What we'll accept

It's funny how teachers have such vast, broad power. And, so arbitrary.

Wednesday night I handed out a review sheet to my Media Crit class, preparing them for a take-home final exam. Thirty students sat there with this sheet in their hands, looking it over, listening to me talk, and having the opportunity to ask questions. Finally, just before I dismissed class, an "A" student in the middle of the room timidly raised her hand. She just wanted to clarify, she said, that I wanted 12 pages from them for the final exam. The room was aflutter with murmurs and eager, though nervous, faces.

Aghast, I said, no, I didn't think so. I took a look at my handout and there it was - I said there would be three essays and that "an excellent essay will be about four pages." No, no! I laughed. I meant the whole exam would be a minimum of four pages, not each question!

Relief spread palpably throughout the room.

But the most remarkable thing is that yesterday - two days after this - a student in the class who's especially close to me stopped by to chat and before she left she said, "I'm so glad Maggie asked that question Wednesday night." I said, "What are you talking about?" She said they'd all been sitting there holding the handout for half an hour, worried they'd have to write a 12-page take-home exam before they could graduate. And the thing is, they would've done it. Accepted it. And, it would have been okay. Why not assign a 12-page exam on the last day of the semester? Twelve, four, it's all up to me.

The thing that kills me is that it apparently took such guts for one of them to speak up and ask for clarification, while they all sat there thinking they were doomed. I told Ericka that someone should've spoken up sooner! What's the worst that could happen - I might say no? (No, I might judge them harshly for trying to get out of the work they so clearly needed to do. Such a thought immediately gives me pause, forcing me to recognize the legitimacy of negotiating some of this stuff.)

Whatever I answered would have been the law, but it's amazing to me that the majority of them didn't even want to ask. I put a lot of thought and energy into explaining pedagogy and assignments to my students, telling them why I ask them to do what they do, putting it all in the context of the mission of the major and the school. But when it comes right down to it, the difference between a four page and a 12 page project at the end of the semester is practically arbitrary. I don't want to read and grade 360 pages in less than a week, so I pick a more reasonable number. Has little really to do with which one better serves our lofty educational goals.

At the review session this week for the Mythology class I TA for at my other job/school (the school where I'm a student, not professor, and am right this moment delaying the writing of the paper whose length and subject I've established for myself, and for which I would resist any contrary parameters imposed by my professor!) a student in the middle of the classroom (geographical coincidence?) raised his hand and asked the professor why the exam for this class is all multiple choice when the stated goals for the course had to do with critical thinking about myth and truth values. The professor said, "You're absolutely right. When you graduate and make a lot of money, give some back earmarked for the Classics department to hire more TAs who can grade essay exams for 300 students."

There's something amazing, surprising in this cynical world of today about the functional authority that still exists. Not that there aren't plenty of demanding, assertive students in college, but somehow when it comes to the syllabus or assignments on paper there's almost total submission. Noticing their lack of questions makes me feel the responsibility to question my own decisions more.

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