Sunday, December 25, 2011

How Hard Can It Be?

I teach at a church-affiliated SLAC.

In a fit of insanity, I decided to make a nontraditional assignment in a course this fall. It was an experimental, senior-level course along the lines of "Basketweaving as a Calling," and it was intended to get students thinking seriously about why they are basketweaving majors and what it will mean for them as citizens and spiritual beings to spend the next 40 or so years of their lives engaged in the art, practice, and discipline of basketweaving. (I might add, for what it may or may not be worth, that I had my Dean's 100% approval for this course).

My nontraditional assignment was to require the students, for 10% of the course grade, to write an op-ed on the topic of "Basketweaving as a Calling." My idea -- and my explanation to students -- was more or less, "Hey! You are seniors. You ought to be able to hold and defend serious opinions in your major field of study."

I brought in a journalism teacher for one whole class period who lectured on writing op-eds and provided examples of both good and bad published op-eds. I provided a link to a web site on how to write good op-eds. I offered to critique and return the DRAFT of any student's op-ed, so long as the student submitted it to me at least one week prior to the due date of the assignment. (Yes, I know. No takers from a class of 18, but . . . .)

I had coordinated with the sponsor of the student newspaper, which is ALWAYS looking for student contributions. After I graded and returned the op-eds, each student was required to submit his or her revised op-ed to the editor of the student newspaper. If your op-ed gets published, you get 1 point of extra credit (Yes, I know . . .) added to your final course average. However, UNTIL you submit the paper to the student newspaper, you don't get the grade.

These instructions were included in the written assignment sheet. I mentioned the requirements at least half-a-dozen times in class. As you might expect, a couple of the op-eds were excellent; a couple were bad, and most were in the great, unwashed middle.

BUT . . . of 18 students, all of whom submitted the op-ed to me, FIVE did not submit to the student newspaper, thus getting a zero for the assignment and effectively reducing their course grade by one letter.

How hard can it be?

PS: Merry Christmas to all!


  1. Wayworn, that's a very nice, thoughtful project. I just might adopt something along those lines. It's a shame that our collective students are so loth to follow instructions, and you did have a very harsh setup there but one would expect them to be all the more focused on submissions as a result.

    Oh well.

    I can imagine a lot of good interpretations of this assignment for other disciplines. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I'm going to cut the Mr. Creepo shtick and just say it's their mothering loss. Students don't do the work, they deserve to be downgraded. You can lay it out as plainly as possible, and there will ALWAYS be that small group who ditch the assignment. ALWAYS.

    You can't change that; it's like asking the North Korean government to abandon those secret logging camps they have in Siberia; they are too profitable, Ikea uses the wood and wants more, the Russian government is loathe to see an agreement that began in the 1950s end, the laborers know they are being used like living machine tools but the work pays more than collective farming back home (though the DPRK takes a cut) and they eat slightly better. So the muddle muddles on.*


    * If you want proof, Vice (yecch) magazine sent out their video producer Shane Smith, who has been to North Korea twice and has a juvenile thing for the Hermit Kingdom (the Arirang games blew his mind.)

    It's a seven part series; each video lasts about eight minutes.

  3. "How hard can it be?" I get a new answer to that question every semester.

  4. They didn't think it was _really_ required. They figured you wouldn't enforce that part of the assignment and they didn't bother or perhaps they didn't want other students (the editors and readers of the student paper) to see their work.

    I have an assignment that requires a technical side to make the publishing of the student assignments online possible. I have given up requiring the students to do the technical steps. The students just won't do them, regardless of how simply I explain or how elaborately I work to make it easy. I either have to abandon the assignment, give 70%-80% very low grades, or do the technical stuff myself. My students figure, "This is a humanities class. He can't really expect us to do these steps." Your students think, "This is basketweaving, not journalism. Wanderer can make us simulate journalism, but can't make us really do journalism."

  5. This is all too typical of the generation that fluffy, ridiculous article the other day said was "comfortable with change," and from whom is expected innovation and entrepreneurship. Actually, because of the overscheduled, oversupervised upbringings inflicted upon them by their helicopter parents, they have nothing left resembling initiative or adaptability whatsoever.

    Any time I initiate an exercise, I debug it by running it for a semester or two as extra credit. (Yes, I know: but then, if they could do simple arithmetic, they'd know it doesn't count very much.) This alerts me to situations like this, which reminds me of what happened when I gave an intro-astronomy-for-non-majors class an upside-down drawing exercise from "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards. One of the undergraduate education majors (DANGER, Will Robinson!) simply scrawled on her paper (composition errors corrected by me), "I refuse to do this, because this has nothing to do with this astronomy class." This, despite that we'd had a session of observing the Moon through the eyepiece of a telescope: and never mind what they might have fumbled, if we'd used a camera that night.

  6. Grrrrr. how frustrating. No matter how easy it is, it'll always be TOO HARD. And you'll always be mean for enforcing your standards. THis makes me want to go sit in my car and scream on your behalf.

  7. Great assignment, Wayworn. Wouldn't it be great if some of your students (even in the Unwashed Middle) contact you in a few years thanking you for pushing them to (a) consider the wider implications of their chosen career and (b) write and submit an op-ed piece?

    @Frod: Thanks for the idea about debugging a new assignment. Sometimes I've "promoted" an exercise that a student asked to do for extra credit (yes, I know, but for minimal points), but I hadn't thought of using e.c. as Beta testing.

    As for your drawing exercise, until this semester, no student had refused to do one of my assignments on the basis of perceived irrelevance. Last month it happened twice, with two different (and well-tested) assignments. I was miffed, then amused, and noted that "I refuse to assign points to this, because it does not fulfill the assignment."

    Their loss.

  8. @Contemplative Cynic:

    I had a lot of what you experienced while I was teaching.

    Worse, however, were those courses which I taught at the level dictated by the official outline, which was signed by the department head. If somebody complained about that course being "too hard", that same department head would usually suggest to me (i. e., order me to) ease off on the requirements to make it--ahem--"easier".

    Then again, during a team-building training session, I was told that I had to teach the material in accordance to the needs and expectations of my "customers". Standards? What standards?

    It was a rare day in which I didn't go home wondering why I bothered.


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