I’ve been asked to comment on the following story: a group of students at McGill University petitioned their professor to give them an extension on a paper and he wrote a funny response that went viral. Read the linked article for more details of the story.
I have to say that my style of communicating with students is very different from what this prof does. However, teaching styles vary a lot and if this way of relating to students works for this prof, then that’s great. There is no single formula of pedagogic success because, as I said before, a teacher’s most important tool is his or her personality. Here is my approach to giving extensions and dealing with absences, in case you are wondering.
What bothers me about the linked article is this:
Ken Hastings, president of the McGill Association of University Teachers, said that, kidding aside, the brouhaha raises some pretty serious underlying issues about fairness.
Everybody in the class, he said, is linked by a contract of fairness and it is intrinsically unfair to change any of the agreed-upon rules, including deadlines. The professors are bound by the contract just as much as the students.
It bothers me to see the language of the business world applied to teaching. We never see business people use the word “syllabus” to refer to a contract, do we? Then why should teachers adopt the vocabulary of business for their work? A syllabus exists for the sole purpose of making it easier for the teacher and the students to orient themselves in the course. It is not a contract. Nobody signs it, notarizes it, or goes to court over it. At least, not until people like Mr. Hastings force us all to ditch long-standing academic practices in favor of the unfortunate corporate model of education.
I change my syllabi on a regular basis. Even if I teach the same course for years, each group that takes it is different. It develops a dynamic of its own, requires different approaches, and masters some skills better than others. This semester, for instance, I cancelled one of the compositions that had been planned for the course in one of the sections of Intermediate Spanish but not in the other section I’m teaching. I discovered that the students in section 1 had very good writing skills but found it extremely difficult to speak. So I cancelled the composition and scheduled an oral exam instead. I discussed this change with the students, and they all agreed that the change made sense. My teaching would be seriously handicapped if I were forced to treat a syllabus as if it were a contract.
I believe that people use this rhetoric of contracts to conceal their incapacity to have a dialogue with students and impose their authority in the classroom. Instead of making themselves and their decisions respected and discussing things with students, they use this childish avoidance strategy that helps them to save face.
“I’d totally be willing to accommodate you,” they tell students, “if it weren’t for this iron-clad contract that I can’t break. The decision is out of my hands. Don’t blame me, blame the contract.”
This is an easy way of avoiding confrontation with students but it is ultimately very dangerous. If we slip into the verbiage of business contracts and lead the students to believe that they are our customers, we are opening the way for administrators to use this rhetoric against us.
A contract, a syllabus, a customer, a student, a business, and a college are completely different concepts. There is no need to limit our vocabulary by using them interchangeably. Let’s stop avoiding protagonism in our own teaching. Instead, let’s begin to say, “I do (or don’t) grant extensions because this is how I choose to run my classroom.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a teacher having authority and control over his or her classroom. We don’t need to pretend we are part of the corporate world to give ourselves authority.
We have authority just by virtue of being teachers.
P.S. Thank you, The Sister, for sending me this story.