Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Parenting Lessons for the Syllabus Writer

A senior colleague and I were talking today about a student in the team-taught course who hadn't turned in one of the papers to the TA. I commented that she would get a 0 for the paper but might still pass the course.

Senior Colleague thought that failing to turn in a paper should mean that the student should fail the course. Although I've seen this on lots of syllabi ("To pass the course, student must complete all the papers"), I have never seen anyone actually fail a student just for this, although the student will often fail due to the 0 grade. I said something to that effect to Senior Colleague. His response: "That's what teacher discretion is for."

I admire Senior Colleague, and I applaud teacher discretion. I don't agree, however, because I hate--no, make that HATE-- "hidden rule syndrome."

"Hidden rule syndrome" means that you put draconian rules in your syllabus and then bend them according to the level of charm or pathos a student can muster to talk you into changing them. The best example is the "plagiarize a paper and fail the course" rule. Now, if an instructor actually does this, that's fine. What I have a problem with is the mentality that says "scare the bejesus out of the student with a rule and then relent when challenged."

This is where the parenting lessons come into play. As a mother of toddlers a few years back, if I saw one heading for a pair of scissors and said "Don't touch that," I knew that I'd better be ready to spring into action and take the scissors away--not to get angry, but just to take the scissors away. I had watched some parents who had a series of escalating threats for the situation ("Don't touch that!" "DON'T TOUCH THAT!" "DO YOU WANT ME TO COME OVER THERE?" "I SAID DON'T TOUCH THAT!") as the child serenely ignored them. The child knew that the parents weren't going to move, and the parents knew it too.

The toddler who has the scissors taken away learns that actions have consequences. Not anger, or scary punishment . . . just consequences. The second toddler sees no consequences and learns to ignore the threats.

So the parenting lessons I took away from that for the syllabus were these:

1. Make a fair set of consequences for student actions. Build in some escape clauses that the students know about (like dropping a quiz grade). Write them into your syllabus. Mean what you say.

2. Do what you've said you'll do.

3. Leave the drama to the experts.

Here endeth the sermon.


ArticulateDad said...

I like the analogy. I think parenting can teach us just about all we need to know about social interactions. And... I agree with the brunt of your conclusion.

Deb said...

I like your analogy too! Interestingly, though, I'm too often one of those parents who makes escalating threats--and then they come back to bite me every time.

With my students, though, I'm better on the follow-through. Maybe my parent self needs a lesson from my teacher self.

undine said...

THanks. I think it's amazing how much the two (teaching and parenting) inform each other, although that's a bit of information I wouldn't necessarily share with students.