What defines the development of a class, the way the people in that class interact and collaborate? What structures help ensure progress without limiting growth? What policies do you need in a class you’re a member of to help you do your best work?
Many instructors use metaphors to explain how a class works. Some of us call them “playgrounds” where experimental exploration takes place. That metaphor, and the emphasis on play, helps make classes feel less risky, which is essential for growth. Schools provide a unique environment in which trial and error can be valued on its own, with little regard for the end result. If the goal is to learn, what we make is less important than what we go through in order to make it.
Though in a class the journey is more important than the destination, we still have to get somewhere. Grades must be issued. Semesters must conclude. We need an end goal and a way of saying we finished. But what happens when, in the act of trial-and-error experimentation, something doesn’t work and makes it so someone can’t reach the intended goal? What if someone tries to make something, learns how not to do it, but runs out of time to try again a different way?
Classes, because they’re time-limited, dance with this dilemma. This class is no different. We need to make things, and we will learn through that process, and we might mess up along the way. How can we accommodate that while allowing for risk-taking?
I like thinking of my classes as bowling lanes. Bowlers have a clear goal—to topple all ten pins with a strike. If they fail to get it right on first attempt, they get a second shot to essentially clean up the mess that’s left—a spare.
Then there are those bumpers that are used when really little kids go bowling—you know, those inflatable tubes that fill the gutters and virtually guarantee the kids will knock down some pins. Those kids rarely get strikes, and spares are even less likely because they’re developing their aim and their understanding of the game. But the bumpers prevent disaster and wasted throws.
I see my job, as an instructor, as similar to that of the bumpers. As the semester progresses, I make sure everyone keeps on the right course and doesn’t fall off the side. I make sure everyone accomplishes something in the end, nudging everyone back in the right direction if they veer too far off-course, but generally letting things play out on their own.
It’s interesting, that phrase. “Veer off-course.” We’re taking a course, working through a course, together. Courses imply direction and suggest intention. Rivers have courses defined by their banks, but a sufficiently strong or persistent river can carve a new course through solid rock.
Our course, to use this new metaphor, has a destination in mind, along with banks to keep us on a path. But if there’s enough force behind our actions, we can overrun the banks or carve a new path to suit our needs. The course we’re in is flexible, and we won’t know its shape until we work together to define it.
What do our river banks look like? We need to shape the course.
Defining the Course
Every college course begins with, and is shaped by, its syllabus. Every syllabus contains policies that form the basis of activity and interaction within that specific group. Ours is no different—or at least it will be no different. Because for now, it lacks policies. There’s a defined destination but no boundaries to guide.
What policies would help you be present in class—to bring your whole self to each of our meetings? What do you need from our time together to ensure you do the best work you can do?
I have suggested attendance and late-work policies, but they really are just suggestions. I’m completely open to changing them to suit the needs of the people in this class. If we need to reshape the banks to adjust the course, we should.
As a writing teacher, I believe in the power of revision. I want to teach the value of revision to students. And I want to give students a way to recover in case something doesn’t work out right. Therefore, I propose a liberal make-up-work policy that by its nature becomes a late-work policy, as well. My goal is to be practical and flexible to the best of my ability and within the confines of institutional requirements. I don’t penalize late work, but late work inconveniences you. Fair trade-off, if you ask me.
Attendance policies always seem arbitrary for me. How do we choose the number of absences at which a penalty occurs? Why do we often let attendance decrease a score? If someone can complete the work and achieve the learning of a class without attending, why punish them? But on the other hand, if a class is interactive, and if everyone needs to contribute, we miss out on that interaction with absence. Absence generally prohibits participation. Therefore, my policy about the one inherently includes the other. I value participation, which means I value attendance. And if we grade participation with percentages, why don’t we grade attendance with percentages, too?