Fairness, Competition, and Roll Call (Plus Festivals and Sports Days)

Only one of the people who was supposed to lead a discussion in my morning Listening & Speaking class was there when I arrived to start class. (And I was a minute late myself!) I asked, “Are we having discussions today? Who is leading today?” And nobody said a word, so I went ahead and had someone take attendance, and then went off on a discussion tangent, about taking attendance in class.

Earlier this semester, one of my foreign students wrote an essay about the abolition of roll call in University classes. Regardless of the essay’s strengths and weaknesses, some of the arguments have stuck with me. One of the quotes is from a Chinese professor who said, “Why should I take roll call? If my class is boring, then it’s doubly unfair to punish students for not coming at all.”

This, I decided, must be part of why roll call still exists in Korean university classes… because to some degree, university courses in general are boring to anyone not interested in their major, and when you combine the top-down rote memorization and flat lecturing used in many classes with the fact that lots of students choose their major not based on personal interest or abilities, but in terms of prestige available on the basis of the University Entrance Exams, then you get a situation of multiple barriers to the enjoyment of classes.

But I decided to ask students about their opinion of roll call. The really interesting pattern that emerged was that most of the students were in favour of roll call, despite it admittedly being a big time-waster and being coercive. They agreed that it was a waste of time in big classes, and that it was often inefficient, since plenty of students who don’t attend simply have their friends say “here” at the appropriate moment so they’re marked as present.

My argument that I personally don’t care whether students come, and that if they don’t want to, they should be free to do so, as long as they’re willing to face consequences, seemed abhorrent. “But that’s not FAIR!” students said.

I asked, “Okay, but imagine you’re fluent in English. Imagine that you can speak English almost perfectly. Wouldn’t sitting in an English conversation classroom for three hours a week be a waste of time for you?” I even shifted this to the analogy of a math student who is a math genius and is forced to take the intro level class, or for whom there is no advanced-level course fitting to his or her abilities. “Wouldn’t that person be better off hanging out in the library and studying advanced mathematics alone? Or meeting with the professor occasionally as a supplement to teaching himself or herself?”

“But it’s not fair!” stammered some students, every time I asked this to a small group. “Life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make things fairer!”

Finally, it came out what “fair” means: these students were equating attendance with effort. They persisted in this even when I pointed out that attendance only means the effort to show up; that one can attend constantly, never participate or listen, and never learn anything. I asked them how much attendance counts for in our class, and they were surprised to be reminded that it counts for 0% of the grade, while participation counts for a fair chunk of the grade. But they were also taken aback when I said that if a student who is fluent were to skip class all semester long, but come to the exams, and were to perform perfectly on the exam, I’d probably pass him or her, if that student demonstrated having worked hard on something else during classtime.

Anyway, this idea of fairness seems a rather pernicious one. One student basically said, “Some people have talent or natural ability. That’s not fair. Someone else who has no natural ability or talent should be given something so she can bring her grade up.” When I asked why this was the case, and asked whether this was a good preparation for real life, where results are supposed to count for more than official papers and “fair” grading, they asked what people who aren’t naturally good at their major should do. When I suggested choosing a major that they enjoy and have a talent for would be the best way to go, they seemed to regard this as absurd, though they couldn’t really say why.

Don’t get me wrong, I make a strong effort to be fair. Most students have a perception — and I think it is a fair one — that professors tend to be more lenient with students of the opposite sex. This is compounded in my case by the fact that any language teacher can confirm: on average, women are better than men at foreign languages. Possibly this is not just for neurobiological reasons — there may be a component of socialization involved — but whatever the causes, it’s very difficult to disagree with this when you’ve been teaching languages for a year or two: men on average fare much less well than women at foreign language study. But I make a strong effort to be fair, and I must admit there is a (small) number of young men in my classes who share the top 5% of the class with their female peers.

But “fairness” in the sense of making attendance enough to pass a class regardless of skill and intellectual ability (or lack thereof) isn’t fairness: university degrees should be somewhat difficult to get, and it should be impossible for some people to earn them in some areas. (Just as I will never, as long as I live, earn a degree in mathematics or Chinese literature, and should never be able to do so; any school that lets me get away with as much as I’d have to get away with to graduate with such a degree is doing something wrong.) Otherwise, degrees just become meaningless, just a mere extension of high school, and a pointless, expensive one at that.

I pushed my own opinion less than it seems from my post here, though; mostly I just asked questions, working the whole Socratic method, though with one group I couldn’t help but ask what they meant by “fair.” In any case, I think that next semester, I’m going to forgo attendance altogether. My little way of resisting an unnecessary system that treats adults like children.

(Just like I always ask my students NOT to ask permission when they want to go to the bathroom. I remind them that they’re adults and free to come and go as they please, as long as they don’t interrupt class for others.)

Oh, while we were at it, I asked about university festivals.

These are something we don’t really have at Western universities, mind you. The closest analogy I can think of is the that occasionally there would be an “events week” where students could attend concerts on campus, participate in special events, or whatever; but we didn’t have all our afternoon and evening classes canceled, and students weren’t especiallyt expected to get drunk at that time. Classes and learning went on as usual, but there was a little more opportunity for fun. Even when semi-famous musicians or comedians showed up at campus, it was never such a big deal. The student union would advertise the event, people would go, and then they would take off for classes.

Well, campus festivals are different. In fact, where I work now, it can happen either once a year, or once per semester, and it usually is a blank cheque to cancel classes during the afternoon and evening. (Actually, it’s expected, and if you don’t cancel class students either complain or just don’t show up; and you can’t get much done anyway, since students are so distracted and it’s so noisy everywhere!) Huge numbers of booths are set up, where food and tons of alcohol are for sale, and a concert is given by a pop star (or more than one). One essay I’ve received this semester argues that the expenses are exhorbitant, and that the quality of a festival seems to be taken by students as a reflection of the quality of a school, so that more and more money and energy is thrown into the festival in order to build up some kind of competitive quality.

What was interesting was that more than half of my morning class didn’t bother to go to the festival at all. They had other things to do, from homework to relaxing or visiting their families or friends off campus. I’d be really interested to know how many of the students who skipped were female, since my class is so unbalanced in terms of gender that I can’t guess. I’d imagine, though, that university festivals — with their focus on food (prepared and served by girls more often than boys, I’d bet) and liquor (consumed by boys much more and more often than by girls) are a much bigger attraction to male students than female ones. Even the pop stars in years past were mostly female, another attraction to boys.

But all that aside, I have to say that I appreciate the conspicuous lack of “sports festivals” where I work. At some other univerities, different departments hold these sorts of events. They’re essentially the sort of thing that elementary schools in Canada tended to hold when the weather got nice: tug-of-war, boys-against-girls soccer games, three legged races, and so on. They’re supposed to be departmental bonding events, and I suppose I think they’re silly in part because of cultural differences, but they used to be a constant nuisance at other universities where I worked. You’d turn up for class and nobody would be there, and you’d find out later it was that department’s “sports festival day.” There would be a spate of them, or sometimes they’d run for two or three days, and your classes would drop out of synch, not do their homework a week before or after, and end up being more exhausted than they were before the festival.

And I don’t think it’s just cultural difference. After all, elementary schools here also run sports festivals, too. That idea of bonding, of unity, is a fine thing in elementary school, but I don’t get why students can’t bond while doing things related to their majors. Why not have a chemistry-tricks contest in the chem department? Why not have a huge music show or competition in the department of music? The Multimedia department could hold (and widely promote) a screening of short student films for the campus to enjoy. Why not bond by doing something actually educational?

After all, that’s what we do where I work. In my department, there’s an annual variety show (with singing in English, dramatic performances, and even an academic or pseudoacadmic lecture or two, including, last time, a presentation on cuss words in English) that takes the place of drunken bonding sessions (known here as MTs) and sports festivals. These can sometimes yield some great stuff: we had a very funny production of The Sound of Music as well as a few other performances of note, and the presentation on cussing was brilliant, right down to when one student flipped the bird (if I remember rightly, the two-fingered, British version) at the audience and said, “My Professor Gord said this means, ‘To fuck!’ and it’s not nice to show to some people!” But those students didn’t just have fun and entertain their peers and professors; they got experience performing for an audience, they developed skills in managing big projects, they developed public speaking skills, and so on. This seems to me the best way to have fun and promote departmental unity, if such a thing need be promoted at all.

14 thoughts on “Fairness, Competition, and Roll Call (Plus Festivals and Sports Days)

  1. Oh, don’t even get me started on festivals.


    (At this point I would post a rant or something, but I am so out of energy at the moment that I am collapsing to the floor as I type this…)

  2. Gord, have you ever taught at an adult institute in Korea? Not that I think you didn’t know many years ago about what you write, just to say that the university habits of mandatory attendance being carried over to decidedly non-mandatory institutes highlights the flawed reasoning behind it all the more.

    Having met my wife and almost all of my adult Korean friends at institutes, then I’m definitely jealous of and miss the social aspects of teaching adults sometimes, but I may well be too frustrated with the majority of adult students to put up with them now! Sheesh, the numbers of university students that were kicked out of bed with a hangover by their (paying) parents and proceeded to sleep in class, or the number that attended 2- hour long, five day a week conversation classes but who appeared hostile to the very idea that I expected them to speak in them, and indeed even complained about it to my boss. Were it not for my tenuous job situation back at my last adult institute job in 2004, I would have screamed at students like that and walked out of sooo many classes.

    Unfortunately, these habits continue into their working life, so while you’d expect that the (often) self-paying students at company classes would be more motivated, especially as it meant that (even if they were freely provided by the company) they were coming to work at, say, 7:30am instead of 9, but still the vast majority turned spoke Korean all the time that they were there. For those reasons, I’m not sure I’d tolerate a company teaching job again either!

    It’s a common refrain of long-timers here that one of Koreans’ biggest problems is their willingness to only through the motions of so many aspects of their lives, and will not invest the real time and activity required to qualitatively change themselves or negative aspects of their society. Hence I link mandatory attendance at universities to going to but half-heartedly exercising at the gym, periodic crackdowns against prostitution which only serve to displace it, or me being the white face at my children’s institute to show off to parents but only meeting my students once a week…and so on. But as I read your post, now I think that this is all really learned and ingrained at university.

  3. Sports and culture days in Japan were always a lot of fun. Classes in the afternoon would grind to a halt two weeks before the scheduled event. It was really impressive watching the kids clean up after a festival. They did with next to no supervision from the teachers and without any goldbricking or tears. I had no idea Korean universities did the same thing.

    Wouldn’t attendance factor into classroom participation? I know you can have perfect attendance and not participate, but why give a good grade to someone who participates but misses 25% of your classes?

  4. I just got through the sports festival fiasco. It pisses me off that so many classes, and especially those on a particular day (wednesday), have been canceled this semester for MT, sports day, and other such nonsense. I’m on week 13 of a 15 week semester and my Wednesday classes have met a grand total of 7 times. Canceling classes for a sports day is beyond belief. It really tells you where their (the university’s – i.e., the money trail you mentioned about schools making their festivals more attractive to increase enrollment) priorities are. (Forgive that last sentence – I’m drunk).

    As for attendance, I agree it’s a bad system that requires top students to take a class waaaaaay below their level. BUT , IF those top students participate then their just being in class (English conversation classes) greatly benefit other students. For English conversation classes participation is essential; it should be a big chunk of the final grade. How can you honestly give participation points to students who don’t attend class?

  5. James,

    I have taught adults at a non-mandatory institute (and even kids, for a year and a half), but I tended to get more of the self-motivated kind. I had a reputation, after a while, of being demanding and not letting anyone sleep, and I also lucked out to get the older, high-level classes for a good chunk of my time at that school. (Often I had free talking and professors-and-fluent-housewives-maintaining-their-English type classes. Good times!) Still, I found the kids much more pliable and willing to, you know, try. Even the adults who wanted to get better didn’t want to open their mouths and make words come out in order to do so.

    However, in those days, though I was expected to take attendance, I quit doing it after a few weeks, when I knew everyone’s names. Attendance didn’t factor into anything, since the class wasn’t graded, so it didn’t matter, and nobody bugged me about it, ever.

    (With kids was different, of course. Don’t want some kid’s disappearance to go unnoticed for hours at a time.)

    I share your frustration with the half-hearted effort matched with tremendous attention to whatever is officially deemed as “going through the motions.” However, I’m pretty sure it’s hammered into place in high school, where vast amounts of time are spent doing the most boring work possible, while evading physical punishment for the most miniscule infractions of the rules.

    I also made a large number of my Korean friends (though now mostly out of touch) in that institute; one rarely makes friends among one’s university students, and one rarely should, too. But I think I’d be reluctant to teach at any institute as well.


    You’re talking high school, right? Yeah, I have fewer objections to that at high school. But universities should be beyond that sort of stuff. I have no idea whether the cleanup among Korean students (high school or university) is as conscientious as among Japanese students, though Lime says it’s similar here, from her experience in high school and university.

    (She also noted that high schools had sports days, but not “festivals,” in her day; ten years ago, that is, her high school was exceptional for having such “festival days,” though they’re pretty common now.)

    As for attendance and participation, it’s complex.

    I’ve seen too many students who are nearly fluent or anyway very high-level who absolutely did not need to be in the room waste three hours a week mumbling baby talk to fulfill a silly requirement to consider it fair to penalize them for not coming — as long as we’ve made an arrangement and maybe they do a different project in lieu of the course.

    At the same time, it’s very rare that someone who participates actively misses 25% of the classes. Actually, at 25% you flunk out. And the only people who miss that many classes tend to be the ones who are cruising for a D or an F anyway.

    So, as I tell my students at the beginning of semester, attendance does factor into participation; it’s very hard to convince me you deserve an A+ in my class, or even a B+, if you’re missing classes left and right, and in huge classes that’s just begging to be dropped down the wrong side of the require grading curve, but it is technically possible for someone to wow me enough on participation when they do show up, to make up for missing classes.

    But (perhaps because roll call is so common here) most decent students equate attendance with effort anyway, and it’s very rare that a good participator fails to show up regularly. It’s happened once in the last 5 semesters.

    (Excluding illnesses or deaths in the family, of course. I’ve had two students whose fathers died of cancer, and one whose mother died of the same, I think, and they were all back in class within a couple of weeks and trying their asses off and indeed outperforming others. Illness is a little more tricky…)

  6. Trevor,

    Wow, this semester my biggest problem is Monday classes, because of the holidays, but even so, 7 times? That’s… wow. One good thing is we don’t have an organized, professor-involved, during-the-week MT. (I think the students have one, but it’s on a weekend.)

    I think I explained my answer to the latter question in my previous comment: it’s pretty rare a truly good participator doesn’t show up. The ones who participate well but don’t show up tend to be coasting on English acquired passively, ie. by living abroad for a few years as kids, and this slackness tends to shine through in their work and participation; they’re usually more lukewarm in discussions, and very often likely to blow off assignments, abandoning more motivated students to do most of the work. (And I catch them in other ways, like group peer evaluations.)

    Hell, for some students, even just following class and making one comment per class meeting is a monumental effort in participation, but I cannot reward them the same as people who keep conversations going. Likewise, some people, despite missing three or four classes, are the bloody rock star of the group and I cannot really convince myself to not give them full marks when they contribute so much more in one meeting than the majority contribute in a whole semester. There are always a few people whose names I learn right away because they’re so outgoing, so eager to lead and to encourage others, and so on. I’m not saying that’s necessarily fair, but then again, even “fair” hiring processes rely on a subjective interpretation of skill, personability, and so on.

    So yes, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that cannot help but factor into participation grades, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Professors are professionals, they’re hired to be professionals, so of course, you don’t just give grades to the prettiest smiles, but you also sometimes have to make subjective distinctions. In fact, I think that one of the great problems in education here is the widespread, instinctive distrust of subjective evaluations. Subjective evaluation is necessary for anything but the most basic evaluation; thus, TOEIC is a horrible test of English skill, though a rigorous test of TOEIC-test-taking ability. I’m comfortable with a certain degree of judgement-call making.

    Also, I should add, I have a couple of lecture courses, in which even participation isn’t necessarily a factor. The philosophy is, if you think you can learn better alone, go for it, and good luck to you. But the discussions and lectures are not based on any text they can dig up, and their peers are unlikely to convey the full depth of discussions or lectures outside of class in a recap, so again, it tends to be harder to pull off as good grade without attending.

    However, if I had a young Cory Doctorow in my Media English class, where we’ve been discussing Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown and Lawrence LEssig’s Free Culture, I’d be unlikely to crack down and insist he attend. I’d rather he was off digging into stuff deeper in the field than sitting around explaining stuff to the people who didn’t read the book.

    Though the best trick is making the classes interesting and engaging enough that students willingly come. That’s a much better carrot than, “Come or you will get a bad grade,” because people who come only for the attendance grade tend not to participate much, if at all.

  7. I found it surprising that the Universities in South Korea would have events like that. I understand the Theater Department putting on a play, or some sort of intra-mural sports after class. Some members of the philosophy department (and a few ex-students, grad students, and various hangers on from the Arts Faculty) at the University of Manitoba meet every week during the fall and winter to play ball hockey. It’s been going on for the last 15 years. What you described in your post seems a little…over board, but interesting to read about, nonetheless.

    Participation and attendance were always sticky issues for me when I was an ESL instructor at the University of Manitoba. It was more difficult, because of conflicting cultural values. The Latin American students were usually more outgoing than the Asian students, so it was hard devising a system that took those differences into account. It’s interesting reading how you deal with it.

  8. Yeah, I can understand intramural sports as intramurals, or an afterschool thing. (And I am totally in favor of departments showcasing what they’re doing in a way that opens them to the rest of campus; music departments giving concerts or putting on operas or musicals; our variety night; stuff like that. Heck, I’m always pushing to find a way for my classes to do stuff that contributes to the rest of the school, such that minor, minor things — publishing some student poems in a chapbook — seems to be a major thing at this university.)

    I don’t understand the all-out department-wide things, or the uni-wide festivals so much. I find them a waste of time, energy, and resources.

    I also think participation would be a harder thing to figure out in a course where students of widely different cultures are interacting. Still, there are enough outgoing students my classrooms these days that, culture or no, these tendencies can be overcome, so I’m less willing to write it off as cultural difference.

    How did you deal with it? My first instinct would be pairing them in some kind of buddy system, or something, but I can imagine that totally bombing.

  9. Well, it was supposed to be conversational English I was teaching, and tell you the truth, I cheated. After they gave their presentation, I’d have them hand over their notes, and would factor that into my decision about the grade. That way, a thirty-seven year old RN from Sapporo could be a little more competitive with a 25 year old sales rep from Guadalajara, and not get “dinged” for being who she was and where she was from. I was upfront about it, so the sales rep from Guadalajara didn’t have to take a big hit as long as he scrawled something down on an index card.

  10. Sorry to interrupt the thoughtful discussion, but in reply to your post above, Gord: yes, indeed. I’m thinking once the semester ends I should be able to cut loose a bit.

  11. Charles,



    I understand. I think that’s a good solution since, anyway, especially in low-level students, preparation has been shown to be a great aid to organized and clear speaking.

    But that’s as far as I would go. I have to admit that cultural differences or not, I’ve known Asians — Japanese, Korean, and Chinese alike — who’ve overcome the cultural barriers to language acquisition. The fact that they have more of them is real — I think so anyway, especially when you count educational and social experience and not just “core culture” — but at the same time, I think individuals can and should overcome those barriers if they want to learn something. The Chinese guy in my French class was shy, and quiet, but he didn’t use Chinese culture as an excuse to hide behind. He opened his mouth and pushed words out every damned class. So did two of the Japanese girls in my YMCA French class in Montreal. Sometimes they were even better than me!

    Still, balancing cultural differences is hard. Hell, even my mother’s experience of Anglo culture as a Quebecois Francophone was alienating, so I can imagine the clash between a young, outgoing Mexican and an older, less-outgoing nurse from “rural” Japan.

    (Or is Sapporo not considered “rural” the way everything outside Seoul is considered “rural” in Korea?)

  12. Sapporo would be considered “rural” or at least small, given how far it is from the hub that is Tokyo and to a lesser degree Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka.

    I was teaching lower levels, and I should add, as might have been evident from my example, that the “handicap” was put in place to help level the playing field for a number of differences (gender, work and educational background) amongst students.

  13. Right, I figured so. (About Sapporo.)

    Lower levels are hard… though I should add that when EFL classes are actually leveled, everything’s doable. If I’d known how easy I had it with my first job, where great efforts went into ensuring students were properly leveled — at least at the start — I might have hesitated to move to the Uni I went to, where students were grouped by major and you had high level and low level kids all jumbled. (It’s less of an issue where I am now, but at my last job, it was a constant nightmare. Again, out of some bizarre understanding of what “fair” means, we were forbidden to level students even when multiple sections of the same course for the same major were offered, in case someone might feel bad being in the lower-level group.)

    As for age and gender, it’s funny… I’m reminded of a businessman who was in a conversation class of mine, and complained it was unfair if I graded him on the same criteria as his classmates. He said, “But they’re good at English!” I didn’t know what to say; after all, they were, and he wasn’t, and he wasn’t really trying all that hard, and didn’t seem very interested in actually becoming good at English. I finally asked him why he’d decided to take university courses with very advanced English Language majors rather than get a solid foundation for a few years in a hakwon (private language school) before attempting it. He couldn’t understand or answer the question, and when I translated it into Korean, he smiled and still couldn’t answer in English. I can only guess he figured white-man-osmosis would make him fluent faster, or that it was the piece of paper he was after. (Since even some English majors have recently claimed to me that they can get through most of their classes without using any English at all.)

    And lest I seem like a gerontophobe, I had another student around his age who started out not knowing how to write an essay and several semesters later scoring what I think was an A+ for a sustainedly clear, powerful, and decisive discussion of necessary educational reforms in Korea. She improved from sheer effort, and she never pulled rank on other students for being older (as this guy sometimes tried to do) so those who knew her were quite proud of her, really.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *