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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.

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