Saturday 29th April 2017,
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In Which I Only Add to the Excessive Bitching That Is Going On

Today, I was going to bitch about the DP’s adulatory fawning over the new co-op idea. Three things, however, prevent me from doing so.

1.  It’s not a terrible idea in and of itself

2. Second, IvyGate decided to bitch about Alec Webley’s column, which I rather liked

3. Third, I talk too much about housing already

So: in brief, Alec thinks it’s a bad thing to shift grading toward high-stakes examinations at the end of the semester. That’s not to say he doesn’t like final projects or other cumulative assessments – just that he would rather see students assessed more often throughout the semester, rather than less. In his words, “Professors should eliminate finals altogether and replace them with continuous assessment.” Structured participation, sub-deadlines for papers, and small but regular assignments should be the order of things. If you’re only tested three times, you tend not to really do work or think about the material until the couple of nights before each exam, etc. For what it’s worth, I agree completely, and this has matched my experience at Penn to a tee.

To which IvyGate responds, “Stop Bitching and Study Already” (I know, “to bitch” is the word of the day):

As much as we’d love the idea of skipping out on our Feudal Politics final exam, we don’t think this would really solve our unhealthy habits. We’re not sleep-deprived because we’re up all night writing papers–we’re sleep-deprived because we stay up until four in the morning watching Geico commercials on YouTube, and then we write our papers.

In my experience, there are any number of reasons why Penn students don’t sleep – and those include all the ones listed by IvyGate, plus the peculiar fact that Penn students often prioritize their extracurricular clubs and organizations over class work. But if we follow Alec’s logic at all, we’ll realize that this is the very point of his article. Why are you sleep-deprived? “because you procrastinated and that paper is due tomorrow,” of course. Alec’s principal justification for continuous assessment is that it forces us to think more often, by making us responsible for the material more often: “by mandating lots of small deadlines rather than one big one, professors would be breeding good habits in their students — which is part of the point of college.”

OK, you say. But what about personal responsibility? Why should the University butt into my study habits and tell me how to organize my life? That’s a fair point, and there is some validity to the “stop bitching and study already” mode of thinking about this. But why, exactly, do we pay the University so much money to live and study here? So that we can listen to lectures that might have as easily been taped, and read books we might as easily have borrowed from a public library? No! Because the University structures education in a way that promotes learning. It does this by giving us experts to learn from, by putting us all on the same campus so we can learn from each other, and by grading us so that we are motivated to get off our asses and do some work. (I know some people will say that colleges are a credentialing racket and they don’t really matter. I don’t buy that, but it’s a separate argument).

Why do jobs make you come into the office every day and work at your desk? Because there’s a greater than miniscule chance that you won’t just play flash games and watch YouTube all day, which there isn’t at home. And the people who do work at home are either people who have things to do for which they are immediately responsible – for example, columnists – or people who can’t really be supervised very well because of the nature of their work – for example, novelists. And some of those people have offices anyway, just so they have a setting they associate with work.

Part of being a responsible adult is recognizing that the environments you put yourself into will influence your behavior. Part of being a responsible University is making the effort to structure that environment properly for the student – who is, after all, taking it on faith that the University will do so. And if not, then the student should leave school and go get a library card.

Calvin and Hobbes credit: Bill Watterson

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  1. Ett December 10, 2010 at 11:02 am

    It was my experience at Penn that classes that didn’t lend themselves to final exams like writing seminars didn’t have them or had a low-key one that didn’t count for too much. Classes where you can only really assess understanding with exams like accounting or chemistry had big final exams. Professors aren’t required to have exams, and most of them aren’t sadistic enough to put their TA’s through unnecessary grading, so it seemed like most exams were appropriately timed and weighted.

    As for final papers, profs ALWAYS offered to look at early drafts or samples through the semester. It’s not the same as a deadline for a first draft (which I had once and was nice), but this is the Ivy League so nut up and either force yourself to work early or plow through at the end.

    I procrastinated a lot (as you know John), but I never complained that I had so many papers due in a row or exams on consecutive days. The responsibility fell on me for not working on them or studying earlier.

    • John Gee December 10, 2010 at 5:27 pm

      1) I’m not certain that there are classes where you can “only really assess understanding with exams,” but that may be my humanities prejudice. I don’t in principle object to sit-down exams, though. And it is certainly possible to vary the size and frequency of those exams, which brings me to your next point.
      2) The proper size and frequency of exams are, I suppose, matters of preference. Degree rather than kind. I think that three assessments during the semester (which I have had more times than I’d like) is too few.
      3) I freely admit that this discussion comes down to a pretty simple question of how much responsibility you think is appropriate to place on the student for studying and time management. Obviously the student will always retain the final responsibility. But my point is that we attend a university partly so that our education will be structured for us. Saying “this is the Ivy League so nut up” strikes me as an unhelpful kneejerk reaction, which (with respect to IvyGate) is what I was trying to say in the first place. I get a lot more out of an assignment that forces me to actively use the material than studying for an exam. Should it be my responsibility to invent homework assignments and essay prompts? No.
      4. I’ve never complained about my individual situation either, because (as you said) the responsibility is ultimately on me to study. But what’s the problem with complaining more broadly about the quality of our education, especially when the bill is so high? At a place that prides itself on being the best or close to it, there should always be complaints pushing the institution to do better.
      5. In the last analysis, I would much rather continue with the status quo than revert back to a high school schedule with homework assignments due every day. That possibility seems extremely unlikely, however.

  2. Ett December 10, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Also, I wouldn’t want to live in a co-op with Penn students. I already sort of did that and there were too many mice, dirty dishes, and arguments.

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