Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Notes for the Professor, #2: Never Penalize Good Decisions

This is an ongoing series I began back in February, intended to aid both myself as a future professor and anyone currently in the field looking for pointers from the other side. As a student I constantly try to take note of what to do and what not to do as a professor. I am convinced that the single greatest trait a professor can have is an openness, a willingness, an intentionality about exploring new and better ways to teach -- including stopping bad habits. So I hope to nip bad habits in the bud before they happen, and to form good habits before I start. I have had the great blessing of being taught by phenomenal professors and thus feel like I have an unfair, but fortunate, head start. On the other hand, I don't know how much I have been picking up -- adding bits to the arsenal, so to speak -- versus how much I merely receive and enjoy as a student without grabbing, naming, imputing, and incubating the virtues and qualities I hope to emulate. I do intend to be more specific than teaching in general: concrete actions or focused principles that will enhance an actual university (or seminary/graduate) class of students. Feel free to get in on the conversation, to critique my ongoing notes, or to suggest new ones I have yet to think of.

Professorial Note #2: Never Penalize Good Decisions

This would seem like a basic idea for teachers and schools to inculcate: reward good behavior; don't reward bad behavior. Even that axiom, though, is different than what I want to commend here: simply not to penalize good decisions, and especially not to institutionalize in rules or systems such irrational penalization.

For example, at the high school I attended students could exempt any class' end-of-semester exam by keeping one's grade average above 85 in that class and by having less than three absences. Three tardies, however, added up to one absence, so that two absences and three tardies would equal three absences, and thus no ability to exempt.

This is all fine so far. But here's where it got tricky: The only absences that counted toward Class A's exemption status were absences in Class A; however, tardies in Class B counted as tardies (and thus toward added-up absences) in every class, including Class A. This was probably intended to weight tardies so that students wouldn't just come late to every class a bunch of times, totaling many more per class than one's absences.

What this system created, however, was a situation early in each semester when, if you had missed Class A twice but Class B none, and were headed to Class B but were running late, it would be in your best interest to skip Class B altogether rather than come in tardy, because that tardy would apply to Class A and likely lead to precluding the possibility of exemption. That is, the school created a situation in which it would be better for a student to skip an entire class than to arrive one minute late.

And that, my friends, is a form of institutional insanity and a penalization of good decisions.

We see this all the time; I'm sure everyone has their own horror stories. The point is that it happens out of a confluence of good intentions and complex systems -- otherwise known as bureaucracy, which is inherent in any university context. Even when professors design a syllabus completely on their own, they belong to an administrative system that shapes certain modes of thought which may or may not be beneficial or relevant to students.

Because good intentions are involved and often the situations result from enculturated forms of thinking, here is the kicker: the moment the situation is identified, the professor should stop it! This will probably be a theme in coming posts in this series; so much of teaching is realizing what is and is not working and acting accordingly, not in defensiveness about the "good idea" you were so sure it was and not in loyalty to an abstract over against the concrete. Just stop it! I preach it to myself, and you are authorized to do so in the future when I have a classroom: If you have created a system that creates obstacles to the good, repent, turn, change your ways, give up the game.

Then keep trying different ideas.

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