Commentary

Facing the Dreaded End-of-Term Question

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 26, 2015

It’s the second-to-last week of classes, and as I weave my way through the clusters of students in the hallway, I am steeling myself against the question that I know is coming.

I’m focused on not colliding with students; I’m focused on what I’m going to do when I get into the classroom. I’m going to answer the question before anyone has the opportunity to ask it.

I’ve only just walked in, we’re not even on class time yet, when one of my students blurts out Part 1. The question almost always comes in two parts.

"So we don’t have a final in this class, right?"

I take a deep breath. I put my things down on the desk. I’m not going to snap. "That is correct. We do not have a final exam in this class."

Then comes Part 2. "So do we even have to come next week?"

I snap. "Well no one’s going to hold a gun to your head and threaten to pull the trigger if you don’t show up, if that’s what you mean. You don’t have to do anything. You just need to be aware that there are consequences for your actions and inactions. I can’t make you come to class. I can’t make you do anything.

"We do have scheduled class meetings next week. I will be taking attendance. I will be covering material. If you still have absences to burn, sure, go for it, take a day off, why not? Just make sure you get all your work in, because you do have assignments due next week. But if you’ve used up all your absences and you miss next week, it will negatively impact your grade, as will failing to submit the assignments that are due.

"Or I could give you a final. If that will ensure that you all show up for class, I can very easily make that happen. Would you all rather have a final?"

A few heads shake. The rest of the students have locked death stares on the one who asked the unfortunate question that so many of them were thinking.

I never know who’s going to ask it. Sometimes it’s one of the best students in the class, one who hasn’t missed a class or an assignment all semester. Sometimes it’s a student who probably could take the next week off, having already failed the course because of missed assignments and absences but who, for some reason, continues showing up, sporadically, all semester. There’s no real pattern. It can come from any corner of the room. And until recently I had only a vague notion of why it provoked in me such an intense reaction.

I thought, for a while, that my frustration was rooted in the fact that students really believed, on the basis of their educational experiences, that they were justified in asking if they had to show up for the last week. If they were asking, it must have been because other professors were either holding optional classes or canceling them altogether during the waning days of the semester, days during which I felt that there was still so very much to do.

But when I hear myself say that out loud, or I see it in print, it strikes me as little more than misplaced pride in my own professionalism and dedication. That’s not a road that I want to go down, particularly when I am surrounded by so many wonderful, dedicated professionals both in my department and around the campus.

What I think, though, is that my frustration derives from my incredulity at students’ believing such a ridiculous question to be justified. The problem is not with them or with the dedicated people who minister to their educational needs. The problem is that in our culture of assessment and evaluation, students can’t see the value in learning anything on which they’re not going to be assessed. If something isn’t going to show up on a test, they reason, it can’t be important.

There’s no joy for many of them in learning just to learn. They fail to see the value in anything not directly related to their chosen profession, whatever it is. Maybe I was the same way when I was a student; I can’t recall. I can, though, recall taking classes that I adored that were not specific to my academic discipline.

If you, too, would like to stop students from asking if they have to come during the final weeks of the semester, there are few options. You can always give a final exam, regardless of how ridiculous it may be in the context of your discipline, teaching style, etc. More testing doesn’t seem like much of a solution, though.

Or you can fight at the local and national levels against the culture of high-stakes standardized tests.

Or, maybe most important, you can do everything in your power to bring joy back to the classroom, to remind your students that what goes on in the classroom is about more than just the classroom, regardless of discipline.

We’ll probably never be able to reach all of our students, no matter how enjoyable we make the classroom environment or how much we try to connect what goes on there to their lives outside of it. But if we are going to keep education from becoming little more than a series of corporately designed and administered tests, and if we’re going to save the humanities from being buried by systematic reforms designed to turn out unthinking worker bees, we must reach as many as possible, and rethink our practices to emphasize the importance of connecting education to the world in ways that go beyond simple professional preparation.

That is my goal this summer, and I undertake it in the hopes that next semester will be the one when a student, instead of asking in the second-to-last week if he needs to come to class during the following week, says to me during that last week, "I can’t believe I’m not going to get to see you for class next week!"

Raymond DiSanza is an assistant professor of English at Suffolk County Community College.