What we do communicates what?

In Paragraph City, as in every room where teachers and students confabulate, we make assumptions about each other which are wildly untrue and then shape the dialog on those assumptions. This is called education in some lands, and it’s a weird science.

Now what happened to put this topic on the stove is this. About a year ago a small group of faculty who occasionally are guilty of teaching a Student Success Seminar course were fraying the topic of what we did to convince new students that active class participation was important.

Someone said that certainly we say that being in class and being active in class is important, to which someone responded with “but what student believes it when we tell them something like that?” Actually, that someone was probably me; I’ve grown powerfully impressed with how successfully high school students have learned that nearly everything college faculty say is untrue.

Then someone piped up, “I base 50% of my grade on attendance, so my students certainly learn that attendance is important.” Being undercaffeinated at the time, I didn’t say what I thought, which was this, in increasing order of importance:

  • that’s one way to eliminate having to work to teach a course, taking attendance and calculating a grade in one fell swoop.
  • isn’t the lesson taught here really that college is way easier than high school ever was?
  • or maybe the lesson is that students are so moronic that we have to stoop to grading based upon where they put their bodies, rather than anything they have learned.
  • but then really, how do we know what such actions communicate?

I still think that grading on attendance — whether it’s 50% or not — is contrary to treating college students with respect, but that last bullet in my list is why this topic is still simmering on the back burner of my mind’s kitchen. We can be somewhat sure that what we consciously say and write communicates to our students. We can be a little less sure of what we model before our students communicates. We can be a lot less certain of what our interactions and working relationships with our students communicate.

Yet, I think there’s an inverse relationship here, where the message that we communicate the most memorably is that relationship message, which we are least certain of; and the old fashioned content of the course is least memorable. It’s just the way we people are wired.

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