The Model is the Message

There are days in Paragraph City when the student skull weather is a dense fog bank complicated by lachrymose clouds as the barometer dips deep into opacity. This is when it seems that the only thing we teach is what we demonstrate. Students don’t do the reading, forget the conversations (except for the things they said themselves), lose the things they write, but remember what they see in their teachers. That’s when I model.


(Lest you are thinking of runways and Gisele, an excursion: This is modeling. When I talk with a class about writing, I try to take the students into my head as I pull at a topic, find an entrance point, gather a couple buckets of ideas, splash them on the floor and start to sort, find words that communicate, and so on. When we look at a poem I talk about taking a sidelong glance at it, my usual dance steps, why a window in the poem would open for me here, what associations I’d make with the images, and again, so on. I admit, there’s a “look-at-me-be-like-me-think-like-me” quality to it that troubles me, and yet it’s a cornerstone for the way I have learned.


Like all strategies, modeling doesn’t work for everyone, or to put a more positive spin on it, modeling works really well for some students. So then I go on and try something different, looking for an approach that harmonizes with other students’ minds: small groups, independent research, free writing, conversation, games. I don’t have a big bag of tricks, and not enough cool gizmos, but then the semesters are short.)


Here’s the trouble (which is to say the interesting part): we don’t really know that the point we think the modeling sends out is the point the students pick up. I’m using semaphore flags and students are reading nautical flag code; I’m saying “I feel around to find the central emotion in the poem” and they’re hearing, “Be dorky-girly-moany-groany and wear baggy pants.” Or something like that.


Yet it’s not like we can’t model. That’s like trying to avoid making a first impression. Even our students most talented in being mentally and physically absent see in us a model of something. I’m wondering if we can really tell what that something is.


This particular question has been gnawing at my leg for a couple of semesters now, ever since an exchange with an adjunct (let’s call her Professor Collie to maintain the dog-bone image). About a dozen of us who teach the first year seminar were talking about approaches to the course. Someone mentioned almost all faculty complain that students who most need to be in classes are the one who cut them most often. I think of these as my Ginsu students, but that’s one of many things I try not to say at such meetings.


“This is the sort of thing we should address in the seminar, right?” my friend Jack Russell, who is running the meeting, says. “So how?”

Jack has a way of killing a roiling conversation with a pertinent question, and that’s what happens now. Then Collie pipes up.


“Well I base 50% of my course grade on attendance, so my students know from Day One how important coming to class is.”


Is that what this policy communicates? Doesn’t it rather tell the student that college is way easier than high school ever was, that thinking or writing or studying is unnecessary, that being near knowledge is the same as knowing things? Yet there it is, my dear old modeling strategy put to use, writ large into a syllabus. A domino row of questions click down:


  • So how would you model the importance of class attendance?
  • In fact, how do you teach anything which seems so basically obvious?
  • Is this really college subject matter? Imagine the final exam question. “Should students come to class? ____ Yes     _____No”
  • Is that 50% attendance grade of such a different ilk as a requirement for students to read a textbook? We send students near knowledge and later test to see if any has adhered to them.


At the bottom of this matter, I’ve decided there’s a professorial force in me that functions like gravity – irrational and unexplainable but inescapable – which says this just isn’t something you do if you respect your students. You don’t tell them with your actions that you think they are so incapable, so hopelessly worthless, that they should earn college credit for simply being alive and breathing in the proper locale.


Yet that’s the crux of the matter with modeling, for it turns out that this is exactly what I think a 50% attendance grade communicates. Collie would surely say something like, “A grade immediately and clearly tells a student what you think is important. I am telling my students how important it is to me that they be in every class.”

Dog-gone if perhaps she’s right, but it just doesn’t smell that way to me. 



5 Responses to The Model is the Message

  1. dance says:

    Hmm…I do think, and tell my students, that the value of being in class is modeling or practicing the things I ask them to do in their papers.

    But I grade attendance/participation at 15% (for honors classes) to 25% (for non-honors) as specifically recognizing their effort in doing the reading and coming to class prepared to discuss it (and encouraging that effort).

    So I treat those two issues differently.

  2. Dr. Davis says:

    I do think there is a value to being in class. I straight out tell the students that if I didn’t think it was important, I wouldn’t be there. And, yes, there are some days that are less essential than others, but they won’t necessarily know which those are. (I do, but I don’t tell them.)

    I do attendance grades. It’s part of their homework grades, which counts for as little as 15% and as much as 20% in one of my classes. The homework grades include doing the reading and having their books and bringing in the prewriting.

    Modeling is a great idea. Of course, I would think that because I do it.

  3. Dale says:

    Thank you, dance and Dr. Davis, for your comments. Interesting you place similar weights on the grade for attendance.
    I know we must do it, but I still wonder at the way we have to explain the obvious, like “it’s important that you come to class” — which makes me wonder why we have to do that. I’m wondering if many students have discovered in past classes that there was not a high correlation between what they absorbed in the classroom and the grade they received. A parallel is the way many students don’t do the assigned reading but still do fine on the tests and homework (they tell me this because it’s so hard to do in my classes).
    Students are in most ways fairly practical, and so much of their seemingly bizarre behavior is the results of unintentional lessons taught in the bizarre world of schooling.
    Lately I’ve been thinking of addressing this directly, with a guides to cutting corners in my courses, for the student who has his sights set on merely passing he course. It strikes me that the successful student has this skill, knows what class meetings he can cut, which homework assignments he can fudge, what work is must-do and which he can blow off — if he’s ready to settle for a C or B in the course.

  4. Carl says:

    I don’t grade attendance, for the reasons you say. I only grade performances of skills and knowledge that I consider important outcomes of the class. If a student can manage to never come to class and still give me excellent essays filled with the sorts of sweet ninja moves I’m teaching the rest during class time, so be it – I’ll certify she knows the moves with an A. And I’ll suggest an independent study.

    But if attendance must be an issue, as it is for some low-performing students, I think it was you who taught me the ‘ante’ trick. There’s no need to grade attendance at all, just make it a condition of being in the game. Come prepared and you play. Don’t come, or come mentally truant, and you’re out.

    I also find attendance becomes much less of an issue if we teach well enough and keep our standards high enough that attendance is actually necessary for marginal students to make any sense of the class. If they can just wing it and pass, that’s on us. The question “Did I miss anything important?” is diagnostic of prior training. They should never not miss anything important, and it should be impossible to recap in two minutes, or we might as well just teach our classes in two minutes.

  5. Dr. Davis says:

    There’s a lack of clarity in my first comment. I give 15-20% grade for homework and attendance. There are usually about 5000 points, of which as many as 2000 may be attendance. So really attendance is about 5-10% of my grades.

    I have thought about not grading attendance. However, the students who are struggling and want to do the work but aren’t necessarily good at it benefit from these points from attendance. The students who don’t do the work don’t benefit. And it is possible, not likely, but possible, to come to class only for the first day and final and, following the syllabus, turn in all other work online before it is due and get an A. So it doesn’t hurt (too much) the students who don’t need to come to class.

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