In Paragraph City, a week after the semester ends, the streets are paved in flux and possibility furls from the street lamps. Every professor has at least one student in mind who should have passed the class or should have gotten a higher grade but blundered in some clumsy way, a way that might be blocked with a bit of course re-design. So we all engage in some subtle adjustment to the carburetors of our courses, trying to figure out ways to save students from themselves.
Mostly it’s hopeless, like trying to end suicide by a) prohibiting it and b) taking away the means. Suicide ends when people love life. College is not that much like suicide (in spite of the parallels my students find), but for the most part, failure ends when students want to learn more than they want other things. Nonetheless, I recently walked down to Paragraph City’s MicroAdjustment Labs to walk past the bays where courses are hooked up to diagnostic computers, engines revving and needles swinging into red zones while professors in white lab coats hunch over their learning objectives, head and shoulders deep under the open hoods of their vehicles.
Col. Klondike has been rebuilding his attendance policy every summer for twenty years, convinced that if only students would come to class, he could teach them anything. “It’s the key lectures,” he mutters to the crescent wrench in his hand. “If Gabrowski had just been there when I explained cretaceous poriphiny he wouldn’t have incinerated on his final exam. So I’ll require they come to that lecture, and I’ll record it, and make them watch that if they don’t come, or else they can’t take the final!”
Prof KuklaFran&Ollie failed students this semester who were there in class during demonstrations, but apparently paid no attention and remembered nothing about them. “I could be more compelling,” she says, tapping the throttle and noting the lack of responsiveness. “Three jokes, every class. Anthropology jokes aren’t that hard to find. Three jokes, a diagram or chart, and a small group activity, every class. Take that, Gabrowski, just try to get bored now. If only I taught chemistry, I could add an explosion.”
Doc Comfort has been convinced for a few years now that students don’t comprehend how much he cares about their success. “I need a more compassionate avatar, maybe. Crying after mid-terms didn’t work, and after Gabrowski complained to HR I had to stop hugging, but maybe that photo of my puppy…” He adjusts slightly the tension on a serpentine belt. “Students have my home phone and I follow all their Twitter feeds. Maybe the slogan will help.” On the hood I see it in red script, “Nothing But ‘A’s – all other grades hurt so bad. Because Doc Comfort Cares!”
And I walk on down passed garage bays where some are color coding policies in their syllabi or creating learning contracts that explain how if students will attend every class and do 60% of the assigned reading, the instructor agrees to be scintillating during office hours. Others are having students teach the class by making instructional videos or building the exam questions or selecting the chapters for study at the start of the semester.
It’s a dedicated team of drivers here at Paragraph City, and I learn a lot from them as I refine the suspension of my own little chariot. I think of how many changes have occurred over the years, and while I would never go back to that 70s era model I first drove, I’m not sure my students are any more successful, or the ride is any more joyous, than it was back then.