Friday, March 7, 2014

Does it "Count"?

Most professors I know are asked some version of the title question by their students on a relatively regular basis.

  • Will this be on the exam?
  • Will this in-class exercise be graded?
  • Will we get extra credit for this outside event you recommended?

When I was a student I may have asked some of these same questions, and as a professor, I gladly answer these questions.  For some reason, however, I have a silent, negative visceral reaction to these questions, and I know many other professors who feel similarly.

This week, with my family on spring break in North Carolina, I have been pondering why I have such a negative reaction. I think my reaction is not because there is anything inherently wrong with the questions, but because I desperately want my students to understand that, ultimately, our classes are (or should be) about something much more important than just a grade.  A grade should approximate the level of mastery and the components of the grade should be as clear as possible, but many of the things that students should be developing -- critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, compassion, perseverance, professionalism, ethics, etc. -- are difficult to fully capture in a grade.

As I pondered my reaction to the student questions, I realized that many professors ask a similar question:

  • Does it count for promotion and tenure?

Better for us to ask if our teaching, research and service is positively affecting our students, our colleagues, and society in general.  

Directors and officers of public corporations also tend to ask a similar question:

  • How does it affect earnings per share?

Better for directors and officers to ask if the corporation is contributing to human flourishing.  See Professor Scott Pryor’s recent post (and the embedded links, especially this one) for some additional thoughts on corporate purpose.  For the record, my post from earlier today was meant to be a descriptive, not normative.

We all know, I think, that there are bigger, deeper, more important questions that we should ask, but the bullet-pointed questions above capture a large percentage of our attention.  At least part of the reason these items often attract myopic focus is because the subject matter is relatively easy to quantify. Something in us loves to measure and compare accomplishments.  

Recently, I nominated a mentor of mine for a lifetime achievement award.  She has spent over 35 years of her life as a professor, and she is one of the people who helped me break into this academic world that I love.  In my nomination letter I wrote that she is the type of professor who gives of her time “even when she has no reason to expect recognition or another line on her resume.”

Like my mentor does, I hope that my students and I will focus our attention on the most important issues, even if we cannot fully capture the results of our efforts on a report card, resume, or spreadsheet.

Haskell Murray, Teaching | Permalink


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