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Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Friday, October 6, 2006

Sometimes a Contract Spoils the Mood: Contracting Academic Judgment

Images_83 Over at Prawfsblawg, Michael Dimino set off an interesting comment-fest when he asked: what do you do about the chronically unprepared student?  Oxford University, it seems, has attempted a solution with “good behaviour contracts.”  As we’ve mentioned before, Oxford is requiring students to sign a contract as a condition of their study.  The document outlines the obligations of the student and the University, and includes requirements that students:

undertake the reading of materials, carrying out prescribed activities such as practicals, the completion of written work, attendance in tutorials and classes and lectures, and the sitting of university and internal college examinations.

The contract also warns that:

failure to abide by these regulations may lead to the imposition of disciplinary measures, which may include suspension or expulsion.

But James Panton, a politics lecturer at St. John’s College, Oxford, points out: sometimes a contract spoils the mood.

Panton argues that the contracts are redundant of the expectations that lecturers already have for student preparation, and he asks why the university now feels it needs to reduce these expectations to a legal contract.  The answer he got from the University: fear of litigation.  The contract is a pre-emptive measure against litigation by students concerning the University’s obligations.

Panton criticizes the contracts as infantilizing students and (ironically) employing a the “consumerist mentality” it seeks to combat in the students.   But, even more compelling, he argues that “[t]he contracts will serve to undermine the kinds of informal relationships that higher education is built on.”  He writes:

The new contracts. . .seem to be based on the notion that students are potentially naughty schoolchildren who need to be reminded, explicitly, of the rules and regulations. The contracts also treat university tutors as high-school teachers who teach to a set syllabus and who must advise our charges on what is expected of them at all times.

Universities are more than a direct extension of schooling, and the role of a university tutor is different to the role of a shoolteacher. The Cambridge literary critic FR Leavis said of teaching in a university: ‘I see the word “teaching” in inverted commas. I don’t like it because of the suggestion it carries of telling – authoritative telling.’  ‘Authoritative telling’ plays some role in higher education; there are certain truths and facts students must know before they can fully explore their discipline. But such ‘telling’ only provides the building blocks from which the students must begin to construct, with the help of their tutors, their own intellectual development.

The new contracts also set up an oppositional relationship between students and academics, which is likely to undermine the possibility of real intellectual engagement.

[Meredith R. Miller]

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