Since I’m summer teaching, I have just finished up one semester, entered grades, sat through a graduation, and am now starting up another semester. And just for the record, no, there wasn’t a one-week break between the spring and summer semesters. There wasn’t even a one-day break. There was, in fact, a one-day overlap. The summer semester started Monday, and spring grades were due the next day, on Tuesday.

Since the teaching cycle of one semester overlapped the teaching cycle of another, I’ve had an unusual opportunity to think carefully about the five most important things that I can tell my students about their college classes, especially with me. Something about a simultaneous beginning and ending brought these to mind. These five most important things are even more important than the knowledge that my students might gain in any of my classes, because they affect their relationship to their knowledge.

So here they are, in short order:

1. I’m not your boss.
2. You’re not my boss.
3. I never, ever grade you. I grade your work.
4. Doing the reading matters.
5. Writing well matters.

And now for the details.

1. I’m not your boss. You’re not working for me. Nothing that you do benefits me, personally, in any way, at least in terms of the content and structure of the class. I do manage to learn from my students most semesters, but that’s another matter.

When you come to class, you’re not doing me a favor, and when you complete assignments, you’re not putting out a product that I can sell at a profit. Universities are not widget factories, even though there are very powerful people who want to turn them into just that. Everything that you do — every reading, every paper, everything — is for your own benefit. When you participate in a class, you do it for your own benefit, and when you don’t, you don’t to your own detriment.

So when you don’t do reading, or don’t do an assignment, or don’t study for a quiz or exam, you’re not ripping me off somehow. You’re stealing from yourself. You’re paying for an education that you’re denying yourself. That is your choice, and I will allow you to make it, but you need to understand that you are the one making that choice.

In fact, when you don’t turn in your papers, that means I have fewer papers to grade. My life would be much, much easier if I had no papers to grade at all. But that wouldn’t serve you very well, even though I know you feel exactly the same way.

So the truth is that the teachers who don’t assign work and don’t hold your work to meaningful standards are doing themselves a favor at your expense. The teachers who assign work and expect you to do your work well are doing you a favor at their own expense. That’s the truth.

2. You’re not my boss. Everything that I do is for your benefit, so in that sense I am working for you. But most of you don’t understand the benefit of the study of this material, or the benefit of its structure, or the benefit of the assignments, in my experience. So while I’m not your boss, I’m still running the class, setting the standards, and guiding your instruction. I’m not your boss, but I am in charge of the class. What you need to understand, though, is that even that is for your benefit. I’m in charge of the class because I’m educated in this field, and I’m running the class in order to benefit you.

If you don’t think being educated makes a difference, why are you in this class?

If it does, then pay attention and listen to your teachers. The reputation backing your diploma is no better than the educational credentials and scholarly attainments of the faculty members whose teaching is represented by that diploma. Saying bad things about your college teachers, then, is massively stupid, as it undermines the credibility of the education that you paid for, and especially because they are there working for you, not you for them.

3. I never, ever, grade you. I grade your work. Do you see the difference? I’m not grading your abilities, your character, your mind, or your intelligence. You are not an A, B, C, or D student. You just happened to earn one of those grades on an assignment. When I assign a grade to your papers, I am grading your performance on a single assignment. Your final grade in the class is the cumulative average of your performance on a bunch of individual assignments. That’s all.

You know if you really spent a week writing that paper or if you did it three hours before it was due. You know if you just couldn’t wrap your head around the material this time (that’s okay). You know if you did your level best and still just got a C.

What does the grade mean, then? If you really tried, it just represents your development in this one area at this one particular point in your life. Think of your grade, if you really worked, as a marker of your progress so far and as an indicator of where you need to go. The rubrics I provide you articulate where you need to go.

So no… I never give you a grade either. You earn your grades, at least in my classes. You can see the grade book all semester. Straight points earned vs. points possible. I can’t think of a single student that I didn’t like last semester, but how much I like or dislike you has nothing to do with your grade in class.

4. Doing the reading matters. Where I come from there are two types of people: the people who do the reading and the people who work for them. It’s not always that way in the business world, but in places run intelligently, that’s how it is. That’s also the case in your humanities and science classes. Your education is exactly equivalent to the amount of reading that you’ve finished and comprehended. Every time you read, especially difficult material, you work out your mind. Every difficult book that you finish raises the bar for what constitutes a difficult book. Doing the reading is the single best favor that you can do for yourself. Sometimes your most seemingly useless reading — philosophy, poetry, literature, analysis of humanities artifacts — is the best for your mind because it works out your mind the most.

But let me tell you, reading literature is never useless. When you read a literary work, you’re confronting a representation of the behaviors of motivated individuals expressed through language. The literary work itself doesn’t tell you what that means. You have to figure it out from the behaviors represented and the words used. That’s just how it is in real life. Disciplines like psychology and sociology provide analytical tools for interpreting human behavior. Literature does the same while giving you an interpretable product that closely resembles the interactions of human beings in real life. Figuring out literature means figuring out people: how and why they behave like they do and what their language means.

There are very few professional fields to which this skill doesn’t apply.

5. Writing well matters. You wouldn’t show up for an interview in sweats and a t-shirt, would you? How you arrange your words is how well you dress your mind. Training your words is training your mind. Investing in writing well is a good investment, maybe even more important that the specific content of many of your classes. I’m an English teacher. I want to help you with your writing. I will be trying to help you over the course of the semester. My comments on your papers aren’t there to slap you down. They’re there, like everything else I do, to help you clarify not only your words but your thought.

That’s it. I’m on the verge of having a Jerry Maguire moment — “HELP… ME… HELP… YOU!” — so I’ll stop now. Just remember, though, that I am here to help you.

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One thought on “The Five Most Important Things I Tell My Students

  1. Thank you for this wonderful , practically-minded straight talk to students. I am going to quote it at the beginning if every semester from now on!

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