Guidelines for Academic and Public Discourse:
Expectations for Individual/Class Conduct

(Dr. Tony Tremblay, August 2009)

I like to put a few thoughts on paper about my approach to teaching and learning. Consider this, then, a complement to what will be discussed during the first week of classes.

So you know, I interpret my job primarily as creating an environment in which you can learn.  My main responsibility, as I see it, is the careful consideration of that environment.  Below you will find my thoughts on how I see that environment working.  I share these thoughts with you so you will know how to excel in my class, and because many people simply don’t know, having never learned, what kind of conduct is expected and appropriate in a university setting.

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There are three primary expectations of you in this class:  regular attendance, adequate preparation, and reasonable participation.  To make concrete these expectations, I assign marks to each of these three areas.

Regular Attendance: By "regular" I mean attending all classes, except for when you are sick (and then, if your illness is prolonged, please bring me a medical excuse).  Because my classes are collaborative, your presence is both needed and valued by others.  STU (Calendar Section C.2.1.0) and the English Department (Approved 10/99) have complementary policies on attendance.  If you miss more than seven 50-minute classes (five 75-minute classes or three 3-hour classes) without medical excuse, I will send a letter to the Registrar asking that you be removed from the course.  As Marshall McLuhan said, "Class is where all the action is."  If you don't come you won’t learn.

Adequate Preparation: By "adequate" I mean that you come to class having read and thought about the material we are going to cover.  To do this, get into the habit of coming to class with a question about the reading or perhaps an overriding impression that you extracted.  Better yet, jot down a few notes on the reading:  what you think is important, what’s worth talking about, what puzzles you, and what you don’t agree with.  You may not get a chance to ask your question or share your impressions every time but the effort of arriving at them will pay dividends in your understanding of the class discussion.  To assist you in this area, I use "reading quizzes" that ask simple questions about the work that is going to be covered.  For students who come prepared, the quizzes amount to bonus points, for they are easily aced.

Reasonable Participation: By "reasonable" I mean that you come to class prepared to voice your opinion.  I know this is hard, but what I have learned is that there is a direct correlation between oral participation and learning. When you participate in the discussion you get your questions answered; you get your impressions, observations, concerns, anxieties addressed; and you stimulate those around you into making associations they may not have made. As tough as it is, then, your voiced opinion or question is a service to others, enabling them to learn, and enabling the discussion to grow concentrically, which enables more learning, and so on.  Participation is therefore part of your responsibility to others in the class, and it is one I take very seriously. Please see me if you are shy to the point of anxiety and we'll work out ways for you to participate. Participation is worth 10-20% of the grade in my (even large) classes.

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What Happens in My Classes? All my classes are built around a model of group discovery.  I am particularly fascinated by the power of a diverse group of people coming together to learn, ask questions, reflect, and explore. Humans have been participating in this type of collective activity long before the modern-day classroom--even if, today, we have a real anxiety to participate collectively (this paradox warrants investigation). As for the collective, think of the early experience of drama and worship; think of the modern cinema and what it offers in terms of the group experience of narrative. It seems to me that we fulfill many of our social needs (and express many of our imaginative desires) in the group or collective. My collaborative approach, then, is an extension of the belief that people have come together historically to talk with, listen to, and learn from one another. Anthropologist Marianna Torgovnick's aphorism that "meaning is not discovered but created" seems to me to be an accurate articulation of this social phenomenon.  Applied to learning, Torgovnick's aphorism implies that the action of many "live" minds in a classroom is far more enriching than one--the professor's.  Having said that, I will reiterate what I will say often during the first two weeks:  this class, unlike some others, requires your active involvement and participation.  Learning is not a spectator sport!

On “Learning being Fun.” The life of the mind is exciting and fulfilling, and there are few joys as palpable as those that come from insight and discovery. But let’s also be realistic and mature in our outlook: learning entails a lot of hard work.  And it isn’t always fun.  And it isn’t always entertaining.  Correspondingly, as a teacher, I am not here to entertain or amuse you. I am here to guide you to an understanding and, I hope, deep appreciation of the literature, culture, and ideas we are exploring.

The perception that “learning must be fun” has a fairly short history that began when television was promoted as the next learning panacea, the great teaching tool.  Neil Postman writes about this in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (chapter 10 is particularly insightful). In that book he makes the argument that teachers are doing a disservice to students if they lead them to expect that learning must be enjoyable and entertaining at all times.  If most of your learning has been through the medium of entertainment, he asks, how are you ever going to grapple with the demands of heavy reading, difficult ideas, the ‘big’ books? How are you ever going to become educated?  While learning need not imply solemnity, neither should it be associated with entertainment.  Learning involves hard work and honest effort, the result of which is tremendously fulfilling (and, by extension, fun).

On Class Conduct. Because class sizes are large (compounding diversions) and “class is where all the action is,” we all must make a special effort to optimize class time. This means following the basic rules of public discourse:  arriving before the start of class (I take marks off for persistent late-coming); turning off beepers on watches and phones; not wandering in and out of class without very good reason (leaving class should be a rare instance indeed—illness, emergency, etc.); and not carrying on sidebar discussions during lectures or presentations. If you don’t intend to use the class time productively, then do not come, for the vast majority of students are here to learn.  When you come in late, or your watch goes off, or you get up to “take a break,” your simple action affects everyone else in class.  Everyone’s concentration is broken. The reason I make this point forcefully is because the many courtesies of public discourse are not learned today.  In fact, contrary behaviours are cultivated and reinforced.  Social delinquency has become a kind of virtue.  Acting stupid or disengaged is the cool thing to do.  But since, as I’ve said, my primary job is the maintenance of the learning environment so everyone has an unencumbered chance to learn, I come down hard on those whose misconduct or indifference jeopardizes the learning of others.

A simple word: Respect. Cambridge University professor Edward de Bono said that chief among our obligations to others is simple respect. Where love and hate are cultivated emotions, respect is innate, at least in the healthy person.  Those who discover they have no inborn tendency to respect, he adds, are morally unhealthy.  But de Bono also warns that the innate propensity to respect can be lost in a society bent on devaluing it, which is why each of us must work diligently to keep our natural inclination toward it vital.  Think about it:  would you want to live in a world without respect?  Inter-personal relations would be crude and profane, and public/collective discourse would be all but impossible.

Respect manifests itself in a number of ways in the classroom:  keeping an open mind; being willing to change or, at least, to interrogate your own ideas and opinions; respecting the ideas and opinions of others, even (especially) if you don't agree with those ideas; and finally, and most importantly, being generous with your good will.  As Desmond Pacey wrote:  “the code of truly civilized behaviour . . . can be best summed up in the now slightly debased word ‘courtesy.’” Without courtesy, respect, and good will, we are little more than barbarians with cell phones.

A Few Thoughts on Grading. The spectre of grades can run counter to not only the enjoyment of learning but to the entire notion of collaboration.  I’d like to dispense with grades, but since I cannot, here are some of my own principles and biases regarding evaluation:

•  Most importantly, I am sensitive to the evaluation process and try always to be tactful. My comments and corrections are based on the assumption that you want to learn and improve. Beyond that, if your feelings are still hurt by a grade or comment, please come and see me immediately—my grading is not a personal vendetta.

•  I mark students on what I call “manifest work.”  Manifest work is the work you pass in to me (essays, exams, quizzes, etc.) and the work I see you doing in class (your engagement, participation, conduct, etc.).  I don’t mark what I can’t see, thus I am not at all moved by arguments that hinge on what you did “behind the scenes.”  Your efforts may have been considerable outside of class, but if those efforts don’t appear in your manifest work, you won’t get credit for them, as I have no way of objectively assessing them.  To be fair to all, I can evaluate only what is in evidence before me.

•  I respond unfavourably to students who lobby for marks, especially at the end of term.  The work of the term is a thirteen-week exercise, not a last-minute negotiation.  If you are interested in doing well, and most are, apply yourself early and let me know early of your intentions. Part of why I’m here is to help you reach your goals, so let me know what those are.  But don’t come to me at the end of term with a lot of reasons why you should get a particular grade.  Again, in order to be fair to all, I don’t submit to lobbying by individuals.

•  I tend to mark students more favourably who have shown steady improvement and a willingness to experiment with the allowances of the learning environment I’ve created.  In other words, when there is a judgement call (and there often is, especially when a student lands on that nether space between, let’s say, a C+ and a B-), the student who has made an effort to participate, collaborate, and be fully present (i.e., actively engaged, inquisitive, helpful to his/her peers) gets the higher grade.

•  If you are used to getting A’s in high school or other English classes at STU and you get a B or C from me on a paper or exam, don’t panic.  There is not a conspiracy going on.  Come see me and we’ll discuss your work.  Giving me the chance to help you improve is another of your responsibilities.  You should know, however, that I do not give grades away freely, as many of your peers will tell you. I consider an “A” to be an exclusive grade, following the language in the STU Calendar below:

- Calendar definition of an “A” grade:  “Demonstrating an exceptional knowledge of subject matter, the literature, and concepts and/or techniques. In addition . . . outstanding powers of analysis, criticism, articulation, and demonstrated originality. A performance qualitatively better than that expected of a student who does the assignment or course well.” (STU Calendar)

- Calendar definition of a “B” grade:  “Demonstrating considerable knowledge of subject matter, concepts, techniques, as well as considerable ability to analyze, criticize, and articulate; performance in an assignment or course which can be called ‘well done.’” (STU Calendar)

•  Finally, a problem that is almost unique to literature courses:  personal interpretation.  Yes, I do value your reading and interpretation of literature, and, yes, I encourage it—in fact, I welcome it.  But I expect your “alternate readings” to be carefully arrived at, adequately contexted, and vigorously argued.  Your “alternate interpretations” should be as fully detailed and nuanced as the interpretations I provide in class.  If they are, you’ll get full marks.

Closing Statement. I have taken the time to outline my own working principles and expectations of students in order to make those as clear as possible.  Students in, or contemplating, my classes have a right to know what to expect.  That is one of my responsibilities to you.

You also have a right to know that I am very serious about the academic enterprise.  Literature is my chosen profession; I take it very seriously.  I am a stickler on optimizing class time, on attendance, work, and, most importantly, the material I’ve selected for the course.  I will not compromise that material, dumb it down, or take time from its full and detailed appreciation.

Serious students who enter my classes are consistent in what they say:  they learn a tremendous amount, they leave feeling challenged, and often they take every other course I offer.  Students who are not serious are consistent, too, in what they say.  My advice?   Do some fieldwork.  Ask other students what their experiences of my classes were, read carefully these guidelines, and consider, finally, whether your own approach to learning is conducive with the expectations I have outlined above.  Let that fieldwork serve as full disclosure so you enter my classes knowing exactly what to expect.

Those of you who don’t agree with or don’t understand the above should see me for clarification as soon as possible—this is your responsibility.  I certainly respect your opposition to how my course is organized, but if your opposition is going to affect your performance in the course you should, for your own sake, consider alternatives.

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