A Ku Indeed!

Time to Make the Donuts…

Posted in Pedagogy by Chris on March 18, 2008

art.jpgI love Dunkin Donuts coffee, so sometimes my thought experiments often tend to incorporate the store. In this case, my thought experiment is about pedagogy. Now, on the one hand I love talking about pedagogy, because I love to teach and because I find the investigation of the relationship between the teacher and the student to be an interesting (if not complex) one. But on the other hand, these damn thought experiments never seem to work out correctly, and just never seem to perfect map on to what you want. Ah well. This time I’m wondering what the proper responsibilities of an instructor are with respect to his/her students. Get a donut, and check below the fold.

Being a professor reminds me of selling donuts. Let’s say that you, as the instructor, have the job of making good tasty donuts. So you set to work. As time goes on, you notice that some people come in, buy the donuts, and eat them. But there are others who take advantage of a policy you have in the donut shop: if you pay for a dozen donuts, you can get free parking in the lot outside. Let’s say that the Dunkin Donuts shop is in NYC, so parking is pretty valuable. So some people come in, pay for their donuts, and leave without ever waiting for the bag. They just want the parking spot. So they pay and then leave. You think this is odd, but a fair number of people do it. As a matter of fact, some buy the donuts and then sneer at you when you try to stop them from leaving without their food.

The analogy with education is obvious. Some students pay for their education (donuts). Some pay not for education, but for certification or for a degree (the parking spot, which is valuable for separate reasons). So some earnestly try their best, excel, and push themselves. Some don’t. Some even sneer at you when you suggest that it might be a good idea to engage and learn something, since they’ve paid their tuition.

My question, one I’ve been grappling with for the last few years, is this: what is the job of the donut maker? There are lots of possible answers here, obviously none of them mutually exclusive:

  1. Make the best donuts you can make for those who want to eat them
  2. Do (1), but in addition remind the parking lot folks that the donuts are indeed, good to eat.
  3. Do (1) (and maybe 2), but assure that no one merely parks in the lot without eating the damn donuts.

Everyone will agree that (1) is the donut maker’s job, so it’s not worth quibbling about. But (2) and (3) are more controversial. I think most people will agree that (2) is at least a prima facie obligation of any good teacher. To some degree, you have to sell the donuts too, right? But what now about (3)? Should you assure that no one just uses the parking lot without munching down on a Boston Creme?

Essentially, here I see it that what we’re suggesting (if (3) is included) is that part of the job of the educator is to punish the student for trying to use the parking lot only. There are lots of ways to mean this. Here are a few:

  • (a) Making sure that students are suitably punished for bad work.
  • (b) Making sure that no one “coasts” through the course without really caring much about it.
  • (c) Trying to turn the “failing” students around via various methods of intervention.
  • (d) Adding putative devices merely to weed out who isn’t doing their work, even when those devices (quizzes, say) take away from the educational time dedicated to the students who are doing their work.

I’m guessing no one is opposed to (a). But what (b), (c) and (d)? These are all difficult questions, and there are no black and white answers here. There was a time that I was firmly committed to all four, but I’m staring to wane on the last three. At the end of the day, the question is a simple one (without a simple answer): how responsible should we expect students to be for their own educational choices, even when they make bad ones? Is the onus on us to make sure that the student recognizes the value of their education? Is the onus on us to assure that they fail (you know those coasting “C” students — if you made the test a bit harder, they’d fail)? Is it to turn students around when they aren’t doing well for one reason or another? Just a lot of questions.

Have a donut.

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One Response

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  1. Amy said, on March 19, 2008 at 2:49 am

    I suppose my situation is somewhat different in that I’m a graduate assistant teaching I basic writing–a service course most people would call remedial. (We don’t like to use that term, but I think the students care more about the fact that they have to take the class than what we call it, as long as it’s not dum-dum English.)

    Since it’s a remedial course, I feel obligated to do (c). The whole point is to keep students from just flunking out of college. But I can only do so much to help someone who’s not willing to work.

    Since it’s a service course, (b) is a pretty good idea. Hopefully if I can get it through their heads that they’ll need the skills they learn in my class to make it through their next writing class, not to mention in other course in which they have to write, they’ll put in the effort needed to succeed.

    But (d)? This is the kind of thing I try to talk my fellow TA’s out of. It makes extra work for everybody (including the instructor who now has to write and grade quizzes) without having enough positive outcome to justify it.

    Now sometimes the extra work is justified. The reading quizzes from, say, free will forced us to do some important thinking about the reading. But free will was a content course, not a service course.

    Several TA’s in my department require students to turn in drafts of their papers and get feedback before turning in the final draft. But is that such a good idea? It’s a ton more work for the instructor, who as a graduate assistant has to think hard about time priorities. And most students don’t really want the help. And I’m not convinced that just because their papers are turning out better that they’ve actually learned more if they’ve not learned independence.


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