Tuesday, November 21, 2006

the Gandhi solution

Student attendance-- or lack thereof-- is a perennial issue when you're teaching university courses that aren't for credit. Getting students to take those courses seriously, to find intrinsic motivators, as the jargon goes, isn't as easy as it sounds.

We've been doing a round of teacher interviews to replace one of our number, who is leaving after this semester; I'm part of the interview team, along with my supervisor and our department head. Two interviewees, when asked how to motivate students, talked about "finding out what interests the student" in an effort to keep them in their seats and attending routinely. Both then recommended an open-ended, individualized approach to instruction that took those interests into consideration. Neither interviewee had a clear notion of how to integrate such thinking into a more standard curriculum; I don't blame them. The needs-based approach strikes me as almost fundamentally antithetical to the concept of standards.

The ugly truth is that students need extrinsic motivators, like grades, to keep them coming to class. Anything less consequential, such as a "certificate of completion" that has almost no significance off campus, is useless. Financial rewards and penalties are equally useless: most students are funded by Mommy and Daddy, and have no sense of what it costs to receive an education. Threats, cajolery, the Evil Eye-- very little is effective against apathy. The bizarre thing is that students choose-- repeatedly-- to sign up for these non-credit courses.

I've decided to weld two needs together. Starting next semester, I will tell my students that, if I do not have at least 90% attendance on a given day, I will not eat that day. If we're under 90% on a Friday, I starve the entire weekend. If the drop occurs the day before a long break, I don't eat the entire break. This way, I'm making the students feel guilty while also losing some weight. Clever, no?

Probably not as clever as all that. I have a feeling I'm going to be dead by the end of the semester, because most of these girls are far too self-absorbed to care. But you, dear reader, will at least be entertained by the before/after shots:


I'm going to add that the 90% rule applies to punctuality as well. Any student over 5 minutes late is most assuredly late, and is marked thus in my attendance log.

The up-side of starving is, of course, that you don't spend so much money on your own food. The down side, for a fleshy gent like yours truly, is the loose flaps of skin that are sure to appear should I truly drop the pounds.

If I were to try this in the States, well... I wouldn't be able to try this in the States. Questions of legality would arise immediately. Tying my fate to the students' sense of responsibility would itself be seen as irresponsible (which it might very well be).

I've been mulling this strategy for some time, now; students have reacted with varying degrees of amusement to my plan. One student joked I was pulling a Gandhi. While I doubt that Smoo student lassitude holds a candle to the problems Gandhi faced, I now face my own Calvary.

Anyone want to place bets?


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