Sunday, December 15, 2013

An open letter to my brand-new English students

Dear brand-new students,

Congratulations and welcome to my English class. I'm happy to make your acquaintance. Not just because your desire for education translates into my paycheck, but because I am one of those strange people who actually enjoys teaching. No, really. It's true. I've been teaching for over ten years now, and I've even passed on some higher-paying opportunities to keep doing it. Kind of nutty, eh?

Anyway, there's no reason to expect anything less than a fantastic semester together, just like many I've enjoyed over the years. But just to be safe, I thought I should give you a heads-up on a few items. As much as I love teaching, there are a few things that consistently muddle up every semester, and maybe addressing them now steer you clear of some headaches down the road.

Ready? Here we go:

1. You are no longer in high school.

This should be obvious, right? I mean, the simple fact that you are choosing your own classes and major and schedule and even campus has probably tipped you off to the fact that you are in a completely new and different world. And trust me, it is a better world.

But let me tell you what else this means. It means that you are expected to behave as an adult. Not in terms of throwing spit wads in class, more in the sense that I will not be treating you the way some of your high school teachers did. If you blow off an assignment, I won't say anything about it. If you decide to skip class for a day or two or twenty, that's your business. But things add up, and when you find out at the end of the semester that a missed assignment or several missed days of class have knocked you from an A- to a C, the fault is yours.

Which leads us to number two...

2. You actually need to attend this class to pass it.

Throughout your college career, you may come across a class or two that is so routine all you have to do is study enough to show up for the midterm and final in order to get a passing grade. Not so with me. I actually do this thing in class every day called "teaching," and we do activities in class to help you do something called "learn." Participation points are given for these activities, and trust me, they add up. Now, if you feel like you have already mastered the skills you need for my class, well, why didn't you already test out of it? Besides, do you honestly think that there is nothing I can teach you? If you don't want to attend my class, take it from someone else online. Because one of the things I love about teaching is interacting with human beings who want to learn.

3. Plagiarism is stupid. Don't do it.

I know that the internet is a wonderful thing. I know that it makes research super easy, even if the super easy sources like Wikipedia are about as reliable as the electronic goods you might buy out of the trunk of a Buick. I also know that life gets busy, and in spite of your most noble intentions, sometimes you just don't have time to get the job done right. But you need to understand that in those situations, cutting and pasting some article off the net and slapping your name on it is a very bad thing. A "get kicked out of school" type of thing. You also need to understand that cutting and pasting chunks from different web sites without a citation is still wrong, even if most of the paper is still your very own writing. They aren't your words. Don't pretend that they are.

4. Don't text or do other stupid things with your phone while I'm talking.

I know that smart phones are a wonderful thing. I know that they make socializing and communication super easy, even if that communication is mostly a bunch of cute acronyms and emoticons you share with your BFF that have nothing to do with class. I also know that sometimes emergencies happen, and that you need to let your mom know where to pick you up after class so you can go get a Happy Meal.

But here's the thing: English is a very subjective subject. For example, imagine I'm grading your paper, and I notice you've neglected some important concept, like say, including in-text citations on your MLA research paper. Now, if my primary association for you is, "that kid who keeps playing with his phone all through my lectures," do you think I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt? Of course not. I'm going to nail you to the wall. And I'm going to enjoy it.

If it's a real emergency, step outside and do your texting or calling in the hall. You don't need a pass. You can even go pee all on your own. But when you're in class, and I'm talking, put the phone away.*

5. Realize that "passing" this class is not necessarily "passing."

Technically you can pass my English class with a D. Technically the Toyota Prius is a fart on wheels, but I digress. Most programs, even if you don't plan on transferring to a university, require at least a C+ out of your English composition courses to avoid re-taking them. You know what that means? A handful of students every semester who do just enough to not get credit for my class.

The ones who go down in flames are much better off: at least they flunked in style. But I feel for the sorry suckers who come to just enough classes and turn in just enough assignments to get a C-. C's may get degrees, but in the English department, they don't give you transfer credit.

6. General courses are good for you.

This may be a good time to talk about why you are in college. Or maybe, how you may not realize why you are in college. Nowadays a lot of people think that the only function of college is to get a job and make money. And really, that is a big part of it. But people limited to that narrow mindset get frustrated when they have to take general classes in Biology or History to get their degree in Accounting or Engineering.

"I'm never going to use this for the rest of my life," they say.

"Generals are stupid!"

"Why should I include outside sources when my passion gives me credibility?"

(Sorry, that last one was unrelated...)

Now, to be fair, I don't get a lot of flack from my students on this topic, because most sane people understand that even if you don't spend your professional career writing research papers, you will be using communication skills in some form pretty much every day, and that's really what my classes are about. But I still hear this complaint all the time, and it is annoying.

Here is why it is annoying: you are not in college to just get a job; you are here to be educated. A liberal education--not liberal in a Sean Penn sense, liberal in a "look at all this variety!" sense--is meant to train you as a human being. Not just a cog in some corporate machine or factory. If all you want is a job, that's what trade schools are for. That is what all those colleges are for that advertise quick degrees on TV and go out of business in a year. They just believe that college=job, and if that's what you're looking for, and you feel good about putting all your professional eggs in one basket, even if those eggs are going to be replaced by some other fantastic yolk-based product in five years, and your regular yolks are going to be about as useful as the handful of zip discs I still have in a box somewhere at my parents' house, then awesome! Good luck to you!

Do you want to have any clue about what is going on in the world around you? Do you want to be an educated citizen who can be trusted with things like voting and driving on the right side of the road and not sounding like a complete ignorant fool when commenting on some internet article like this one? Then stop complaining about general courses. No one expects you to be able to break down cell mitosis after a long day of writing case briefs. And really, knowing the difference between Mexico and Canada on a world map is not the key to personal fulfillment. But the fools who can't do it are the same people who have been giving Jay Leno cheap sketch material for the last 25 years.

7. Sometimes life is hard. Take responsibility for it.

Every single semester I encounter a laundry list of excuses for missed assignments, chronic tardiness, long stretches of absences, and any number of other gaffes. Sometimes it's because they work full-time, or that their job suddenly changed their hours so they can only attend my class once a week. Sometimes they've taken too many credit hours. Sometimes it's because they HAVE to get two classes done this semester, but the only way to make it fit in their schedule was to sign up to take them back to back, even though they are on different campuses with a half-hour drive in-between. So why can't I just soften my icy heart and give them some special exemption?

Because everybody's life is hard. Everybody has to make sacrifices. And once I start changing the rules to accommodate one hard case, the degree ceases to mean anything.

Here's a thought: are you the only person whose job required them to get a college degree? Did someone force you to go back to school even though you have a full-time job and kids? Did someone force you to have the kids in the first place, or to dump a full load of classes on top of all your other responsibilities? Don't get me wrong: I love kids. I also love school, and making money and paying my bills. But my point is this: just because you've chosen to put too much on your plate doesn't mean I am obligated to change the rules to fit your circumstances. Everybody can make excuses. Everybody has it tough. But we all have to meet the same standard, and sometimes that means taking a little longer to graduate, or accepting the B you earned instead of the A you wanted. You may as well get used to it now.

*  *  *

OK, take a deep breath. Nice job. If you're still here, you're probably fine. The people who weren't ready should already be out the door. Please understand that I'm not even kidding when I say a great semester is in front of us. You have to write papers, but you get to choose your own topics, as long as they aren't dumb (and I still let a lot of the dumb topics slide, to be honest). Plus I use lots of music and video clips in class, because they are so much more entertaining than I am. You will have to do a group project, but that's OK. At some point in life, we all have to learn to work with other people. Good luck on your new semester, and as always, let me know if you have questions.

(Just try to pay attention so that your questions aren't about things I've already answered, because...oh, never mind.)

See you in class,



*Yes, I know that sometimes students can download the textbook on their phone and follow along. That's great, but you can't tell me that the students who are zoned out are zoned out because they've become lost in the virtual pages of the Harbrace Guide to Writing (Second Edition). If you've got the book on your phone, come tell me. Otherwise, put the dumb thing away.