Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Picky, picky

A correspondent told me that his daughter, a college freshman, received a zero on a quiz because she had turned in a paper with ragged perforations on the edges. This strikes me as a bit picky; after all, a professor who gets that wigged out about ragged perforations has set his annoyance threshold pretty low. But then the question arises: when is such pickiness justified? And how picky is too picky?

For instance, when marketing and business education majors at Illinois State University were required to dress in "business casual" attire or be thrown out of classes, they rebelled; as a result, the dress code remains but the potential penalty has been softened: professors are allowed to deduct up to 10 percent from a student's final grade for unprofessional attire or behavior. (Read about it here.)

And a philosophy professor at McGill University requires students in her course on Plato to earn 100 percent on a quiz on the Greek alphabet or drop the class. (Read it here.) An uproar ensued, with students rejecting rote memorization and faculty members pointing out that learning the Greek alphabet is probably the easiest task encountered in a course on Plato.

And then we have ongoing debates on many campuses about whether hats, pajamas, cell phones, laptop computers, bare midriffs, or slippers should be permitted in class, and what about the student who comes to class accompanied by his therapy ferret?

Pickiness in the service of education is justified: students seriously studying Plato need to know a little Greek, and students entering the business world need to learn about professional behavior. I'm not sure what educational purpose is served by flunking students who turn in quiz papers with ragged perforations, unless the goal is to teach that form is more important than content and that nothing is more important than kowtowing to a professor's personal neuroses.

But then I always tell my students that I don't care how they complete their in-class writing assignments as long as I can read them. One of these days a student will try to write the quiz answers on his hand and try to turn it in at the end of class, and then I'll be sorry. Until then, thoough, I'll keep my annoyance threshold pretty high and be picky only when it serves a clear educational purpose.

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