Alan Jacobs recently wrote about a former colleague at Wheaton College who during a class decided to skip on a couple of the assigned readings. This colleague
devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far;….
Now, the main point of Jacobs’s post was about racism at Wheaton. Jacobs’s colleague was black, and Jacobs suggested that his colleague likely got more push back from administrators because he was black than he would have if white. I’m not commenting on that aspect of the post.
What I want to comment on is why it’s usually wrong to skip assigned readings.
One, books cost money. Sometimes a lot of money, sometimes not a lot of money. Not all students–even, I imagine, at Wheaton–are independently wealthy.
Two, in some cases, a student may choose to take a class based on the assigned readings. I can’t say for sure that I ever did, but when I registered for classes, sometimes I did look forward to certain of the assigned readings. I would have been upset if the readings hadn’t been assigned. The obvious retort is that I could have read the book anyway. But that neglects what one gets from reading a book in class. Sometimes classroom discussion or the guidance of the instructor helps one understand and appreciate a book. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but it was sometimes true for me. One of my favorite books of all time–a collection of short stories, Dubliners–I read for an English lit class and I’m convinced I would not have understood or appreciated many of James Joyce’s allusions. I might not even have understood some of the stories.
Three, “going off script” and changing the syllabus means the instructor planned poorly. Maybe it’s sometimes necessary to go off script. In at least one class I taught when I was an adjunct, it would have behooved me to go off script because I had too poorly anticipated the classroom dynamics. And while doing so would have been admitting failure, it was more of a failure for me to keep on as I was doing. So I get that sometimes it needs to be done. But it’s still a mark of poor planning.*
There is such a thing as over-entitlement among undergraduate students (and especially among graduate students, but that’s a different story). And part of going to college is learning that life isn’t always fair and learning how to adapt to changing circumstances. I get it. But instructors need to realize that they have an obligation, too. Whether my admonition actually applies to the case Jacobs is talking about or not, I don’t know because I don’t know the specifics. But on the facts as Jacobs relates them, the students’ complaints weren’t baseless.
*Not exactly the same thing, but as an undergrad I was particularly frustrated with some professors’ practice of changing, at the last minute, an in-class exam to a take-home exam. Take-home exams are MORE WORK. Even if the professor says “I only want you to spend an hour on it,” they’re going to grade you as if you had more than an hour to work on it. If a student has to work, he or she likely has to plan a tight schedule to balance work and studies, and fitting in even an extra hour of schoolwork can be hard.
Photo credit: U.S. War Naval College. 120830-N-LE393-132 NEWPORT, R.I. (August 30, 2012) A U.S. Naval War College student syllabus sits on a table during a class. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Dietrich/Released). Creative Commons license 2.0.