Last week, I buttoned up the year’s first ten-week term of Intro to Ethics. About ten students handed in their take-home final and gave an oral presentation to the class. Nothing too dramatic here: one presentation on the legalization of marijuana, no obvious plagiarism (thank goodnness) on the exams, and only a few students who made the simple mistake of forgetting what class they were in (it is heartbreaking to hear a presentation or read a final that makes very little mention of ethics…). But hitting ‘send’ and simultaneously shooting your gradebook to the Registrar and Dean is very, very satisfying.
Because I believe that happy endings are related to good beginings (at least in academia), I puzzled my brain about the results of the term. My best thought was that my beard added to my intimidating personna and scared my students straight. And, since the thing is only getting bigger and bushier, my students will only do that much better, right?
So with my two (2) classes beginning this quarter, I started out with a format that must seem to my students to be schizophrenic. In the first hour of class, I chat up the students, asking them about their hometown and early moral formation. I do all of this while sitting at the front of class, and cheerfully work my way around the room. It is usually a warm and engaging time of laughter and my students recline back in their chairs and appear slightly euphoric. Then I smile again and send them off to a ten-minute break (which lasts 15 minutes).
Hour two: The Syllabus. Where I stand behind the lecturn and force-feed them the comprehensive syllabus, which is itself filled with multiple dire warnings against plagiarism and which lays out every bit of work for the semester. I hammer away mercilessly, offering only some dry gallows humor as a relief. I tell them that I won’t flinch if/when I give them an ‘F’. I tell them that I will find out if/when they have cheated. I tell them that the course will eat them alive if/when they let it get away from them. Only when one student says the magic words “this class sounds really hard!” do I reluctantly let them go to break.
When we return, I gently begin the first lecture, during which I engage the students in lively discussion, affirm their perspectives, and happily introduce them to the wonderful world of ethics. It usually takes them an hour to realize that I don’t hate each of them (though they still wonder), and that they might actually enjoy the next nine weeks.
Both classes have a lot of promise: full of lively students from all corners of the globe and from all kinds of backgrounds and classes and perspectives. It really is my favorite part of the term: every student has an ‘A’, everyone has something important to bring, and I don’t have to grade any papers yet. Of course, there are subtle hints of trouble ahead which I try my best to ignore.
Slouching Student: (interrupting my soul-stirring call to good writing and professional expression of one’s ideas) Can we curse in our papers?
Winsome Prof: (off-balance) Why, whatever do you mean?
SS: Cursing. Can we swear when we write our papers?
To which I offered an eloquent and indirect answer that allowed that, yes, sometimes we can find no better word to express our strong feelings than the four-letter kind, though if we are to give people a chance to benefit from our intelligence, we ought to make such language the exception, rather than the rule. Does that answer your question, sir?
SS: (blinking) Can we curse in our papers?
WP: (flat-footed) Yeah, I guess. I’ll grade you accordingly.
The other interesting conversation happened as one of the administrators tried to offer some help with my needs in the copy room. What needs, you ask? Well only a copier that works. Why would it be important to have a working copier on the first day of class? Surely no one will need to make copies on that day. It’s my own fault, really, as I have gotten spoiled by the magical machines that copy on two sides, collate and staple and stack everything. Which meant I had to go old-school, printing on one side and collating and stacking stuff on tables and stapling them by hand. Which is fine. What was less fine was my associate’s smirky assessment of the syllabus.
Demonstrative Administrator: (smiling brightly) Your syllabus is wrong.
Winsome Prof: Why, whatever do you mean?
DA: (certainly) It says ‘April’ here.
WP: Why yes, it does. Is the date wrong, or…
DA: (triumphantly) ‘April’. Right here.
WP: (thinking hard, and moving lips while he remembers the calendar) Isn’t this term ending in May?
DA: You wrote ‘April’. It’s March. (chuckling)
WP: (tentatively, and pointing to all of the dates in the syllabus) Yes, it is March now, and the term ends in May. So the class will take place in April, right?
DA: (staring at me blankly) No, ‘April’. You wrote ‘April’.
DA: (walking away)