Students, Teachers, Grades, & Idolatries

We’ve just begun a new academic semester, which means that last week I spent some time in class talking through syllabuses, explaining course content, describing textbooks, and the logic of various assignments.

A student inquired as to how much thought goes into choosing course texts. It was a great question, and I explained the process of experimentation that led me to select specific books and readings for this course, in addition to the logic of assignments and papers.

This question reminded me of other conversations I’ve had at the start of semesters.

When I was teaching undergraduates, I was unprepared for the level of negotiation and complaint I encountered.

After handing out the syllabus and describing course content, I would often have students approach me after the first class session stating flatly that they needed to get an ‘A’ in this class. They had a scholarship to maintain or had other seemingly important reasons to keep a high GPA.

I was taken aback. “Well, you now know the expectations, so you better work hard and earn your ‘A’, I guess,” was all I could say.

Others, standing behind them in agitated states, would complain that there was too much work in this course.

I would respond by saying that the course actually wasn’t too difficult and that I felt that the course had the right amount of work relative to its subject matter.

I would then ask such students how many hours they were taking and how many hours a week they were working. I was stunned that many of them were taking up to 20 hours of course work, working 10-15 hours a week, and involved in other activities that demanded even more of their time.

Early in my teaching career I was thrown by these conversations. I couldn’t imagine talking to my undergraduate professors like this.

I began to tell my classes that it was my responsibility to be faithful in designing for them a course that would match its description in the catalog. I was responsible to be faithful to the scholarly guild, representing the content of the course and helping them work through it at an appropriate level (i.e., introductory, intermediate, advanced).

It was their responsibility to assess their commitments over the subsequent 3-4 months to determine what they could handle.

If they over-committed, or were trying to double-major or pack too much into a four-year program, I suggested that they consider whether or not they were being idolatrous.

Were their desires to secure their futures so out of control that they were cultivating seriously unhealthy and imbalanced patterns of life during the most formative four years of their lives?

Would it not be a manifestation of trust in God to seek to be faithful with their time, energies, and efforts during their four-year university experience? Would it not be more important to make sure there is time for Sabbath rest, sleep in general, as well as a good balance between work, recreation, and fostering of friendships?

Finally, I informed them that they assumed all the short-term risk of packing too much into a semester. That is, if they ignored my warning and sought to do too much and crashed at some point in the semester and were unable to fulfill the course requirements, they alone would bear the consequences (i.e., a bad grade).

Sadly, because of various caffeine delivery systems and other sources of unnatural energy, it’s become the norm that students cultivate idolatrous and self-destructive modes of life during these formative years.

I haven’t had to have this conversation often in seminary-level teaching, but I’ve occasionally reminded students to make sure they carefully tend to their fundamental and (by far) more important commitments.

A grade isn’t worth neglecting a spouse or child.

10 thoughts on “Students, Teachers, Grades, & Idolatries

  1. Gary T. Meadors

    Love it!! Be more concerned about what they will think of you 10 years from now rather than this week 😉 Usually, they look back on the “hard” classes as the formative ones. Football is not the only domain where “no pain no gain” applies.

  2. Tim Cole

    Herr Professor: You’ve touched a sensitive nerve in current educational circles. My wife is the school psychologist for a top-shelf Preparatory School in our area; the unrealistic demands that parents and students place upon themselves to achieve A’s has issued in severe emotional problems, some even resulting in suicide. Grades become more important than learning; A become more important than intellectual, social, and character development. Then these same kids go off to college afflicted by the same mindset.

    It seems to get worse each year, alas.

    You have a challenging task each semester. I don’t envy you. Your response to students as articulated is spot on. The Lord provide you abundant grace to stay the (right) course.

    John 6: 67-68

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Tim. This is precisely the point — pressures that parents put on their kids and kids put on themselves arise (to varying degrees) from idolatries of one sort or another. The desire to look good before others, to “achieve” and thus earn approval, etc. When these unexamined desires result in (self)destructive behaviors, they are idolatries, enslavements that prevent people from truly flourishing according to God’s designs.

  3. phillip prater

    I have been Tim’s student for 3 classes now since i first met him in the fields of ohio. I have always enjoyed his classes and I always known coming from his class i was never “given” a grade i had to earn it. I think some teachers have become lax in their teaching and it does not help the students in the long run it only hinders them. Thank you Tim for being one of those teachers that doesn’t back down when the tears of the student are pouring like rain!

  4. Naomi

    One of the most convicting questions you asked me in undergrad was “How are you building a Sabbath into your semester?”

    I wasn’t. And I soon realized the value of doing so. Keep pushing your students in the coursework, and keep reminding them of the importance of rhythm and rest. It’s hard, but not impossible, and ultimately the best thing for your body, sanity and future.

  5. Andrew

    Students attempting to ‘negotiate’ the amount or nature of work you, as mentor, are asking them to do, should consider first that education is a privilege, not a right.

    To have financial conditions and opportunity to attend a university; to have a mentor willing to include them in the grand dialogues of human intellect; and one (or more) to direct their studies, is an opportunity not all are afforded.

    There are some who are forced to work much harder at these things without the benefit of tutelage, or formal recognition simply because their opportunities don’t include such privilege.

    It is enviable but not sympathetic.

  6. Ted M. Gossard

    I wish someone had sat on me with this when I went to seminary, yes GR Theological Seminary. It was good, but would have been so much better all the way around if I would have had a grain of the wisdom you share here. Thanks.

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