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.