Saturday, March 06, 2010

“Busywork” - Yet Another Shared Conversation (but not by choice)

The young man came out of the library already mid-conversation. Far be it from anyone to actually wait until they are outside a public space to conduct their personal business. “Talk all the time!” the telecommunications corporation ads command us. And G-d forbid we should fail to be good (= mindless) consumers. Who cares who else is required to share that experience with us?

“I’ve got all this busy work,” he said, continuing with a list of said busy work: “Homework. Quizzes. Tests.” He then summarized his experience as a university student with “Man, I am actually having to work.”

Imagine that. Coming to a university and actually being required to work. What is this world coming to?

Of course, the reference to “busy work” suggests yet another student who has failed to fully comprehend the difference between middle school and college. Public school teachers have a vested interest in keeping their students busy. From my experience as a middle school teacher, I know that students who got finished early or frustrated and quit before the rest of the class finished their work were prime candidates for disruptive talking, spit wad throwing and note passing. (Perhaps today they’d simply shoot their teacher) Multiply this potential for disruption by the ever growing class sizes (I regularly had more than 30 seventh graders in my classes when I taught middle school in the 1970s) and you have an ongoing serious potential discipline problem on your hands. Busy work is, sadly, a necessary evil in the world of mixed ability and overloaded public schools classrooms.

But homework has never been busy work, even in public schools. Homework is about preparation for class. Quizzes and tests are some of the means used to determine if said preparation was actually engaged and, if so, how effective it was. The fact so many students can’t tell the difference between preparation for class and in-class busywork suggests one of many reasons why relying much on students to evaluate teaching at any level is problematic on a good day.

Perhaps more to the point for my cell-phone conversation sharing undergrad, why would students presume that college instructors feel the need to keep their students busy outside class? Indeed, what business is it of ours what students do outside of class at all? What is our business, however, is what students do once in our classes. Homework which requires students to read and prepare for class is one of the means by which instructors insure they don’t stand in front of classes and talk to themselves for an hour.

I guess the most obvious question, though, is this: Why would anyone come to a university, knowing that the enterprise of such institutions is the process of becoming, if not an educated human being, at least a well trained worker drone and then expect not to be required to complete at least a modicum of work while there? What were they expecting to happen there? And why?

There are a number of studies indicating that the average high school student is accustomed to spending less than an hour per day preparing for all of their classes. Similarly, a number of studies indicate that the time spent reading by high school students has steadily declined over the last couple of decades of image driven computer usage. Have we not created false expectations in our students by our practice?

On the other hand, at what point do we say to college students that the expectation that they will read, prepare and attend class on time is what is required of adults? Imagine the lawyer who comes to court late without his court files and without reading the case he’s about to argue. Would his litany decrying the oppression of “busywork” punctuated with “you know” and “like” provide him a reprieve from a contempt of court citation?

Perhaps recognition of the need for more responsibility in the form of reading, preparing and class attendance and less self-focused activity in cell phone usage, texting, facebook and computer games (and a lot less complaining) is the actual lesson students must learn in the universities today. A variant of that certainly was the lesson I had to learn as a student and at times it was not easy. No doubt it is a bitter lesson for those coming to college for the meal plan, the hotel style dorm rooms, the football games and the parties – the aspects with which more and more universities are selling themselves these days. And no doubt that the resentment over unmet expectations will be turned on the instructors who actually ARE doing their jobs and requiring their students to come to class prepared.

Perhaps an evaluation which provides useful information to instructors might actually ask questions like “Did this course require you to read the material for class? Did the course require you to actually prepare for class before attending it? Did the course require you to engage the material once in class?” The answers to those questions might actually provide instructors something worth knowing. Because, ultimately, whether a student sees ordinary college class requirements as oppressive “busywork” or not is simply not terribly useful information. Save the consumerist “What did you like best about this course” for the online slam books.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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