The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Tom McMahon liked UNC-Wilmington professor Mike S. Adams' way of dealing with classroom disruptions:

If your cell phone goes off in class, or if you are late to class, you must write a 2,500-word paper (minimum) entitled "The Death of Civility at the Postmodern University." In this paper, you will be asked to write about the decline of civility in our public universities in recent decades. Please note that if you are late more than once, or if your cell phone goes off on more than one occasion, your paper must be a minimum of 5,000 words. If you have three separate transgressions, you automatically fail the course. Finally, the paper must be of "A" quality in order for you to stay in the course. You will receive no other credit for completing this project, except, of course, for its positive impact upon your character.

I wonder if an associate professor (who, I assume, isn't yet tenured, as a full professor would be) like Adams can actually enforce this pretty onerous system of penalties; I doubt he'd get the full backing of the administration after a steady stream of complaints from the offending students. And I may be missing something, but I'm assuming this column isn't satire and that he's really instituting this policy.

In any case, I have no issue with his desire to re-instill civility in group settings, because I agree with that sentiment. I object to the tool he's using as punishment: A writing assignment.

As someone who does a lot of writing for a living, it still blows my mind when I encounter so many people who have a built-in aversion to doing any real writing (i.e., non-email/IM sentence fragments). And it's really easy to figure out the root of that aversion: Teachers like Adams who inflict, rather than instruct, writing on their students. When you frame the act of writing as the consequence of doing something wrong, naturally the student is going to develop a distaste for that communication skill, and it'll probably stay distasteful for their entire lives.

I don't mean to single out Adams on this; his students come to him with these attitudes already instilled. But the remedy he's chosen is the same as that of too many elementary and high-school teachers. Using writing as punishment negates what should be a joy: Learning how to express yourself clearly and skillfully with letters. Instead, the lesson is learned imperfectly and resentfully, people enter adulthood and the workforce with subpar writing skills, they never learn to communicate very well with writing, and we all, collectively, become that much dumber as a result. The sooner this meme of writing-as-punishment is stamped out of academia, the better.