Academic priorities

Last spring in these pages, Jonathan Lovett, Samir Thaker and Spencer Wong (all ’04) included in their defense of Factrak the claim that “the work a student does and how much effort he or she puts into a class has relatively minor impact on the overall quality of that class. A professor’s performance, on the other hand, has an enormous impact on the students in his or her class” (“Speaking in defense of Factrak,” May 7, 2002).

That same issue quotes Professor Michael MacDonald, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Athletics: “‘Insofar as we have a student-centered mode of teaching, it puts a lot of responsibility for the success of the class on students. If students are strong and engaged it makes for a wonderful educational experience, but if students are disengaged and have other things to do and make a discussion course a low priority, then the course as a whole suffers and it suffers even for those who are engaged’” (“Report assesses athletics’ impact,” May 7, 2002).

In juxtaposing these two quotations, I do not intend to enter debate about either athletics or Factrak at Williams. I want simply to encourage students to think seriously about their own role in making a course successful for their fellow students as well as themselves, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the professor’s teaching.

I suggest that, far from being “relatively minor,” each student’s role is vital. Of course the teacher plays a crucial role in a course’s success, just as the athletic coach, the conductor of an orchestra or singing group and the director of a theater or dance production play crucial roles in a successful performance by their “players.” But the best efforts of coaching, conducting, directing and classroom teaching will achieve little if the players, performers and students do not energetically prepare for and carry out the roles they come together to play at Williams.

Too often we think of papers, lab reports, problem sets and tests as a classroom student’s sole occasions for performance, probably because grades often depend chiefly on those activities. In fact, every class meeting is an important occasion for students to perform and, in many courses, the most important. Each class is a “practice” or “rehearsal” for graded assignments and also a “performance” in itself, whether students are expected to participate in discussion or listen attentively to a lecture.

The teacher is not the key performer in the classroom any more than an athletic coach is at a practice or a game, or the coach of a string quartet is at a rehearsal or a concert. Like athletes who slack off at practice or in a game, or dancers who don’t work hard at rehearsal or give their all to a concert, students who do not prepare well for class meetings, actively engage in classroom activities and perform vigorously on assignments like papers and tests are letting down not only themselves but also their fellow students. Students in a class, even a large one, depend on one another as much as members of an athletic team or of a play’s cast.

Lovett, Thaker and Wong assert that “professors are paid to teach classes, and students pay to attend them.” Would they also claim coaches are paid to hold practices and athletes pay to attend them? Or that choral conductors are paid to hold rehearsals and singers pay to attend them?

If students want to “get their money’s worth” at Williams, they owe it to themselves and to one another not merely to attend class meetings, but to treat them every bit as seriously as they do athletic practices and games or their orchestra, theatre and dance rehearsals and concerts. One of the joys of teaching at Williams is that most students, most of the time, do treat their class meetings this way. But we all need to be on guard against the consumerist models that all too often insinuate themselves into our thinking about teaching and learning in the classroom. As an antidote to this tendency, I recommend using participation in athletics and the performing arts as a model for both teachers’ and students’ roles in the academic classroom.

Meredith Hoppin

Gagliardi Professor of Classics