“Dear student”: one professor’s view of evaluation (and why I agree)

English: Photograph of Shimer College class ci...
I wonder how many students see all college classrooms in grainy black-and-white? (Image via Wikipedia)

In a recent piece in Forbes (why Forbes? why not Chronicle of Higher Ed or InsideHigherEd.com, both of which the author cites after his essay) on why professors “Don’t Lie Awake At Night Thinking of Ways to Ruin Your Life,” economics professor Art Carden opens with a quote from I Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” It’s a strange opening quote, given that it comes from the same chapter in Corinthians that discusses love and marriage (many Christians use the passage in their wedding ceremonies). Is Carden suggesting that once we enter college we’re married to our education?

(Sure. Why not?)

But what he’s really saying, in a somewhat politer way, is that college students need to grow up. Toward the end of his editorial, he mentions, speaking directly to his students, that he “once thought as you do”: “I once carried about the same misconceptions, the same litany of cognitive biases, and the same adolescent desire to blame others for my errors.” Okay, maybe it’s a bit condescending to relate “misconceptions” and “cognitive biases” with adolescence, but the man does have a point.

At the beginning of his editorial, he explains how most students assume they begin with a perfect 100% and the professor — cruelly — “takes off” points, as though we’re all in this game to punish students. Just last term, I had two students say this same thing out loud in class. My response then was the same as Carden’s response now: Students start at zero (I prefer the phrase “start with a blank slate”) and earn points: “My assumption at the beginning of each class is that you know somewhere between nothing and very little about basic economics,” Carden writes, referring to his own field as an example, “unless you were lucky enough to have an exceptional high school economics course. Otherwise, why are you here?”

But the best part of his piece is the passage in which he explains his genuine compassion for his students:

Finally, I’m here to be a mentor and instructor. This means that our relationship differs from the relationships that you have with your friends and family. Please don’t infer from this that I don’t care about you, because I do. A lot. I want to see you make good choices. I want to see you understand basic economics because I hope it will rock your world as it continues to rock mine and because the human consequences of lousy economic policy are enormous. That said, you should never take grades personally. I don’t think you’re stupid because you tank an exam, an assignment, or even an entire course. Economics is hard. A D or an F on an economics exam does not diminish your value in God’s eyes (or in mine) or indicate that economics just isn’t for you. It probably means you need to work smarter, and I’m here to help you with that.

The two key phrases — for my own views of education — are these: “Please don’t infer from this that I don’t care about you, because I do. A lot.” And, “I’m here to help you with that.

I might have chosen a different opening quote. Perhaps the quote, from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, that I include at the bottom of my website: “Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.” Or perhaps a comment from Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations I am currently reading: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

But however I might have opened the essay, I would probably have ended it in roughly the same way Carden does, substituting “English” or “writing” for “economics,” of course: “[Writing] is hard, but becoming a responsible member of a free society is very, very, very hard. I’m still learning to put aside childish things. I hope you will do the same. Start now. The effort is daunting, but the rewards are substantial.”


5 thoughts on ““Dear student”: one professor’s view of evaluation (and why I agree)

  1. A digression. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” is Paul talking about his bar mitzvah at the age of fourteen. The whole passage from which this comes launches from the metaphor for conversion. In isolation, the quote often leads people to charge Paul with contradicting Jesus who said “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”; but Paul sees that being a child is a pre-requisite to going any further, that becoming “as little children” is an acknowledgement that there is still maturity to achieve…

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