On Campus

Ten signs you have a lousy class

A good class isn't just about who teaches it.

Recently our friends over at US News and World Report posted a list of the Ten Warning Signs of A Bad Professor. So in the spirit of turnabout and fair play and all that, I offer the following modest addendum.

Ten Warning Signs of a Bad Class

1. They don’t read. Now, I must confess that when I was an undergraduate, I did not read every single thing that was assigned. But I read most of it, and I always made sure I read enough to know what I was talking about on the exam and to make an informed comment once in a while in class. But first-year students, especially, really seem to hate reading. Once, on the first day of class, a first-year student of mine looked at the syllabus and noticed that they would have to read a novel for the third week of the semester. “But,” she cried aghast, “I can’t read a whole book!”

2. They don’t ask questions. I don’t think I’m a particularly scary fellow: I don’t yell at students; I make jokes now and again. But for some reasons, many students hate to ask questions. Whenever I talk about citation style, for instance, I always stop to see if there are questions — because it can be tricky (plus, it gets me out of the bad books of US News and World Report). No one asks questions. But they must have questions because when it comes time to use the citation styles in their papers, they don’t do it. If they didn’t get it when I explained it (and put it on the web), why didn’t they ask?

3. They try to hide the fact that they are texting in class behind a big book or clip board. My university does not permit the use of electronic devices in class unless specifically okayed by the instructor. Still, students try to get away with it. On the other hand, maybe I’m being too tough about this. Maybe the texts are things like, “OMG this prf is soooooo ahsum. Shake –> is cul. Malvolio and Olivia? Epic fail!”  Yeah. That must be it.

4. They don’t hand anything in. I’ve often wondered why students enroll in a course and then hand in no assignments at all. Or do only the first one and ignore the others. Maybe they get overwhelmed by all the work of university and sort of shut down. I can see that. But then, why not drop the course?

5. They are studying for another class in your class. Admittedly, there is something admirable about a student who is working so hard she doesn’t have time to study one thing at a time. But how can she be getting anything out of my class when she is studying her psychology notes? And how the hell does she have psych notes anyway? Isn’t she reading for English during that class?

6. They don’t take notes. Then of course, there are students who don’t take notes at all. Why not? Maybe the thought that they could ever forget anything I said just doesn’t occur to them. Yeah. That’s probably it.

7. They don’t bring their books to class. It’s English. You need to have the book in front of you. Is it too heavy? No. You’re eighteen. The whole Oxford English Dictionary is not too heavy. Look beside you. See the sixty-five year old retiree sitting next to you? He has his book.

8. At review time, they show no signs of having been in the class at all. The strangest experience I ever had in class was during a review period. I gave them a quotation from Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” and asked the class to identify it. No one could. Well, okay, fair enough. Donne is tricky. But then I told them it was by Donne (we only did one poem by Donne). Blank looks all around. So I told them the name of the poem and they looked at me like I had two heads. “We did this poem,” I said. “Most of you were here. I remember. It was, like, five weeks ago.” Nothing. Didn’t even ring a big metaphysical bell.

9. They ask if you’re a hard marker. I can understand why students ask this question, but I never know how to answer it. Once, I half-jokingly replied that I was the second-hardest marker in the university. Then about half the class dropped the course. At least they didn’t stay in and not turn in any assignments. Maybe the book was too heavy.

10. They ask, “What do I have to do to pass this course? By the time a student is at the point where they have to ask this question, it’s probably too late. It’s also the question where I really have to bite my tongue.

Student says: What do I have to do to pass this course?

What I say is: Well, at this stage it’s going to be tough. Let’s look at the spreadsheet.

What I would like to say is: Have you by any chance invented a time machine?

Now before the two or three of you who read this get all upset by what a heartless instructor I am, please let me be clear: I’m not saying all students are like this. Or even most. And certainly, one bad student does not spoil the whole class. But there is a critical balance in any class and once you reach that point at which the no-book-no-assignment-no-memory students outweigh the others, the whole room gets dragged down.

So the next time you are in a bad class, consider this: what are you doing to make it better?