On Campus

The January Speech

I need to remind struggling first-year students that this is a university course. You can actually fail.

In my department, most courses are offered on a full-year basis, September right through to April, usually with a mid-year exam in December. Of course, results vary, but in my first-year course, especially, there are always a large number of students who, by January, have already made a colossal mess of things. Classes missed, of course, papers not turned in, and then there is the exam that they bombed last month.

All of this makes me feel like, in the first class of January, I need to remind these first-year students that this is a university course. Unlike your high school courses, you can actually fail this one, and, barring a stunning change in attitude and productivity, you probably will. Therefore, you need to find it in yourself to make a heroic effort in the second semester and salvage what you can of the sinking vessel that is your grade, or abandon ship altogether and drop the course.

It’s hard to know how effective The January Speech is. To be sure, quite a few students do drop the course before it’s too late (there’s a deadline for these things), but they might have been planning on dropping it anyway. Many more soldier on, though in most cases, I’m not sure why. Perhaps because their loan agreements obligate them to take a full load. Perhaps they have been forced by their parents to try university for one year and see how it goes (and now want to fail so they don’t have to keep going). Perhaps they cling to the hope that if they just keep showing up, they will somehow get a passing grade, no matter how little work they actually do.

What I do know is that I hate giving The January Speech. It casts me in the role of the stern, masterly professor and I much prefer to play the charming eccentric professor. But worse, it reminds me that no matter how  carefully I plan my course and select my texts, no matter how much thought I put into innovative assignment structures, no matter how funny and engaging I may be in the classroom, for the vast majority of students, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.

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