September 27, 2010

Attendance is Mandatory

So here’s one for you.

Why is it that society expects us to cover the butts of those who opt for mediocrity?

I’m going to preface the rest of this with a disclaimer: I’m about to say something that may not be very popular.  It may make me sound like a righteous jerk.  For that, I only have one defense.  Everyone has something that turns them surly, I’m just a little more vocal about my surliness than most of the population.

My Science Fiction professor has been having some health problems recently and was required to go in for an operation.  I’m not certain of any details beyond this about his personal health, but I do know that he is loathe to cancel class.  Unfortunately, due to operation scheduling, he was forced to miss a class session.  He requested that we do the reading and come in to discuss without him anyway.

To me, this is a perfectly reasonable request of a graduate-level course.  We should be far enough along in our careers that we, as a collective, can hold a critical conversation about a series of assigned texts.  Perhaps sustaining this conversation for the full three-hour class window is a little much, but certainly we can talk for at least long enough to make meeting and discussing a fruitful endeavor.

I know that not everyone will agree with me.  Some see the professor’s inability to attend class as a chance to catch up on their other readings, take a much-needed break, or start a weeknight evening of partying a little early.  Fine.  That’s their decision and, as adults, they are entitled to make it.

I knew that not everyone would come to class.  I knew that most people would opt not to come to class.  I did my reading and showed anyway.  There were a few other people there, enough that we could speak but certainly not even half of the class collective.

Here’s what really got me: we talked about sending around a sign-in sheet.  Then we joked about taking a picture of the assembly and e-mailing it to the professor as a “get well soon we miss you” sort of deal.  Both these suggestions were first laughed off.  When re-approached seriously, the sign-in sheet was decided against on the account that it would “get people in trouble”.

….How old are we?  Do we do the work because there’s a professor breathing down our necks?  Do we read and come to class solely for a grade and a pat on the bum at the end of the semester with a “good show” from the person running the class?  I thought the point was that we were here to learn because we loved to learn…. I thought that was why we came to graduate school.

Now I’m not saying that I’m a cut-throat snarling academic harpy.  Certainly when I need to be I exhibit those tendencies, and I can’t say I don’t enjoy the role at times.  But I do believe that people who chose not to engage in a course to the degree demanded by the professor deserve what they get.  It’s not my job to cover their bums.  I don’t feel obligated to make excuses for their mediocrity.  And I wouldn’t blame them for doing the same if the roles were reversed.  Just because we sit next to each other in class does not make us friends, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push each other to be the best we could possibly become.  Granted, if we were friends I may feel differently about the attendance sheet, but that’s a factor beyond the scope of this rant.

There is a certain degree of fellowship implicit in situational companionship.  Being shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines of literary criticism does give us a shared experience.  Sometimes, those shared experiences create bonds.  I’ve certainly made friends in Graduate School.  However, those friends I made were not made solely based on our classroom interactions.  We talk before class, during breaks, at the pub between classes, go out on weekends sometimes, there’s time and effort that goes into a friendship.  This assumption that since we are in the same class we are united against the common enemy of bad grades bewilders me.  Yes, we can take on intellectualism together, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to abet your efforts at cheating the system.  I will haply slay the demons of textual criticism with you, but I will not help you steal from the General’s tent.

I work hard, and I work a lot.  I have a lot on my plate.  If I can make time for the readings and for coming to class, so can you.  Any discrepancies in your attendance is between you and the professor and does not involve me.  Work it out between yourselves.  If you ask nicely (and if I like you), I’ll let you borrow my notes for the day and pick up the readings for you, but I will not discredit myself to cover for the fact that you couldn’t be bothered to come to class.

I didn’t push the issue.  We didn’t send around a sign-in sheet.  I think, despite that, my colleagues may now see a glint of textual tigress behind my eyes.  Still up for debate whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing.  I’m hoping it means that they’ll try to take me down like a pack of wolves on a buffalo the next time I have some crack-pot theory about Bakhtinian narratives.  Except this buffalo has claws and breathes fire…

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