Participation Isn’t the Same As Performance

When I first started my Phd program, I took an American poetry class with a professor whose impatience with inane comments was legendary. Or so I thought. Evidently, the student sitting on the front row didn’t get the memo. Each day, he felt compelled to throw out comments in much the same way a politician hurls accusations at his opponent hoping something sticks. About half way through class the third week, the professor stood up, pointed to the little chatterbox, and said, “Please join me in the hall. Bring your backpack.”

We never saw, or heard, from our colleague again. I know in the back of my mind that he’s alive and well someplace, but if they someday find human bones in the building I think we’ll all know from whence they came. This professor was, as we like to say when someone is blunt and gruff, old school.

Removing the student didn’t stifle conversation, though. The class simply moved on, recognizing that most of the commentary we had been listening to was not something we would miss.  “Participation,” our professor told us on day one, “is not the same as performance,” and we all learned exactly what the distinction was in that class. “You are,” he also told us, “earning a degree that 98% of the population doesn’t have. Act like it.”

In some deep recess of my heart, I had some sympathy for the student. Don’t get me wrong–I was more than happy to see him go. He was the kind of student who never met an obvious comment he wasn’t afraid to share (often more than once), but it was also pretty clear he had been told somewhere along the line that participation mattered and, more importantly, would be rewarded. I’m sure he has a shelf full of trophies from little league, soccer, and 8th grade graduation.

While it’s easy to bash our trophy-giving culture, I suspect such attacks (like the one I just made) are too easy and simplistic. Molly Kefel in her essay “Trophy Season” over at The New Inquiry, in fact, offers a defense of giving trophies to everyone, writing that kids who don’t get end of year awards “get the message: If you didn’t score a lot of points, no one gives a shit about you. And if that makes you sad, or if you feel that it’s not fair, get used to it. The world is a sad and unfair place. Score more goals next time.” She reminds us that we shouldn’t transfer our adult cynicism to young children and maybe we don’t have to be so gung-ho as we prepare them for the harsh world.

I’m not sure I completely buy her argument, but I do think it’s worth noting that any harm we create by giving kids participation trophies probably isn’t because every one got the award. Our problem, instead, is that in treating everyone equally we aren’t necessarily treating them fairly. Feel free, I say, to give every kid in little league a trophy for putting on the uniform and showing up, but let’s also give a little bit bigger trophy to the kids who also performed.

Giving out trophies willy-nilly without regard to performance doesn’t just create a generation that feels entitled to rewards for participating. Instead, we offer a false sense of fairness that has no basis in reality. Certainly, all animals are created equally, but, as Orwell reminds us, some animals are more equal than others. If we insist on giving trophies to everyone without rewarding those people who also perform at a higher level, then we create sense of entitlement that insists rewards are independent of expertise or effort. Worse yet, we tell the student who scored 4 goals that no one gives a “shit about you” and your hard work. The only difference between you and Billy over there picking his nose is you are sweatier.

If the kid who throws the ball fastest and hits the ball farthest or the student who writes the best essay and makes the smartest comment all get the same reward as the kid who picks daisies in the outfield or has a serious case of diarrhea of the mouth, we’ve devalued performance in favor of participation. Certainly, showing up is half the battle, but the bigger trophy should go to the people who do something once they get there.

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Let’s Put the Sage Back on the Stage

When I first started teaching first year writing classes, I scheduled in 2-3 days before every essay due date so students could engage in “peer review.” I developed check lists, rubrics, and hints that helped them read their colleagues’ papers with an eye toward offering constructive, global feedback. The concept sounds good and, in many ways, should prepare students for their post-college working world where they will engage in team-work, collaborate, and develop ideas with other people. One of our goals, I would tell them, is to learn how to give (and take) constructive criticism with an eye toward improving our writing.

In theory, peer review also helps students recognize effective communication, providing models they can apply to their own writing. “Oh,” we want them to say while reading their neighbor’s essay, “that’s how you construct an argument effectively.” In many ways, peer review is predicated on the concept that students will willingly, intelligently, and capably take an active approach to their writing and education. As a teacher, I’m not the sage on the stage but a classroom manager offering guidance as the eager young minds tackle the difficult task before them.

I’m sure there is an alternative universe where such students exist, and I can put them in groups while they lead themselves into the intellectual promised land.

In practice, when we peer review we spend two days with, in many cases, the blind leading the blind. The best writers are appalled at their classmates’ lack of writing skills, the worst writers are embarrassed (or not as the case may be) at their illiteracy, and the vast majority of average writers in any class are simply confused because they all made an A in their high school English class but have absolutely no idea why. They can read an essay, tell me it makes no sense, but also be at a total loss how to improve the writing. “If I knew how to fix it,” a student once told me, “I wouldn’t be in this class.”

Don’t get me wrong. Any one who has spent time in the classroom has had those dedicated, active, autodidactic students who embrace learning. They read, they prepare, they engage the material beyond just the surface–these are the students we push toward graduate school and praise in front of our colleagues in the hallway. We yearn for a classroom full of such young scholars, and we develop pedagogical theories that reward such students, all the while dreaming everyone else in the classroom will follow in their wake. At our best, we want to teach students how to learn not just lecture them about what to learn.

Unfortunately, as Annie Murphy Paul writes in her Slate article “Bill Gates is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not,”  self-directed learning is an urban legend in education. Murphy Paul’s article focuses on the ed-tech movement, but we should feel pretty comfortable extending her argument to education in general.

Teachers and classrooms, she notes, aren’t simply encumbrances for most of us. We need the guidance of experts to show us both how and what we need to learn if we plan on mastering any subject. In essence, we need that sage on the stage a little more than we need the peer in our ear.

Certainly, I recognize that we can balance the approach and using peer to peer learning might be effective in some classes and with some skills, but I also think we have done ourselves a disservice when we forget that our students, especially at the collegiate level, enter our classrooms as relative novices whose thoughts and intellectual abilities are far less developed than we might think. If we accept that writing is a process of organizing and articulating our ideas and thoughts, then surely we must also recognize that the person most capable of helping a student is not the mass of hormonal and ideological confusion sitting next to him.

After all, if their peers can teach them everything they need to know about writing, what do they need us for?

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)