TITLE: I'll Do Homework, But Only for a Grade AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 22, 2010 6:56 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In the locker room one morning last week, I overheard two students talking about their course work. One of the guys eventually got himself pretty worked up while talking about one professor, who apparently gives tough exams, and exclaimed, "We worked two and a half hours on that homework, and he didn't even grade it!" Yesterday, I was sitting with my daughters while they did some school work. One of them casually commented, "We all stopped putting too much effort into Teacher Smith's homework when we figured out s/he never grades it." I know my daughter's situation up close and so know what she means. She tends to go well beyond the call of duty on her assignments, in large part because she is in search of a perfect grade. With time an exceedingly scarce and valuable resource, she faces an optimization problem. It turns out she can put in less effort on her homework than she ordinarily does and still do fine on her test. With no prospect of a higher grade from putting more time into the assignment to pull her along, she is willing to economize a bit and spend her time elsewhere. Maybe that's just what the college student meant when I overheard him that morning. Perhaps he is actually overinvesting in his homework relative to its value for learning, because he seeks a higher grade on the homework component of the course. That's not the impression I got from my unintentional eavesdropping, though. I left the locker room thinking that he sees value in doing the homework only if it is graded, only if it contributes to his course grade. This is the impression too many college students give their instructors. If it doesn't "count", why do it? Maybe I was like that in college, too. I know that grades were important to me, and as double-major trying to graduate in four years after spending much of my freshman year majoring in something else, I was taking a heavy class load. Time was at premium. Who has time or energy to do things that don't count? Even if I did not understand then, I know now that the practice itself is an invaluable part of how I learned. Without lots of practice writing code, we don't even learn the surface details of our language, such as syntax and idiom, let alone reach a deep understanding of solving problems. In the more practical terms expressed by the student in the locker room, without lots of practice, most every exam will seem too long, look to be difficult, and seem to be graded harshly. That prof of his has found a way to get the student to invest time in learning. What a gift! We cannot let the professor off the hook, though. If s/he tells the class that the assignment will be graded, or even simply gives students the impression that it "counts for something", then not to grade the assignment is a deception. Such a tactic is justified only in exceptional circumstances, and not only moral grounds. As Teacher Smith has surely learned by now, students are smart enough not to fall for a lie too many times before they direct their energies elsewhere. In general, though, homework is a gift: a chance to learn under controlled conditions. I'm pretty sure that students don't see it this way. This reminds me a conversation I had with my colleague Mark Jacobson a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing the relative abundance and paucity of a grateful attitude among faculty in general. He recalled that, in his study of the martial arts, he had encountered two words for "thank you". One, suki, from the Japanese martial arts, means to see events in our lives as opportunity or gift. Another, sugohasameeda, comes from Korean Tae Kwon Do and is used to say, "Thank you for the workout". Suki and sugohasameeda are related. One expresses suki when things do not go the way we wish, such as when we have a flat tire or when a work assignment doesn't match or desires. One expresses sugohasameeda in gratitude to one's teacher for the challenging and painful work that make us grow, such as workouts that demand our all. I see elements of both in the homework we are assigned. Sugohasameeda seems to be spot-on with homework, yet suki comes into play, too, in cases such as the instructor going counter to our expectations and not grading an assignment. I do not find myself in the role of student as much these days, but I can see so many ways that I can improve my own sense of gratefulness. I seem to live sugohasameeda more naturally these days, though incompletely. I am far too often lacking in suki. My daily life would be more peaceful and whole if I could recognize the opportunity to grow through undesired events with gratitude. One final recollection. Soon after taking my current job, I met an older gentleman who had worked in a factory for 30+ years. He asked where I worked, and when I said, "I teach at the university", he said, "That beats workin' for a livin'". My first reaction was akin to amused indignation. He obviously didn't know anything about what my job was like. Later I realized that there was a yin to that yang. I am grateful to have a career in which I can do so many cool things, explore ideas whenever they call to me, and work with students who learn and help me to learn -- to do things I love every day. So, yeah, I guess my job does beat "workin' for a livin'". I just wish more students would take their homework seriously. ~~~~ My colleague Mark also managed to connect his ideas about gratitude from the martial arts to the 23rd Psalm of the Christian Bible. The green pastures to which it famously refers are not about having everything exactly as I want it, but seeing all things as they are -- as gift, as opportunity, as suki. I continue to learn from him. -----