"Text" was once a noun

Grrrrr... Every professor probably has a few pet peeves. One of mine is students who fail to bring the text to class. I actually make this clear on the first day of every semester. After welcoming the students and spending some time getting to know them, I go over the course's big goals and try to familiarize the class with the approach we will take and why. Then I write on the whiteboard my three biggest pet peeves:

1. Not bringing the text to class.
2. Not bringing the text to class.
3. Not bringing the text to class.

The students laugh, but it usually makes the point. I even tell them I would prefer they skip rather than show up without the material. At least that way I can preserve the fiction that they are still serious people who just had something come up. Almost inevitably, however, one of them will arrive at the very next class without the text. Do I lose it? Do I throw a fit? No, I just glare at them in mock fury and pantomime throwing a book in their direction. Often that's all it takes. They get the message.

In fact, showing up without the text is an acute disadvantage in my courses because I seldom lecture. Instead, students are expected to have read the material. By the end of the second week they should know that we use class time to analyze, write about and discuss what we are reading. I assign working groups to look at key ideas, themes or passages in primary source texts. Each member of the group writes a short in-class response, which is then shared with others who have written on the same prompt. Then I lead a large group discussion of the four or five prompts, drawing out the groups' consensus or major points of disagreement. The students then revise their responses in light of small and large discussion and turn in a typed version the following session.

I really like working this way. It requires students to come at the material multiple times in multiple ways (reading, analyzing, composing, discussing in small group and large group, and in revision). They tell me that like the chance to hear what others say before committing to a final response; they also like the course's infinite revision policy. If they don't get a score they like, they are free to revise multiple times. I tell my night students that their work is 80 percent done when they leave class. Most of these people work full-time and have family responsibilities, so they appreciate that.

Working this way also moves the students' engagement with the text into a quiet, controlled environment where I can be sure they aren't distracted or multitasking. I wish I did not have to do this. I tried requiring students to come with their responses pre-written, but too many showed up empty handed, which meant they had nothing to contribute to the group discussions. Moving the writing of responses into the class meeting was the only way I could assure that, at a minimum, they had actually read and thought about the material before it was discussed. I know because I am in the room and watch them do it. But everything about working this way hinges on students showing up with the material.

We have been working this way for over eight weeks in my Humanities II course. Now it's past midterm, and students should understand by now the disadvantage of not bringing the text to class. Yet I still have some students who show up day after day without the material. Yesterday I told them that I had had it. "Look," I said, "I'm a patient man, but there is a limit." Then I muttered something darkly about having to put the hammer down.

I told all this to my wife last night and she just laughed. One of my traits--and she knows this from long experience--is a complete inability to stay angry at people. I just can't nurse a grudge. I try but it never lasts. She also knows that my threats are always idle ones. Sometimes I get the sense that students see right through me.

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