Moreso this semester than any other semester I’ve taught, I’ve been asked questions like, “How many points do I get for coming to class?” I’m getting similar questions about other process-based stuff, too, like the first-day survey, or an iconic self-portrait, or class notes. It’s interesting to see this shift from doing something because it has practical value (i.e. I go to derby practice because I’ll become a better skater if I practice certain skills), to needing a set number of points attached to every task to make it worth spending time on.
I tend to be pretty casual when it comes to points: there are essays that have points attached, and there’s a participation grade that is collaboratively determined, but I have no interest in having to enter numbers for every student, every day, simply because they showed up. And it could never be that simple – it would have to be broken down into types of showing up, right? Like, showing up but being on your phone the whole time isn’t worth the same amount of points as showing up and actively participating. Or, showing up but sleeping through class because you wanted the attendance points but haven’t slept in two days because of work – at that point, you’d really be better off staying home and resting and catching up with me later.
As a parent, I try to use logical consequences, and that carries over into my teaching. If you don’t come to class, you’re going to miss important information. Sure, we can meet during office hours, but I am not your only teacher. There are 20+ other people in the class that you can learn from, if you are willing to give them a chance. That said, sometimes, you’re going to miss class. Sometimes, I’m going to miss class. The important piece here is learning how to make choices that take into consideration your immediate needs alongside your short and long-term goals, and the consequences of whatever options you’re considering.
PSA #1: Sometimes you’re going to mess that up. PSA #2: Coffee gets me out of bed every morning, but that’s probably one of the only extrinsic rewards that I rely on. I’m not likely to do something unless I can see why it’s beneficial. Sometimes, I have to trust that even though I can’t see an immediate impact, there’s value in what I’m being asked to do. Points didn’t motivate me to show up, as a student. Attendance credit doesn’t (usually) motivate me to go to practice. That isn’t to say that grades have no impact – if I want an A in a class, I’m going to show up, but I’m also very aware that I can’t bullshit my way to an A, so merely showing up isn’t going to be enough.
What about that low stakes work, then? Well, I generally expect that if I give my students something to do that is not given a grade (instead it receives credit/no credit, if I collect it at all), they are going to do it not because they want the points, but because (or and because) they understand that what we’re doing is going to help them succeed with higher stakes assignments. Sometimes, it takes a little while for that to make sense, especially if students are coming into my classes having done a lot of grammar worksheets or other busy work that was disconnected from or unrelated to the major assignments they were doing.
This brings me to PSA #3: Getting all the points isn’t going to make you a better writer. (Un?)fortunately, writing is a thing you’ll have to do in every single class you take, so becoming a better writer should probably be one of your goals. Moreover, the work that we do in composition courses can be applied to non-writing situations as well, like the cognitive processes involved in analytical thinking, or even the concept of process in general. Understanding writing as a process taught me to be patient with myself as an athlete, and it taught me to be aware of my own habits – some of which are good and helpful, others not so much.
So here’s one piece of advice for my current and future students: let go of the idea that everything must have points. Find reasons to do the work outside of the points or the grade. Let that be what motivates you on the days you really don’t want to do it (because let’s be honest, you’re going to find yourself in that place of “I can’t/I don’t want to /I’m tired/I don’t care/I don’t see the point” more than once this term). On the other days, do the work because you want to grow. Do the work because you’ll get some feedback on your writing, and your ideas, from an actual human who believes that you are totally capable. Show up because how often do you get to hang out with 20 other people and hear about their experiences, their knowledge, their beliefs, their curiosities? Show up because you can learn from one another, not just me. Show up because you have no idea what doors might open. And stay home when you need to stay home.