My students’ parents . . . attended college back when faculty could give out 1-page syllabi instead of long documents with disclaimers and policy reminders. Hell, even when I went to college, professors just said “Write an essay on this”, not “Here is a detailed grading rubric for the essay, which you will no doubt try to rules-lawyer me on, hence I had the rubric inspected by experts.”
But these same parents who went to college in the good-old-days, says the author, are the role-model for all this rules-lawyering:
[T]o the extent that students whose parents went to college have an advantage, it’s not because they can ask their parents about the minutiae of a system that has, at least in its superficial features, evolved considerably even since I was a student. No, the advantage they have is more generic, in that they have the confidence to ask certain questions, and the confidence (and role models) to Rules Lawyer the hell out of the system when it suits them. If some student knows the minutiae of the policies on the Registrar’s website, it’s not because they had three generations of college graduate relatives explain online registration systems to them. It’s because they had role models who explained the broad outlines of college and also taught them to examine fine print for the details and loopholes.
As I never tire of pointing out to my son, when he complains about how hard his homework is, to graduate from eighth grade I had to write a 70 page research paper. In Hebrew.
When the assignment is genuinely ridiculous, then gaming the assignment becomes a legitimate part of the assignment. And we gamed that “70 page” requirement however we could – title pages for each section of the paper, lots of illustrations. In the end, I probably had 20 single-spaced pages of handwritten text, mostly translated from the encyclopedia – but still, that’s a lot for eighth grade. In Hebrew. Who wants to waste their time lawyering a regular paper?
If Ross Douthat is to be believed, students at elite schools are far more serious about their extracurriculars than they are about their classes. One possible reason is that you can’t lawyer your portfolio, or your clippings, or your basketball score. I wonder what would happen if classes worked more like extra-curriculars.
Suppose, say, the top three papers won gold, silver and bronze medals, and everybody else was either pass or fail. Since there are only three slots at the top, any lawyering would be at the expense of another student, which would change the dynamic considerably. But not everybody would be caught up in “winner-take-all” dynamics. Students with a real shot at a medal would work really hard to win it, because winning a medal would say a lot more than “I had a 4.0 average.” Students who don’t have a shot will do enough work to get by (if they don’t care), or enough work to get what they want out of the class (if they do care). Which is probably where a lot of them are now.
I have no idea if this would be a good idea; it might just mean that all the books in the library would vanish (they do still have books, don’t they? and libraries?) to prevent other students from writing their papers, but I do get depressed by the culture of hoop-jumping that I observe at the elementary, high-school and college level. In general, I think the purpose of finely-grained assessments is diagnostic, to feedback into instruction. If they are used that way, then gaming is counter-productive. If they are used primarily to assess performance for the benefit of some third party who isn’t going to be doing instruction, then the incentives can get ugly quite quickly.
By the way, the topic of our eighth grade papers was open but had to be approved in advance by the teacher. I elected to write about the history of International Communism. Which tells you everything you need to know about what kind of kid I was.