September is icumen in, which means that thousands of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed undergraduates are about to buy their grossly overpriced textbooks and trek with varying degrees of enthusiasm to their new classrooms. Hello, undergraduates. I am a sessional instructor, meaning that I will be teaching hundreds of you in five classes. Below please find an impassioned plea for a few tiny little classroom-related favours. Fulfilling them won’t take a huge amount of effort on your part, but it will make the lives of your instructors less miserable. What is the benefit of having less miserable instructors? Wouldn’t you rather your papers be marked by cheerful people liable to hum “Happy Working Song” as they buzz through your essays than half-insane academics at the ends of their ropes who are more inclined to thunder out a rousing chorus of “Hellfire”?*
1) I do understand how devoted you are to your cell phone. I know you find it difficult to go ten minutes without checking your messages or sending someone a text or even just playing Angry Birds. Perhaps I am a terrible fuddy-duddy for trying to deprive you of the pleasures of your phone. However, there is very little as distracting as a classroom full of students staring avidly at their phones as one attempts to engage them in the critical analysis of a nineteenth-century poem. Please put the phone away. Please. Put the laptop away too. I don’t really buy the whole “I can’t take notes by hand” excuse, since you’re not really taking notes with your laptop anyway. Just go unplugged for a few hours. If you want not to pay attention for a bit, doodle. Perhaps you will discover some exciting new artistic technique.
2) Before you e-mail your instructor asking about that assignment you simply don’t understand, please read the instructions. Odds are the assignment sheet answers most of your questions. I know it’s easier just to shoot off an e-mail to your instructor, but you need to understand that every other student in the class has had the same idea. Your instructor spends hours replying to e-mails that ask questions answered on the assignment sheets.
3) Read the assigned texts. Maybe you’re pressed for time. Maybe this course is “just an elective.” You still signed up to take it, meaning that you implicitly agreed to take it seriously. English classes do tend to have fairly heavy reading loads, so be prepared to spend some time every day reading. Reading the summary on SparkNotes and/or watching the film adaptation of the work is not going to be adequate, and your instructor is not going to be fooled. Even if she can’t prove that you haven’t done the reading, the quality of your papers will suffer, and you may find yourself reading pointed comments such as, “There is no real evidence in this essay that you are familiar with the contents of the novel.” Do not let this happen to you.
4) Don’t ignore the course outline. Like the assignment sheets, it contains information that will be useful to you. In particular, pay attention to the bits on late papers and extensions. An instructor who writes in the course outline, “Extensions will be granted only in exceptional circumstances involving documented medical or compassionate excuses,” will likely not look kindly on pleas for extensions that arrive two days after a paper is due and hinge on the words, “I’ve been having a lot of personal problems this term.” An instructor who specifies that there is no make-up work in the course may be driven to frustrated tears by multiple requests for make-up work or, in fact, for a “slight” tweaking of a C grade so that it becomes a B-. Take the outline as gospel.
5) Your instructor is not out to get you; please don’t treat her as if she is. If you need to request a favour or appeal a grade, be polite about it. If you are called in for a plagiarism meeting (which is designed to allow the student a chance to explain apparent problems in an assignment and thus does not constitute an outright accusation of wrongdoing), do not draw yourself up in righteous indignation and imply that your instructor is a certified idiot who has quite appallingly dared to call your honour into question. Unfairness happens, usually by accident. Assume an accidental cause (extreme fatigue is always a possibility), and be gentle and open-minded. Despite appearances, instructors are people too, and their feelings can be hurt, especially when they are genuinely trying to help the students showering them with abuse.
If you follow these simple rules, students, your instructors will appreciate it, and all manner of things will be well.
*Both of these are Disney songs. One of them is satirical, but it’s still a happier song than “Hellfire.”