[From a found notebook.]
I spent four years in college without doing homework. Which is not to say I slacked: to the contrary. But the word homework played no part in my effort. What I “did” instead: I read, mostly books, and I wrote papers. I never had homework: I had reading, or a lot of reading, or a ton of reading. And papers, short and long. If one of my professors had ever announced that there was homework, I would have cringed. And I can say with some confidence that I never heard a fellow student use the word.
And as a college prof, I never speak of homework. But I hear the word often, spoken by students. Try a Twitter search for college and homework: they’re often found together. One college student tweets, in a lovely mixed metaphor, of being “shackled by piles of homework.” My case against the word has nothing to do with snobbery, nothing to do with an inflated sense of my dignity. Homework is not beneath me. But the word has, to my mind, little or nothing to do with college.
For one thing, homework suggests a world divided between school and family, a distinction not always in play in college, when many students are living away from home. There’s something incongruous about the idea of taking homework back to a dorm or an off-campus apartment. There’s something even more incongruous about the idea of a non-traditional (older) student doing homework. The word also suggests that there will be something to turn in, something for a teacher to “collect,” though the day-to-day work of reading and note-taking in a college class typically yields nothing for a second party to look at. And the word homework carries at least a suggestion of teacherly whims, particularly for children who might already be spending a good part of the school day plugging away at worksheets.¹ Will the teacher be piling it on tonight, or giving everyone a break? In a college class though, where a semester’s work is mapped out in advance, there will always already be something to do between class meetings — or at least there should be.
There are many other ways in which the experience of college can be improved—by requiring, for instance, significant reading and writing in classes. But it might be easier to regard such work as a norm (and not an anomaly) if one were to dispose of the word homework: not “I have forty pages of homework” but “I have forty pages of reading.” Traditional-aged college students are novice adults, men and women in the making. They—and their older fellow students—would do well to think of their coursework, whatever it might require, in terms beyond those of elementary and secondary education.
¹ The Oxford English Dictionary gives this earliest (1662) meaning of the word: “Work done at home, esp. as distinguished from work done in a factory.”
[About the notebook: a friend found it years ago, abandoned. Its pages were blank, except for the note above. I sometimes wonder what became of the writer.]
Monday, March 4, 2013
By Michael Leddy at 8:20 AM