Monday, March 4, 2013

No more homework

[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.]

comments: 4

Matthew Schmeer said...

If you teach literature, sure.

But if you teach writing? Math? Automotive Tech?

Then homework matters, regardless of whether you call it homework or not.

Like you, I didn't do "homework" in college. I read. I annotated. I wrote. It was expected that I showed up prepared. And there was hell to pay if I wasn't--the teacher would call us out on our lack of preparation and chide us (which, of course, we deserved) and then we'd do better.

But not all students are motivated by a desire to learn. And not all subjects are alike in their workload expectations.

Writing is different. We need to read a model text and tear it apart to analyze structure. Then we need students to to begin building their own essays. We need to see works in progress. We need to see notes and outlines and drafts. We need the whole messy organic process so we can offer correction and advice and encouragement. And, of course, judgment.

Math is similar. You need to do the calculations and then have the calculations examined on a nearly daily basis.

This is not to say it is a better way to learn, but it is different than merely reading and discussing ideas.

Reading about chemistry is not the same as doing chemistry. I can understand the ideas, but if I do not know how to do the experiment, if I cannot see the reactions between chemicals take place in a lab then what is the point? In these situations, the work that I do outside of the class to prepare me for the work I must do inside the classroom are mandatory for learning the skills necessary to master the material.

There is a difference between learning a skill and learning a theory. If we are not testing theories through the use of a skill, then what good is the theory? If we are not testing the skill through the guiding principle of theory, what good is the skill?

It is not an either/or. It is a both. That is why homework matters.
In an ideal world, students are motivated life-long learners. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in world where typical college freshmen have experienced their entire educational lives in the bubble of No Child Left Behind. The results of this are scary. We have so many students that are unprepared for the rigors of college (even community college) it isn't even funny. Read this essay for a scary view of what high school teachers have been dealing with:

So, homework? Yes, it matters.

My job is to get students to the point where they realize they will be doing homework for the rest of their lives. And that they will like doing it because of what they will learn as they do it. Call it reading, call it prep work, call it homework.

But really, call it learning.

Daughter Number Three said...

I've always assumed that people who mention homework are taking math or language classes that actually require small incremental tasks that get checked by a teacher or TA.

My own college experience was mostly in humanities, so I didn't have much I'd call homework either -- reading and papers, essay tests to study for, presentations to prepare.

Humanities teachers these days aren't handing out questions that need to be answered and turned in, are they? That would be dreadful.

Michael Leddy said...

Matthew, my objection is to the word, not to the idea of doing work for a class. The Bernstein essay hits a bull’s-eye; I linked to it a few days ago.

Daughter Number Three, I think that humanities teachers are often doing just that, or doing short bits of writing in class to see if students are reading.

Michael Leddy said...

I’ll add that when I teach a writing course, I ask students to do all sorts of small bits of work from class to class. But I don’t want to call that homework. My objection is to the word, not to the work.