How much is it worth?

As we come to the final day of classes in journalism school, many students (and their teacher!) are frantically trying to finish all their projects and assignments, writing them, my case, marking them.

It’s been a tough semester for me personally, because I caught swine flu (H1N1) in November, and was in bed for a week, too sick to leave the house for a second week, and too weak to do much more then the minimum of work in the third and fourth week. I know a lot of my students have had their own problems this semester, too: family troubles, illness, financial issues, trying to juggle work and school and life. We are all trying to balance all our commitments.
But something happened in one of my classes that was so unexpected, something I hadn’t encountered before, that it’s made me pause to try to make sense of it.
I was teaching a workshop about a skill they will need to use to survive in journalism –writing obituaries. It was on the course outline. The students knew about it. And these obituaries aren’t the ones you have to pay for when a loved one dies and you pay by the word. These are news features which are run the next day, written by a journalist, when someone famous like actor Heath Ledger, or Michael Jackson dies..and also, when not-so- famous people die, but who lived interesting lives.
They will need to be able to write a feature obituary about someone’s life whether they work at small newsrooms, or large. People die, even not-famous people, and journalists serve the public by writing sensitive, creative and interesting features about how these people lived, and what their big achievements were. And introducing the value of this person’s life after they die, to an audience that didn’t know them when they were alive.
Like covering sports, city hall, a court story, an accident, entertainment, or politics…writing an obit as a new feature has its own formula, and code words. And they will need to know this stuff not only once they have graduated, but as soon as in a few weeks time, in the next semester, when they start work as card-carrying reporters for the local community newspaper and online site. And that will be for marks!
After the first hour of class today, a student holds up their cellphone, in class, telling me there is another student on the other end of the line, who is calling in from somewhere else, to find out “How much is this worth?”
I was dumfounded. And then..incredulous. And also — angry. Then I thought it was funny. But it’s not funny.
Do I have to make everything worth a lot of marks, in order to get someone to receive the gift of knowledge and self-discovery? Doesn’t that have any value on its own? Why will some students not read an assigned chapter, or research a website that I ask them to look at, so that we can talk about it in class, unless it is “worth” marks for them to do it?
How do you measure worth? For some students, only in marks, I guess.
And that’s too bad.
Sure I get it. It’s a busy time of year. They have other commitments, other assignments for other courses that are worth more. They have family problems. Work. Other issues which I don’t even know about. So it’s not a personal thing and I’m trying not to take it personally.
In fact, I experience this “weighing” and “worth” by students all the time. In another course where I teach television news reporting to senior year students, if they have a big project due in my class worth 16%, and one worth 12% in another class, but that one is a print story, they probably will do the print story first, and on time, because it’s easier for them, then do the TV story late, because this video story requires lugging gear around, editing, booking cameras, fighting with Final Cut Pro, and writing. This is especially true if they don’t see themselves using video skills in their careers (this is a mistaken belief, by the way.)
But not coming to class unless it’s “worth” something for marks? Well, what does “worth” mean?
You can learn a lot of “worthy” things in classroom discussions, from interaction with peers, and hearing from a mentor who has experience and advice to share with up-and-coming rookies in the profession.
Marks don’t matter in the outside world, where you might be asked to take out someone’s cancerous tumour, but if you didn’t come to class to learn how to do the proceedure while you were in med school, and you didn’t do the reading because no marks were attached, well, then, what was the “worth” of that session you missed? A lot. Especially to the patient.
If a famous actor was teaching a class on character, but there were no marks attached to one particular exercise, would it be “worth” it for the student to come and do the exercise anyway? So that when the student acts in their next film, or stage production, they will have learned one way to expand and grow as an actor, and put it to good use?
I am sad that for some students, worth is measured only in marks.
I am also incredulous that when a student who has chosen not to come to class, somehow they or their colleagues think it is acceptable for them to phone up during class to inquire of each other whether they should come to class or not. And then have the chutzpah to ask the same question of me! Do they want me really, to give them my permission to skip? Are they really looking for a parent-figure who will penalize them if they don’t show up?
It’s like when my friend in high school showed me how to smoke. Afterward, I came home and informed my mother –proudly — that I had just learned how to smoke. I remember my mother telling me that there are some things she’d rather she didn’t know about.

This isn’t high school. Students make choices. I understand that. But I just wish that when they make their choices, they realize they will have to live with the consequences…not because they lost marks, but because they lost something more important: learning.

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