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After eighteen years of formal teaching in theological education, at the graduate level, it is becoming apparent that students will always be students—and despite references to “students these days,” teachers will gripe about the same things.
Here are the seven questions students still ask at the graduate studies level. I’ve provided my stock answers for some.
Will this be on the test?
This is an undisguised way of asking, “Do I need to pay attention to what you’re saying today?” This is a strange question given that, like most teachers, I have to be very focused on what is worth covering in the course (a lot less than ideal) and what to leave out (a whole lot). If it’s a topic covered in class it’s worth paying attention to. My stock answer is, “You’ll need to show me you understand everything in order to pass the course.”
Can I get an excused absence?
Most seminarians have jobs or part-time ministry positions. Ministry schedules are often unpredictable, so the need to miss a class now and then is understandable. What I don’t understand is asking to be excused. I tell my students that I don’t take attendance (but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice). I tell them that they need to take responsibility for their learning and their schedules. I really don’t need to hear the reasons they don’t come to class.
How many pages does the research paper need to be?
Yes, I hear this one every year. My stock answer, “You should know better than to ask that question. Your paper needs to be as long as is necessary to complete the assignment. Take the assignment seriously and I’ll take you seriously.”
Can you repeat the question?
There can be several reasons why a student doesn’t hear a question, but the request never ceases to surprise me. It leaves me wondering how the student missed the question in the first place. But, I give the student credit for taking responsibility for his or her learning, and for helping the learning process along.
Can I turn in the assignment late?
As one who is a stickler for deadlines, this one leaves me flummoxed. I’ve never failed to turn in a book project or a writing assignment on time. The deadlines for assignments are clearly published at the start of the semester—didn’t they see it coming? The online course site clearly identifies the “drop-dead deadline” (explained as, “That means if you turn it in late, I get to tell you ‘Drop dead.’”). My stock answer, “Certainly you may turn it in late. Can I just give you a D now?”
Do I really need to buy the course textbooks?
I hardly know how to respond to this one. More often than not if I need a book I buy it rather than checking it out of the library. Once I asked the student, “Do you own a cell phone?”
Me: “How much do you pay monthly to use it?”
Me: “And do you own an iPod?”
Me: “How much did you pay for it?”
A: “About $200.”
Me: “And about how much do you spend on buying music for it?”
A: “About $50 a month.”
Me: “Buy the twenty-dollar textbook.”
Will there be a lot of reading?
I’m aware that less than 3% of the adult population in America reads books (real books, that is, not things like Harlequin romance novels), but one would expect a higher percentage among the student population. In my worst moment, I want to respond, “No, the learning modalities for this course are telepathy and osmosis. Reading is not required.” For many of my courses, I give my “How to read a book” speech during the orientation lecture. Then I recommend that students buy and read Mortimer Adler’s classic work How To Read A Book.
I’m always taken aback each time I hear these questions, even though I hear them every year. But I’m certain it won’t be long before I hear a new one that leaves me responding, “Wow. I’ve never heard that one before!”
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.