Thursday, April 9, 2009

On Classroom "Contracts"

What follows is an open letter I sent to the editor of Thought & Action magazine.
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In the Fall 2008 Thought & Action magazine, professor P.M. Forni had an article called "The Civil Classroom in the Age of the Net". Within that article, he recommends a commonly-seen tactic referred to as a "contract" or "covenant" with the students in the class. Professor Forni writes (p. 21):

Read the covenant to your students on the first day of classes and ask them whether they are willing to abide by it. You can certainly make it part of the syllabus, but if you prefer a more memorable option, bring copies on separate sheets. Then, after the students' approval, you will staple the sheets to the syllabi just before distributing them to your class. Either way, it is of utmost importance that you do not change the original stipulations during the course of the term.

Personally, I think this is one of the more corrosive practices that I've seen widely used in colleges these days.

First of all, the practice is morally ambiguous in that it demands agreement to something being called a "contract" without an opportunity for fair negotiation on both sides. If a student actually does not agree to the presented covenant, what then? In truth, the point of negotiation is when the student formally registers for the class. When instructors bully a classroom of students into a signing statement on the first day of class, we're giving a terrible lesson into the gravity and consideration they should take before signing their name to any document.

Secondly, there is a message usually delivered along with these "contracts" along the lines of, "the covenant is an ironclad agreement that can never be broken". That is again a misrepresentation of how contracts are actually used in the business world. Contracts attempt to establish principles of intent, but they are routinely re-negotiated and amended all the time. When a disagreement erupts between parties, the existing contract may be used as a starting point for discussions, but if agreement cannot be reached, then arbitration or a court case may result. If this were not so, then the entire field of contract law would not exist.

Thirdly, the common usage of these so-called "covenants" causes some students in classes where this is not used (such as the classes that I teach) to believe that without a signed contract, they have no behavioral or performance requirements whatsoever. Obviously this is not the case (again, it's really the moment of course registration in which they agree to abide by the professor's classroom policies), but I have seen it argued by students confused by the practice.

The classroom "contract" or "covenant" of behavior is a confusing, frankly deceptive practice, and it should be avoided by conscientious instructors.

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