All students, even those who know the thrill of studying for its own sake, sometimes need to be accountable to someone.
Academic accountability begins, of course, with the commitment that students make to a particular class. Just as they are entitled to the best efforts of their teacher, so the teacher should expect nothing less than the best work from students as soon as they enter the classroom.
Many of us have long waiting lists for our courses. How disheartening it is, then, to see unoccupied seats by the end of term. In my syllabus, therefore, I include the following statement: "If you aren't here to work hard and at the same time have what I hope will be an enjoyable semester, then please drop out now so I can give the seat to someone who requires the class and who is willing and able to commit."
These words may seem a bit harsh, yet I find they have the intended effect of awakening students to my expectations and reminding everyone of the preciousness of the opportunity before them.
As unconventional as it may sound, I also believe that students are accountable to their peers. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so a class is only as strong as its weakest students. If a few intransigent individuals stroll into the room scantily prepared, for example, their attitude diffuses the focus of the class and undermines the special effort made by the more serious students to immerse themselves in the novel, poem or drama.
Each day, I want to explore my subjects as intensely, as vigorously and as searchingly as I know how. I want to ask penetrating and illuminating questions. But I can only do this if everyone has completed the day's prescribed reading and other assignments in advance; otherwise, instead of building upon the foundation of their understanding, I have to cover old ground while the rest of the class wait for the few to catch up.
Above all, students are accountable to themselves and their futures. What they are doing now, what they are reading and thinking, will prepare them for people and opportunities they will encounter in 10 years, 20 years, or more.
"Stay true to your potential," I say, "and you'll meet the people you need to meet." Nothing is wasted. Every insight, every question, every new concept contributes to students' development as human beings.
My own experiences tell me that had I coasted in high school, slipped and slid in college, or given up on graduate school, then I would not be standing before my class today. I didn't realise it at the time, but now I know that during that unstinting effort of many years ago, I was preparing myself for the privilege of working with my current students.
Finally, my observations have taught me this: if students put off their pursuit of knowledge to a suitable moment, that moment will never come. If they delay a task until conditions are favourable, favourable conditions will never arise. They need to take charge of their learning, for accountability is indeed the backbone of education.
Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US