Frequently Asked Questions
(by students, that is)
Is it okay if I bring my laptop to class to take notes?
No, sorry, not any more. I understand that you may well love your laptop and have a great relationship with it; I feel that way about mine, at least sometimes. But there are problems with using digital devices in classes that are devoted to the close reading of texts — and the distractions of the internet are only a part of it. You may think you’re a master of multitasking, but you are not. No, I really mean it. Seriously. Furthermore, a series of studies indicate that notes taken by hand are far more effective than typed notes; there are multiple cognitive benefits to writing by hand. And people who use laptops in class not only experience a decline in their academic performance, they contribute to lowering the grades of other people as well.
Moreover, a number of studies also suggest that reading comprehension is significantly higher for people who read on paper rather than on screens. So having a paper-based, non-digital classroom experience makes great sense for the kinds of things I teach and the ways I teach them. And anyway, you can do without your digital devices for the three hours a week or less that we’re together. It’s not a big deal.
Some have suggested that future studies, focusing on “digital natives,” will tell a different story — that these differences in analog versus digital technologies are an epiphenomenon of a dying paper-and-codex world. That could be true; and if it turns out to be true, I’ll change my policies. (As a famous economist is reported — probably inaccurately — to have said when accused of inconsistency, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”) But for now, all the studies point in the same direction, so I’m basing my policies on the state of current knowledge.
What are your policies about the format and length of papers?
All papers and exams must be typewritten and double-spaced. Your name and the name of the course should appear at the top left or right of the first page. Each paper should have a title, and the pages should be numbered. You may use either the MLA or APA methods of documentation, but whichever you choose, follow it with care. You don’t need to be too pedantically concerned with the length of your papers — if I have assigned a 2500-word essay and yours comes in at 2300, that’s unlikely to make much of a difference — but do take the guidelines seriously in a general sort of way, and remember that overly long essays are just as unwelcome as too-brief ones. (If you’re assigned an essay and I’ve approved your topic, that means that I think it’s a good fit for the length of the paper assigned, so if you find yourself considerably short or long of the target, you’ve almost certainly miscalculated something.)
What if my computer crashes just before I finish it?
Alleged computer problems will not constitute an acceptable reason for lateness. Learn to cover your bases by knowing your word-processing application thoroughly, saving your documents regularly, and keeping backup copies of all documents on different disks than the originals. (Better yet, use a service like Dropbox, which automatically backs up your documents for you.)
How important are spelling and punctuation and things like that?
Just get them right. You can do that, you’re a grownup. Check your spelling, know the difference between plurals and possessives, handle your citations consistently and accurately. It’s the least you can do. If you don’t take care in small matters like that, your readers are not going to trust you about the larger and more important matters — those concerning ideas.
When are my main assignments due?
Essays (including take-home exams) are due by 11:59 PM on the date indicated unless I specify otherwise. Unless I tell you otherwise, you should always email your papers to me as PDFs.
What are your policies on late papers and extensions?
All assignments must be turned in on time. No matter how unpolished or even incomplete an assignment is, you must turn in something on the due date to get any credit at all. If an extraordinary event intervenes to prevent you from doing your best work, do please let me know and we will try to come to an understanding. (But please bear in mind that what many of you think to be extenuating circumstances — a load of work in other classes, a roommate who requires counsel and comfort — will not in my eyes have the effect of extenuation.) My long experience in these matters has taught me that extensions are to be granted when there are no other options. People who ask for extensions are typically — not always, but typically — kicking cans down the road, and soon find themselves overwhelmed by a road full of cans.
But you say you're a Christian — don't you believe in mercy?
Okay, so here comes the part that will make your eyes glaze over. First, I don't believe that it's merciful to enable people in the habit of can-kicking. I think I am kinder to you if I press you to discover the inestimable benefit of developing more resilience and determination, to learn the relief that comes from getting something painful behind you as soon as possible — and, in order to experience that relief, acquiring better skills of organization and planning. And second, often when people ask for mercy what they mean is that they want me to give them a grade they haven't earned. And that's not mercy, that's lying: that's telling Baylor and whoever sees your transcript later that you did something you didn't do. Genuine mercy is built on truthfulness. Now, having written all that I know that not one of you will take it seriously — not because you're dumb or wicked but because there are some things you can only learn from experience. I just wrote this answer because it's important for me to put my convictions on the record.
What’s the deal with these reading quizzes you seem to like so much?
Reading is the great lost art of our time. It often seems that virtually no one knows how to read a book carefully, thoroughly, and responsively. The reading quizzes are an integral part of my effort to teach my students how to read well. These quizzes will not require interpretation; they will be strictly factual, and their chief purpose will be to make sure you have carefully read the works assigned. (The essays and exams will ensure that you have understood them.) No quizzes may be made up under any circumstances, though in special cases they may be taken in advance. You may not leave class after taking a quiz. If you do so, your grade for the quiz will be zero. Anyone whose final quiz average is below fifty percent will fail the course.
Is it okay for me to use different editions of our texts than the ones you ordered?
It really, really isn't. If I say “turn to page 173” — which is the kind of thing I say quite often — and in your text the passage I’m calling attention to is on a different page, you will quickly lose track of the conversation. You will contribute less, and learn less. This problem is greatly magnified if we’re reading a work in translation and you have a different translation. It has always been strange to me how desperate some students are not to buy the books I have assigned: they cost a tiny fraction of one percent of your tuition, and you can buy used copies for next to nothing at places like AbeBooks. So just get the right books, for Pete’s sake! And bring them to class, also for Pete’s sake!
What’s your attendance policy?
I don’t enforce attendance. But remember that you are responsible for everything that happens in every class. Please do not ask me to repeat for your benefit anything I have said in a class you have missed — if you need notes, get them from a classmate. Your written work need not express agreement with anything I say — in fact, I welcome disagreement — but it should take my comments into account and show an awareness of them. Also, of course I know when you skip. I know.
Also, while I will glad Zoom you into class if you are quarantined, whether because of illness or exposure, I will not Zoom you in for any other reason. Sometimes when you’re sick you’ll miss a day; no big deal. But the practice of setting up a Zoom call for everyone who happens to feel bad — that’s a recipe for pedagogical disaster, in several respects; above all, it creates a strong incentive for people to skip class. And people observing the class on Zoom are almost invariably disengaged and distracted. I would be creating the same bad incentives if I were to agree to repeat lectures in my office for people who missed them (a request I get surprisingly often). In short, I accept absences but I will not enable them.
What’s your grading scale?
Roughly: 98-100 is an A+, 93-97 is an A, 90-92 is an A-, and so on down the alphabet. That said, I will soon formally request that Baylor adopt my preferred grading scale, which only has four grades: woot, win, fail, and epic fail. If you have questions or doubts about the grades I give you, please read this page.
Are you a stickler for etiquette or something?
Well, yes, in a way. So come to class on time. If you must be late, come in as inconspicuously as possible and take a seat near the door if you can. Those of you who come early should leave the seats next to the door open. If you walk in front of me while I’m talking I will smite you. (Really, I mean it. I will hit you with whatever happens to be in my hand at the time, which, please remember, could be something the size of Ulysses or The Lord of the Rings or — worst of all for you — The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.) Please do not eat, sleep, read the paper, study for other classes, talk, or make rude noises in class. If you write an email asking something of me, and I respond with the requested information, write back to say thank you. In general, be respectful and courteous to me and to your classmates, as I’m sure your parents taught you to do.
What’s your policy on plagiarism?
Plase see Baylor’s Honor Code Policies and Procedures.
What should I do if I have an illness or disability that limits my academic performance in some way?
Contact the good people at Baylor’s Office of Access and Learning Accommodation and they will work with you, and with me, to set up an appropriate plan.
Why isn’t there anything on our class’s Canvas page?
Because Canvas and Blackboard are evil and must be destroyed. So-called “learning management software” is very possibly the worst software ever created by anyone for any purpose, and I will not add to the store of suffering in the world by making use of it. I explain in more detail my objections to Canvas here.
Do you keep office hours?
I do indeed. When I know what they are, I’ll send around a link to an online signup sheet. But do please read this page on what office hours are for.