Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Party time--or not?

Well, school is almost out for me. I always wonder how to spend the last class. (A note: I rarely if ever give finals, so there is no need for a last class review session.) I have done everything from (1) treating it like just another class--often a time for final student presentations and course evaluations, (2) using it as a time for reflection and celebration (in class), (3) inviting students to my home, or (4) going out for lunch/dinner/snacks.

Students do seem to like doing something special for the last class. I like it very much myself, because it helps give a sense of closure. We often talk about next steps in their lives, questions they want to ask about the discipline and academic life, ideas for improving the course, etc. It is lively, fun, and allows us to engage more about who they are--and not just their academic performance--for a short time. I still maintain my role as teacher and facilitator, but I am more jovial and open with them.

In one of my earliest courses, we had a party in the classroom on the last day where everyone brought food, and I wrote short notes for each student describing their strengths and ways in which I had seen them grow. The class went well, but it took a lot of energy and creativity to write 25 different notes. Therefore, while it is a wonderful idea, I have not repeated that exercise.

The in-class party is fun, but it is sometimes a challenge for students to bring food anyone actually wants to eat. Many first and second-year students don't have much access to kitchens, and even some older students cannot cook. Further, if they are on campus, they have trouble storing food until the class actually meets. I find these gatherings wind up with 14 different kinds of chips and cookies... anything easily bought. It takes my coordination to insure that we actually have some stuff that works. And, to top it all off, I don't like cooking, either.

I have gone with students to restaurants, but issues always arise about what students can afford. I usually purchase some appetizers for everyone to share, but I won't cover the costs of meals or alcohol (ever).

Actually, alcohol raises a particular issue. I have gone back and forth about whether to allow students to drink at these out-of-class, end-of-semester gatherings, and whether to drink when I am with them. I used to be a hard-liner on this issue: I would never drink with students. But as I have to encounter students in so many settings, including picnics, award ceremonies, and fundraisers at a local restaurant or bar, it has gotten a little harder to enforce. If I feel the drinking is a problem or the students are drinking too much, I will often try to leave early. I also will try to mention to my undergrads that these are professional settings in many ways, and that they should not drink like they are partying with friends. (Of course, there are times when I wish I could say the same to my colleagues.)
I feel less concerned about sharing a drink with students who are older--doctoral students, nontraditional undergrads. But even when I know my undergrads are of legal drinking age, I worry about the message it sends. It feels wrong to have a drink during what would have been a class period, even though (had we stayed in the classroom) it still would have been a party and not a class, per se. It also makes me concerned about people in recovery and the idea that I might be furthering the social agenda of booze purveyors--i.e., it isn't a celebration unless we are drinking. I don't agree with that at all. That said, I am not Carrie Nation, and I am okay with people drinking responsibly.
Ah, well. The answer to my alcohol question could be to stay on my alcohol-free (except for approved special occasions) campus. Or perhaps I should just lighten up and not worry about policing my students' behavior. But I think I will still try to walk that line between responsibility and celebration. It is a pretty thin line.

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