An instructor comes to me with a quibble about late policies in his department’s composition courses. I’m feeling ornery and rushed when he e-mails, I’m feeling curious and obstinate, so I ask him: “What is your pedagogical reason for penalizing late work?” I know when I ask this that it’s not really a question that needs asking. Is it? Penalizing late work is an assumed practice in teaching. Not unlike the way that “you’ll sit there until you finish your vegetables” is an assumed practice in parenting. Or teaching your dog to sit is always part of dog training. But this morning when he e-mails me and I’m feeling ornery and curious, I ask the question.

The response comes back something along the lines of: “I enforce deadlines because there are deadlines in the real world, like taxes, etc.” It’s the response I expected, the response I think just about any instructor would give me in answer to the question. I’m far from satisfied with the answer, though. This is a composition classroom, I want to tell him, and not a course on teaching young people to turn in their tax forms on time. Not only is that decidedly not one of the course objectives, it’s not a responsibility—as an English teacher—I want to take on.

The problem of his response alarms me. I did not become a teacher to help students learn to meet deadlines set by the Federal government, their future employers, or even other teachers. I became a teacher because I am interested in genius. To me, the cultivation of genius is the most compelling thing about hanging out with students (or, really, anyone)—grading, paying dues to rubrics, monitoring attendance and tardiness, plagiarism, and the problem of due dates (especially in a writing classroom) all make me itch. Any time a student or group of students gives me the leeway to throw these bureaucratic trappings out the window, I’m thrilled.

That said, I want to get back to the question: “What is your pedagogical reason for penalizing late work?” To me, penalties are only perceived as useful because they coerce organization and order in the classroom. Should such coercion be part of the classroom dynamic? While organization and order are not unnecessary, if we use penalties to enforce them, aren’t we assuming that the students will not, of their own accord, organize and order themselves? Is it necessary to take that power from them in order to create a workable classroom? Could it possibly be better to establish an environment of trust? This faculty member believes the disorder that would result from allowing students to turn in work “whenever they want, without penalty” (a strategy I was not championing) will cause undue stress, added discussions with individual students, and that these will conspire to take away from the time he could spend teaching.

Which then draws the definition of “teaching” into question – (when is discussion with an individual student not teaching?)—which is, ultimately, what I want to do.

Let’s go back to the example of teaching a dog to sit. When I first got my dog, Max, I felt certain he needed obedience training, if only because he had four furry feet and wasn’t training necessary for any dog? But as soon as I started to train him to sit, to wait for his food, not to bark, etc., I found myself questioning: why are these behaviors necessary for Max? Or am I teaching him these behaviors in order to exert my dominance over him, in order to control him? If the latter is the case, isn’t it enough that he can’t eat without my permission, can’t exercise without my help? Isn’t he already dependent enough on me? So, I began to think about revising training to make it relevant to Max and his well-being. Teaching him to sit would be extremely helpful if, one day, he were walking with me off-leash and I needed him to wait up ahead or behind me. I mean, what if a car was coming and he didn’t know how to stop in his tracks and sit? Teaching him to wait for his food kept him from becoming anxious about eating; and training him to wait on a little padded bed in the corner of the room while I did yoga allowed him to be near me without interfering with my practice – saving me from frustration and him from confusion. In other words, training him should not be a matter of convenience for me, but a matter of improving his and my quality of life together.

I could go on, but my point is clear: teaching really is only about relevancy, and not relevancy to us teachers, but relevancy to our students. We are put in the most unique spot of coaching learners into a world of knowledge. What we need to remember is that their world of knowledge may not align perfectly with our own, their process may not fit our schedules, their ideas may not synch with our own. Ultimately, what they learn will be a combination of that material we provide for them, and the material provided by their lives outside our classrooms.

And then there is the fact that most students already deal with the world in some capacity. I don’t think that teachers can make any sort of argument that our students are any more isolated from the “real world” than we are… And don’t we learn a vast majority of our practical lessons (like turning something in on time) from worldly and not classroom experience?

What is the classroom meant to be? Should it be a microcosm of an unforgiving world? Should it be a retreat from that world? Should it be some kind of safe synergy of novelty, rigor, and relevant experience? And if it is this last, what “rules” must we establish in the classroom to keep our pedagogy intact?