A funny thing happened the other day on my way to give a guest lecture. Invited by a fellow historian to speak at her university, I first met with a group of her students and colleagues for a lunchtime chat. It was a fine session: the students were engaging, the historians were engaged, and the exchanges were enjoyable. Towards the end, while the students were sharing the leftover cookies from our catered lunch, my colleague called out: “Don’t forget to come to Professor Zaretsky’s talk later today.” In reply, a student standing next to me asked, in all innocence: “This is for extra credit, right?”
The student’s question was less galling than galvanising. I gave (non-extra) credit where (non-extra) credit was due: the young man unwittingly blew the whistle on one of the lesser hypocrisies in our line of work. While speakers naturally think the world of their work, the world most often doesn’t share that opinion. Any US academic who has ever spoken at another university – or hosted a guest in their own department – will know that were it not for the hawking of extra credit, we would be speaking to bare, ruined choirs.
The academic use of extra credit is, all too often, the homage that professional vice pays to scholarly virtue.
This will seem cynical to some, wrongheaded to others. But, for many of us, extra credit is at worst benign, at best beneficial. What is wrong, after all, with doling out a few extra points here or there?
With his famous wager, the 17th-century thinker Blaise Pascal made the case for extra points. He argued that we should live as though God exists and try to believe in him since the consequences of not giving an existent God his due (eternal damnation) are worse than the consequences of giving his due to a non-existent God (certain pleasures forgone). Similarly, the benefits of the meaningful experience a student might have by attending a theatrical performance or a guest lecture he or she would otherwise have skipped is more significant than the awarding of a few extra points to a student who turns out to be beyond redemption. And even if, by offering the wager, the professor has not saved a soul, at least they might have saved the number of majors in their subject from crashing even further.
But it might not be so simple. First, there is the matter of equity. Extra credit undermines the meritocratic values of higher education. Students who have acquitted themselves of the course requirements but cannot take advantage of the extra credit assignments are effectively penalised by such a policy. Second, there is the matter of perverse consequences. Extra credit also undermines the integrity of the class by allowing students to slacken off on required readings. Why write now what can be cobbled together later?
Beyond these practical matters, though, hovers a weightier and more elusive question. Although I run the risk of having visiting scholars and writers speak to rows of empty seats, I do not offer extra credit to my students. When asked if there will be extra credit for attending this or that talk, I reply that the reward will come from the talk itself. Few replies land with a greater thud, of course. At such moments, I feel like a poor relation to Severus Snape, the outwardly severe, unloved teacher at Harry Potter’s school.
But Snape turned out to be on the side of the angels and I like to think that I am as well. Higher education has undergone a dramatic change over the past 30 or so years. University has become a place where students increasingly do the right things for the wrong reasons. Attending a guest lecture for extra credit now has the same utilitarian logic as volunteering for charities. In growing numbers, students spend their weekends volunteering less because they wish to add to the lives of others than because they wish – following advice from their academic advisers and job counsellors – to add to the columns of their résumés. Paradoxically, this suggests that volunteering is no longer truly voluntary.
By the same token, students typically no longer take classes in the liberal arts to unlock their minds so much as to lock in a grade. Shaking up their own assumptions about the world and themselves is a much lower priority than firming up their GPAs. As universities transmogrify into professional training platforms, what was once considered to be a transformational experience risks being reduced to a transactional exchange.
I generalise, of course. No doubt there are and always will be those students in quest of the transformational, just as there always have been those content with the transactional. And perhaps the subject of extra credit is too narrow to bear the existential weight I am placing on it. Nevertheless, the day does not seem distant when we give extra credit for attending not just guest lectures but our own lectures as well.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor in the Honors College, University of Houston