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The Daily Tar Heel

Social contracts abound in academia

On the first day of any new semester, most professors don’t expect you to stay in class the whole period. It’s become fairly common to let the class out early.

That little custom is one small brick in the foundation of the social contract between student and teacher.

We can outline this contract in broad strokes. They provide us with education, answers and evaluation. We provide them with attention, revenue and inspiration.

But there is a lot more to it than that.

How the social contract is expressed, and what we expect from each other, is partially set out in the syllabus. It also develops over time and becomes more than just a trade of grades for work.

In nearly every class, there is an expectation of attendance for all the students and the professor.

After all, that’s the basis for the money that is changing hands. But sometimes this expectation is backed up by a roll call, or by extra credit for regular attendance. Sometimes there is just the request at the beginning of the semester.

Besides attendance, expectations seem to be divided into two rough ideological camps. Some professors prefer to have a firm grasp on the room’s attention, and others will pretty much let the students do what they want.

What students want, apparently, is a live Facebook connection at all times. Sitting at the back of the room, you can see the forest of glowing screens spread out before you, like a night scene from Avatar.

Students’ opinions on the definition of a good professor vary. Students, by and large, like classes in which it is easy to score high grades. But what students like isn’t necessarily the mark of a good professor.

The best professors redefine the social contract by providing great instruction and demanding significant participation.

They make attendance meaningful, whether or not it is compulsory. An education by a great professor lights a fire within the student’s mind, which results in a desire for even more learning.

Earning good grades from this kind of professor shows that you are worthwhile in his or her eyes; it is a reward in itself.

There isn’t some magical process by which we are enthralled, starry-eyed, by the perfect professor. Rather, we can participate by adding to the class discussions, paying attention, and synthesizing the information from the professor. Both parties are responsible for making a class important.

That, in a nutshell, is the evolution of the current contract.

So next time, before you get on the Internet and start looking through your friends’ pictures, take a minute to think about how you could be adding to the class.

Some students complain about their professors, and with a little imagination we can guess that the reverse happens as well.

There are many ways for us to break the social contract. When we don’t show up for class, when we don’t pay attention, or when the professor fails to teach you the material — the contract is not being upheld.

Don’t be a part of that. Instead, seek greatness in your classes. After all, we’re only going to be here once.


Reed Watson is a junior philosophy and psychology major from Raleigh.
E-mail him at

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