"Should I Take This Class?"

10 Things to Consider Before
You Commit to Taking This Class.


Have you ever purchased a new item and found, in the packing box, little packets of silica gel desiccant that say "Do Not Eat" on them? The packages of desiccant (a drying agent) are put in the box to absorb moisture and keep the item rust- or tarnish- or wrinkle-free. But why do the packets say "Do Not Eat" on them? Who would want to? Clearly, someone, at some point, must have decided that those silica packs would make a good snack, and subsequently got sick. So, ever since, silica packs have the patently obvious instructions printed on them: "Do Not Eat." We may feel insulted by the warning-- after all, it's obvious you shouldn't eat desiccant. But, one person in a thousand may really need to be told that desiccant shouldn't be eaten.

It is in this spirit that I list the following class rules. To the vast majority of students, I am merely stating the obvious on this page. Beyond that, I list classroom rules that apply to my classes in particular. Ninety-nine percent of students don't have any problems with my class rules, but you might, so this is your chance to review them before you take the class. Read them over, and if you can live with them, great--glad to have you on board. If you stay in my class, that indicates you are willing to abide by the rules that follow.

1. Finding Time for the Class. If you can't find time to participate in this class, or you can't attend regularly or on time, you shouldn't take this class. Please don't ask me to reschedule class deadlines around your work or personal commitments, or to give you a lighter load than the rest of the students in the class--that communicates to me that my class is a "second priority" to the rest of your life. That's fine with me, but understand your grade may reflect your prioritizing. If you must miss class because of your work load, class load, important personal commitments, relationship, family, personal issues, aging automotive hardware, etc., by all means do what you need to do in order to remain safe, healthy, and sane. There are many things in life that are more important than getting top grades, but remember that not attending class (and the penalty associated with it), at the end of the day, is still your responsibility. If you choose to maintain a heavy work load, or take a ton of units so you can graduate at a certain time, or if you have a fabulous opportunity to do a once-in-a-lifetime thing, remember that there are other students who have chosen to earn less and go slower so they can invest more time in their classes--don't be surprised when they get higher scores! You are responsible for your attendance and for the choices you make in prioritizing your time, so please don't ask me to make special allowances for constraints that keep you from attending. If you ask me, "Can I be absent from class?" I'll always say yes, because you're a free agent and you can do what you want. That doesn't mean your absence goes unrecorded. Health issues are another matter, and we will abide by USC's guidelines for health-related absences. Your personal life, values, and commitments are more important than getting every possible point in my class. But it's not my responsibility to "comp" points in the class. ("Comps" are extra benefits that casinos use to encourage continued gambling.) As soon as I start "comping" points, I'm no longer running a fair classroom; I'm running a casino! "Comps" penalize the students who've made it to class and done the work. Good attendance is expected. Exceptionally poor attendance (missing the equivalent of weeks of class) can lower your final grade considerably. See the absence policy on the main syllabus page and USC's attendance policy for more information.

While we're on the topic of making time for the class: take a moment now, and check the final exam time for our course, to be certain you can attend. It's posted on the class calendar.

2. Class Policies. There are a few policies that are mandatory to insert into any Annenberg syllabus, found in the Statement on Academic Conduct and Support Systems. In addition, there are policies unique to this class. The policies indented below are mandatory USC or Annenberg policies:

Academic Integrity Policy: The Annenberg School for Communication is committed to upholding the University’s Academic Integrity code as detailed in the SCampus Guide. It is the policy of the School of Communication to report all violations of the code. Any serious violation or pattern of violations of the Academic Integrity Code will result in the student’s expulsion from the Communication degree program.

Plagiarism: Presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, either verbatim or recast in your own words – is a serious academic offense with serious consequences. Please familiarize yourself with the discussion of plagiarism in SCampus in Section 11, Behavior Violating University Standards https://scampus.usc.edu/1100-behavior-violating-university-standards-and-appropriate-sanctions/. Other forms of academic dishonesty are equally unacceptable. See additional information in SCampus and university policies on scientific misconduct, http://policy.usc.edu/scientific-misconduct/.

Disabilities Policy: Students requesting academic accommodations based on a disability are required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP when adequate documentation is filed. Please be sure the letter is delivered to me during the first or at latest, second day of class. DSP is open Monday-Friday, 8:30-5:00. The office is in Student Union 301 and their phone number is (213) 740-0776

Support Systems: A number of USC’s schools provide support for students who need help with scholarly writing. Check with your advisor or program staff to find out more. Students whose primary language is not English should check with the American Language Institute http://dornsife.usc.edu/ali, which sponsors courses and workshops specifically for international graduate students. The Office of Disability Services and Programs http://sait.usc.edu/academicsupport/centerprograms/dsp/home_index.htmlprovides certification for students with disabilities and helps arrange the relevant accommodations. If an officially declared emergency makes travel to campus infeasible, USC Emergency Information http://emergency.usc.edu/will provide safety and other updates, including ways in which instruction will be continued by means of blackboard, teleconferencing, and other technology.

Discrimination: Discrimination, sexual assault, and harassment are not tolerated by the university. You are encouraged to report any incidents to the Office of Equity and Diversity http://equity.usc.edu/ or to the Department of Public Safety http://capsnet.usc.edu/department/department-public-safety/online-forms/contact-us. This is important for the safety whole USC community. Another member of the university community – such as a friend, classmate, advisor, or faculty member – can help initiate the report, or can initiate the report on behalf of another person. The Center for Women and Men http://www.usc.edu/student-affairs/cwm/ provides 24/7 confidential support, and the sexual assault resource center webpage sarc@usc.edu describes reporting options and other resources .

Athletic Competition Policy: Please note that students who are not designated officially as USC athletes (such as ball-handlers, therapists, etc.) are not covered by the same attendance policies that govern the athletes.

If you are one of the rare students who think that any of the class policies or topics are not to your liking, this is your chance to reconsider taking this class. You aren't required to engage in anything you find reprehensible, so please find a class with which you're comfortable. Remember, you're in this class because you choose to be, so make your choice carefully. I've done my best to give you an up-front view of what the class will entail, so you aren't stuck in a class you don't like. This is one of the reasons I want you to read the syllabus carefully, to decide whether you like the topics (found in the class calendar), and whether or not you can live with the policies of this class.

3. Grades. Your grade in this class will be based on merit and results (not effort, or improvement, or the desire for a certain score). It's the output that counts for grades--I can't grade based on input! Neither will your grade in this class be based on grades you've earned in other classes, or other variables that are not relevant to your grade. Grades are earned by you, not "given" by me or the TA. To be fair to the whole class, I don't dispense grades as favors, or as signs of personal approval, or as acts of individual concession, or out of sympathy--grades must be based on merit, or the grading system fails. I strive to assign grades based on your results and in accordance with the school's protocols. I design my grading process so that bargaining, influence, and appeals to sympathy and victimhood (see an analysis of such tactics here) have as little impact on your grades as possible. Although I will likely be personally sympathetic, and may be able to offer advice as it pertains to this class, please don't ask me to turn my personal sympathies for your situation into grade increases--that's manipulating the system. Some students have gotten lower grades in my classes than they get in other classes -- and some, higher. The letter grade of A is reserved for the top performers in the class, and Bs are for good students. I use objective multiple-choice tests in my classes, because I want an objective portion to the grade. Some folks (particularly graduate students) complain about tests. If you object to objective measures, be forewarned: I use exams. In courses where there are multiple exams, I tend to grade the first test (where you get accustomed to my test style) higher than subsequent tests (by which time you will know what my tests are like, and will have had more chances to 'learn the ropes'). Both high and low grades are likely when the curve is used for grading, and while grade inflation has affected my grading as well as most other professors', most of my classes are graded on the curve to some degree. Grade inflation, where all students get high grades, has a backlash effect, since good graduate schools and employers have become aware of which institutions artificially inflate grades. Regarding the curve -- I use the word "curve" in the statistical sense-- I calculate z-scores ((score-mean)/standard deviation). Z-scores have the benefit of being truer gauges of performance relative to the class as a whole, since they consider your distance (deviation) from the class mean. That means, in essence, that the difficulty of the test is factored out, since your score relative to the possible score isn't a factor. Instead, your score relative to the average score is measured. Also, z-scores effectively curve from the middle of the class, not the top, so the geniuses in the class won't ruin the curve (as they can in classes that don't use z-scores). I have never taught a class where the curve didn't benefit students--almost every test I've ever written, if it is curved, has been curved up, not down, so the curve is almost always to your benefit. Note also that I often factor student ratings into the grades. I may ask students to read your report and rate it, along with others. These student-generated rankings will factor into your grade. I've noticed that students will often put more effort into an assignment if they know their peers are rating the presentation.

4. Active Involvement. Effort and benefit are correlated in education, and my tests and exercises are designed to require effort, not merely presence or memory. Intuition alone will not get you a high grade. There are dry, boring, difficult, and unpleasant tasks and topics in almost every class, but you must still master them. The whole point of formal higher education is that we make you think about things you wouldn't have otherwise. If not, you could have gotten educated without our help and saved a lot of money. Keep in mind that this is the nature of our relationship--I'm supposed to challenge you; I'm supposed to get you to read, to take notes, to think critically--that's my job. Still, your best educator is you. Your peers can be another good source of education, and so is your textbook. Seeking entertainment rather than education, some students ignore the text and concentrate on the entertaining portions of my lectures. This is a mistake. As your professor, I'm only one source of information to which you need to attend, and I can't lay out the material during a short oral presentation the way your text author can. So don't overlook mastering the reading assignments. In addition, your in-class involvement should rotate around class discussions, not interpersonal communications. I enjoy an informal and friendly classroom, but please don't hold running conversations while lectures are in progress, and be prepared to explain in-class exclamations.

How to Engage in Classroom Discussions:

• It’s volleyball, sort of. Good classroom conversations go something like an interesting volleyball game. The ball should go back and forth over the net a number of times, and should be touched frequently by all team members (otherwise why are they there?). Conversants shouldn’t merely register opinions, they should try to push the ball back up into the air for someone else to hit. The analogy ultimately fails, because the goal of a volleyball game is to force the opponents to fumble and therefore stop the parry. In classroom conversations, there are no decisive “wins” of this sort, and “spiking” the ball with volume, volubility, or vehemence constitutes a foul. In a good classroom discussion, the game should end when the various perspectives have been aired and examined, but before mere repetition sets in. When we hear: “…but what I’m saying is…” followed by repetition of previous commentary, it’s time to end that volley and start another. One of the worst things that can happen in a classroom discussion is for one participant to think the appropriate class discussion analogy is football, ie, where you grab the ball, keep it away from everyone else, and run off the end of the field with it. Neither is tennis a good analogy, where a stadium of silent onlookers watch two sweaty, grunting competitors whack the ball back and forth between them. In good classroom discussions, everyone participates. If you don’t think you have anything to contribute, take that as a sign you need to hit the books and get informed!

• How to respect your conversational partners. We all know we’re supposed to show respect in a conversation—here’s how. If you disagree with your colleague, do it with grace and panache, and with a chance at further enlightenment. Don’t just bludgeon. Psychologist and famous game theorist Anatol Rapoport had four rules on how to compose critical commentary in a group discussion: (1) Attempt to re-express the colleague’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your colleague says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” (This routes you around the sort of distortion and cheap parody of your colleague’s position that we hear so often in political wrangling. Politicians and propagandists love to distort their opponents’ positions.) (2) List any points of agreement, especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement. (3) Mention anything you’ve learned from your colleague’s comments. (4) Only then are you permitted to rebut or criticize your colleague.

• Taking about culture. Talking and thinking about culture is fun. It “looms large” as an explanation of human behavior. Each one of us is an expert in our own culture, or so we intuitively believe. (Are we? Have we really studied our own cultures? Are we accurate representations of them? Can we infer the rules of the culture in which we live, by observing our own behaviors? Is that accurate?) Of course, discussions of culture can also be divisive, as they focus attention on human differences rather than human similarities, and often border on judgments about which cultural approach is “best.” There’s also the well-documented issue of “overattribution to culture,” where we tend to ascribe to culture, things which may more accurately be ascribed to environmental constraints, to role demands, to differentials in status or experience, and so on. “Culture” is a handy catch-all explanation of behavioral causality that generally gets widespread agreement…to not respect culture as an explanation, we feel, would be somehow unenlightened. A word of caution here: if you’re in the minority as a representative of your culture, and you make a general statement about your culture, don’t expect others to help you volley the ball. Rules of politeness don’t allow non-members to point out that a culture’s self-appointed representative may misunderstand his or her own culture. I’ve seen many cultural statements (both accurate and inaccurate) end discussions, because nobody wants to debate, question, or follow-up on the representative’s opinion. It’s a little like conversational footballing—that is, catching the ball, and running off the field with it.

• Big Ideas. Our intellectual lives are permeated by idea systems. You may recognize these idea systems as philosophies, religions, ideologies, political orientations, or schools of thought. These are systems invented by thinkers who marketed their ideas so skillfully, that followers “buy into” these systems to various degrees. You may have noticed that hardcore ideologues can be remarkably wound up about their ideas. They can go into “preach and recruit mode” when given the chance, and actively take every opportunity to defend and promote their ideology or idea system. Ultimately, this sort of proselytization in the classroom serves to limit discussion, and to end the conversational volley prematurely. A classroom shouldn’t entertain a dominant ideology, since it reduces diversity of thought. Beware thoughtlessly denigrating other people’s systems. For example, I once had an adult student make an overall denouncement in class of approximately half the American population, saying: “I hope those [name of group] will just die off and go away.” Wishing death on your ideological opponents is bad form, and shouldn’t be done in classroom discussions.

• PC Violations (PCVs). Recently, one of my classes analyzed failed advertising campaigns, and discovered the #1 reason that commercial campaigns failed was due to marketers making “Politically Correct Violations,” ie, offending a politically active subgroup of the population with a real or imagined slight. These offenses were usually inadvertent, but still deadly to the campaign and harmful to the company. Searching for PCVs in classrooms can also become something of a sport, where either fun or offense (or both) can be had when someone stumbles, or makes an inadvertent comment that is, or could be construed as, offensive to a subgroup of the population. Most of us strive to be inoffensive, and the Statement on Academic Conduct above outlines this imperitive. On the other hand, the activity of scanning and censuring all classroom commentary for even the slightest of PCVs has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in a classroom—such censorship tends to shut down discourse, which is the lifeblood of spirited classroom discussions. If you believe the professor or a fellow student has made a PCV of sufficient gravity that it needs to be “called out,” please do so in an interpersonal discussion after the event.

5. Ideological Agendas & Diversions. I strive to avoid off-topic discussions (far too often about Hollywood glitterati, pop-tarts and popular singers), as well as divisive, ideological, and snarky comments in class--and I ask that you help me do this. If you're one of the rare folks who has an overt political or ideological agenda, prone to making political ejaculations in class, taking "shots" at leaders of an opposing political party, if you have a narrow ideological perspective that you feel compelled to share, if you are driven to make snarky comments about other people's political parties, gender, race, or belief systems, please don't do it in my class. My class is not a recruiting zone for ideology. If you want to talk about subjects other than those prescribed in the syllabus, please take a class that covers those topics. If you're off-topic, or ideological, or attempt to promote your activist cause, the rest of the class won't appreciate it, and you'll make it difficult for me to teach the conscientious and open-minded people who want to learn about the topics we're studying.

6. Seeking Feedback. If you want more feedback than I or the TA have given you about how you're doing in the class, first schedule a time to meet with the TA (or me) to review your progress. It is your responsibility to seek out information about your progress, if you want more than we have supplied. Neither I nor the reader can project with any certainty what your final grade will be until all the grades are in. You'll need to make your own estimates about how you're doing, and manage your study time likewise. Be certain to give yourself a comfortable safety margin, so that you overshoot (rather than undershoot) your grade goal. Grades tend to go lower, not higher, toward the end of the semester, so you need to apply yourself steadily throughout the semester. I prefer to talk to students in office hours, or by telephone. Email is not an acceptable medium for grade feedback, for special requests, for negotiations, etc. Never assume I've received an email; pick up the phone instead.

7. Special Cases & Negotiations. Again, this writeup is for the small minority of students who need to hear it; the vast majority of students are responsible, mature, ethical, and don't try to negotiate special deals. I strongly resist negotiating special deals or personal accommodations for the sake of fairness to the whole class. The last thing I want to do is hand out favors that may disadvantage the students who handle the inevitable difficulties of college with fortitude and maturity. But I have met more than a few students who have the motto, "It doesn't hurt to ask for a special favor or a higher grade, you might get one." Don't be surprised if I say "No," or in rare cases, "Yes, but there will be a penalty." If I feel you are trying to 'game the system,' the penalty may be substantial. I welcome your calling grading errors to my attention, and making a case on objective and policy grounds. But when it comes to aversive and repeated grinding on the reader or me for a higher grade, we'll pass. The way I handle 'bad' test questions (on tests where the class performs poorly) is to throw out those that seem to confuse the majority of the class by employing a curve. I seldom give points for ideosyncratic readings of test questions. (Ideosyncratic readings are uniquely convoluted readings of, "reading into," or parsing the meanings or words in questions in an elaborate or excessively literal way until the reader can claim an ambiguity. See the page on Student Spin for examples. Obfuscation of this sort is a talent cultivated by attorneys, but this isn't a court room!). If you feel you need special accommodation, talk to me in person, and put your request in writing and hand it directly to me on a piece of paper for consideration (email is not accepted for any negotiations, no matter how minor). Please understand that a professor must attempt to be universal and timely in the way he or she redresses class issues, as well as conform to University guidelines. Class deadlines are firm. If you have a legitimate and documented reason that I have pre-approved for missing a class deadline, understand that your make-up work and subsequent deadline will be at my convenience and your makeup work may not be the same as your classmates receive. Please submit documentation of any excuses that foreseeably relate to missing deadlines or to absences in classes before they occur, and refer to USC policies that favor your request. In the case of a medical emergency that causes you to miss a test or presentation or report, please have someone contact the TA or the professor within 24 hours of the emergency, and be certain to collect a physician or emergency medical service report. The University's policy on incompletes requires documentation of an illness or grave emergency, and the illness or emergency must have occurred after the twelfth week of the semester.

Did you see Alicia Silverstone in the movie "Clueless?" You may recall her character Cher received bad grades at the end of one semester, and she successfully raised them after the fact--by negotiation with her teachers! Her father, and attorney, declares he "couldn't be more proud" of her negotiation skills and her new grades. It's very funny to imagine, and it's worth a laugh, but once in awhile you meet a real student who thinks that grades are open to negotiation! Too much Hollywood, folks--in most cases professors can not, and in other cases professors should not, negotiate grades. Grading policies are designed to reward performance, not pressure. "As if," Cher! It wouldn't work here.

The Monkey on Your Back. Here is a management analogy of how work does or doesn't get accomplished in business. A manager delegates a task to an employee (an example of "down-monkeying,"where the manager transfers the monkey from his or her back to the employee's back). If the employee is a good one and "takes the ball and runs with it," that means the employee will overcome obstacles as they crop up and perservere until the assignment is completed. However, an employee can also opt to "up-monkey" the manager by encountering an obstacle and then stopping the process because of the obstacle. This is essentially throwing the "monkey" back onto the manager's back again. This is usually accompanied by an excuse: "I tried to call the person you told me to contact but the phone was busy. Now what do I do?" or "I tried to find that report you requested but it's missing. Now what should I do?" Or, "I ran out of time to complete that task. What do you want me to do now?" In these examples, the employee has cleverly transferred the assignment from the employee's to-do list and back onto the manager's to-do list, rather than finding a way to complete the task. The up-monkeying employee defends his or her efforts by saying, "Hey, I gave it a shot. I tried!" But the employee didn't try very hard, wasn't persistent, and wasn't flexible or creative in finding a way to complete the job. Managers don't promote employees that up-monkey too often, because up-monkeying doesn't get the job done (even though the appearance of engaging in effort is preserved). Please don't up-monkey me on assignments I've given you, unless you've exhausted all your alternatives, and you're not contacting me last-minute.

8. Workload Flexibility. You may not be asked to do exactly the same amount of work that another person in this class does. You may be asked to work harder in this class than in some others you have taken. Your article to review might be longer or shorter than another's, or harder to find. You may have to go to several libraries to find your assignment where others may not. You may be having a difficult semester while someone else is not. You may get a version of the test that's more difficult or easier. Your partner in a project may not be as good a student as you are, and you may have to bear more of the load in group projects. You may have to sit in the back or the front of the class. Your seatmate may distract you, may forget to wear deodorant, may have a large chunk of spinach on her teeth. While I value a fair classroom, I can't guarantee absolute equivalence of experience in this class. Take comfort that random distribution is the next best thing to ideal fairness.

9. An Imperfect Professor. If you can't learn from a professor who's error prone, forgetful, inflexible, biased, and easily distracted, then this isn't the class for you. I have all the above faults and more! Please keep in mind that I am adjunct faculty (click here for a short explanation). That means that I am an independent businessman (I'm in the business of corporate, governmental, and political influence consulting & training), and also that I teach part-time at the university. You'll notice that all of my materials (overheads, website, presentations, handouts, etc.) are copyrighted, because they are part of the proprietary teaching and training program owned by Working Psychology. You may take notes from whatever materials I share with you in class, and you may keep any hardcopies of documents I hand out in class. On the other hand, please don't audio record lectures, or take photographs or movies in class; please don't copy, duplicate, audio-record, photograph, or distribute any of Working Psychology's copyrighted materials--they are how I earn my livelihood. Any overheads used are not for duplication or distribution, and copies of overheads will not be handed out in class. Please remember that being an adjunct professor means that, unlike assistant or associate professors, I'm not supposed to be on campus for long hours during the work week; in fact, I've signed a document promising the administration that I won't be! You are, however, welcome to call me during working hours. You'll receive my phone number in class.

10. The Syllabus. If you are unwilling to abide by the rules that I have made for the class, or accept the grades I ultimately give, this is your chance to find another class better suited to your preferences. If you stay in my class, that means 1) you agree to abide by the class policies I've set forth and will make allowance for the subjects enumerated above, and 2) that you agree to not eat silica gel packets or any other sort of desiccant while in my class!

Copyright © 1998-2017 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.