I am currently taking an Art History course. Today was the first day of class, and my professor informed us that we are required to bring a monetary contribution for a potluck. I wouldn't be opposed to this. However, I was taken aback when she mentioned that we are not required to participate, but if so we would not be getting points for the event, which will prevent us from getting full point completion in her class. What should I do?

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    I'm confused. Are you getting "grade points" just for bringing money? Or do you have to bring money AND participate in this event (which presumably has some educational rationale behind it) to earn the "grade points"? – ff524 Jan 10 '18 at 15:26
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    If you pay for the potluck but don't attend, do you get the points? – Nat Jan 10 '18 at 16:34
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    I thought the main idea of a potluck is to contribute food, not money... – koalo Jan 10 '18 at 17:10
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    are there any laws governing grades other than non-discrimination stuff? – Azor Ahai -- he him Jan 10 '18 at 17:43
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    Is this just a participation grade thing, or will the potluck event be somehow relevant to the class material? – SolveIt Jan 12 '18 at 1:46

I personally make sure to never require my students to spend money to actually do the course (i.e., if my courses require the students to do something that costs money, I find internal or external sponsors for it rather than having the students pay out of their pocket), but I understand that I am coming from the somewhat privileged position of teaching at a well-funded private research university here. I would guess from your question that this is not the case here.

I think you are not fairly representing what's happening here. The deal quite obviously is not really "exchange money for grade points" (that would indeed be very bad), but "exchange money for participation in a didactic event". This really is not very different than a school forcing students to pay for participating in a school trip.

I don't see how it makes a major difference that participation in the event is graded, but of course practicalities matter here. If the event was very expensive so that some students could not afford it in practice, or if the organizer would turn a significant profit from the event, I would understand why you disagree with this. However, as it sounds, this is literally "chip in a few dollars for food", and in this case I don't really think that there is anything unethical going on.

What should I do?

If you are not opposed to the monetary contribution for the potluck in the first place, I don't see how getting some grade points for it changes anything. So, I suggest you contribute to the potluck :)

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  • I can see a potluck might contribute to learning in a language class, or possibly a food-based class. How would it contribute to art history? – Jessica B Jan 12 '18 at 7:49
  • @JessicaB I don't see it as relevant whether this is a good teaching tool. I certainly wouldn't think so, but this does not make it unethical. – xLeitix Jan 12 '18 at 18:00
  • I'd see awarding credit for attendance at something irrelevant to the course as unethical, regardless of the monetary aspect. – Jessica B Jan 13 '18 at 9:05

This does seem "legal". You are not getting grade points for sending in money, but rather for participating in the pot luck. I'd like to think this is similar to a field trip. Although field trips are extremely rare in university, I did go on one in my undergraduate class. It was for credit, but we had to pay about 10$ for the school bus. This sounds like a similar situation. If you aren't opposed to paying the money (like you've stated), then just attend.

I once had a professor who cancelled class so he could attend a protest and strongly encouraged all of us to attend as well. That protest didn't really have to do with the class, either. Now I consider THAT as an issue.

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    Field trips are quite common if you're a geology or biology student :-) – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 10 '18 at 17:02
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    Is a field trip really comparable to a potluck, though? A field trip offers a way for students to learn things relevant to their course; it can be argued that it's a necessary expense. It's not so clear to me that a potluck is going to help students learn about Art History. – Geoffrey Brent Jan 12 '18 at 1:07

we would not be getting points for the event, which will prevent us from getting full point completion in her class.

I'm not sure if I'm reading the question right. Are you saying that food for the group meal will be purchased, and everyone is expected to chip in to pay for it? And not chipping in would have a negative effect on one's final grade?

If that interpretation is correct, then I suggest the following. Write an email to the instructor, with a very neutral tone, asking if you understood correctly:

Dear Prof. X,

I'm not sure if I understood you right in class yesterday. Are you saying that food for the end-of-semester group meal will be purchased, and everyone is expected to chip in to pay for it? And not chipping in would have a negative effect on one's final grade?

If the answer comes back that yes, you understood correctly, then print out the exchange, make an appointment with the department chair, and show the email exchange to him or her. Ask if that's compatible with department practice.

Of course, it's possible she didn't mean it literally. So give her a chance to clarify.

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