what's a poor teacher to do?

I’m fairly unusual among academics — at least among academics my age — in not holding to a decline-and-fall narrative about my students. Many professors (and other teachers, I suppose) tend to believe that there was some time in the past when students in general were, if not all they should have been, at least a hell of a lot smarter or better-prepared or more respectful or more disciplined (or all of the above) than they are now. That hasn't been my experience, though I believe I have discerned certain cycles: I think you sometimes get, especially within a particular major, a kind of critical mass of smart and serious students, which has the result of bringing others to a higher level than they would have reached in another environment.

Be that as it may, the cycle that I find myself in right now puzzles me. The briefest way I can put it is this: I’m having trouble getting my students to do anything I don't lay out explicit penalties for not doing. (And remember, this is at a highly selective liberal arts college.) So, for example, during the first couple of class meetings I ask them to stop by my office for a chat, just so we can get to know each other (and so I can remember their names, something I have trouble doing just from class time). Maybe a quarter of them do this.

Similarly, I ask them to give me, a week before their essays are due, proposals describing their topic, the sources they are likely to draw on, and the chief questions they want to pursue. I tell them that I want to make sure they’re on the right track, and that if we do some work together before the essays are due we can dramatically improve the chances that the final product is good work. I make it clear that this is an assignment, not a suggestion — but I do not lay down penalties for a failure to comply, nor do I offer a grade. It’s just part of the process of writing an essay for me. Compliance? One-third do the assignment, one-third send me a useless sentence or two, one-third blow it off altogether. (Oh, and guess which group’s members are more likely to complain when they get a bad grade?)

I could of course ensure much more success with all such assignments and requests by offering to give points for compliance or withhold them for noncompliance — but I just hate being that pedantically contractual. Just come on in and say Hi, for crying out loud, without my having to record your presence or absence on my spreadsheet. And if I’m willing to take the trouble to look at your work in advance to make sure you’re not digging your own grade, take me up on that. Out of sheer self-interest.

So, dear readers, what should I do? Become, at this late stage in life, the pedantically contractual person I have always dreaded becoming? Or just let them take their lumps and hope that they learn from the experience? Or is there another option I’m missing?