Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Summer Email, Student Edition

Yep, one of those emails. Summer emails from students are rarely good. The best one can hope for is a request for a letter of recommendation. Those I don't mind much.

Legally, I'm not on contract until well into August, and don't have to respond to anything from students until then. But in real life, if I'm able, I'll respond, even if to say that I'm out of town when I am. And I'll try to take care of basic stuff (letters of recommendation and such). Students, of course, don't realize that we're not under contract, and not paid, for the summer months. We have plenty of work to do, but no pay. And the June paycheck is short because the school takes out our contributions to health and other insurance for the whole summer. (And I'm grateful to have insurance coverage for the summer; trust me on that.) So there's no requirement or incentive to do extra stuff that takes away from research and pleasure.

Today's email was from a student who took an incomplete in a class several years ago. Last fall, she met with me to talk about the work she needs to do to complete the class, and left promising to do it over the winter break. She's a high school teacher, and I know how difficult it is to get things done. Really, I do! I wasn't holding my breath.

And now she emailed me for an appointment to talk about the same incomplete, promising this time to finish the work in August.

I'm guessing she doesn't even have notes from our last meeting, which means I have to dig out everything from the syllabus and reconstitute it. And I'm guessing she hasn't done any work on it, either, so is starting from ground zero.

Ground zero, as I recall, wasn't the best starting place. For a theory oriented class, she wanted to do a paper on how theory isn't useful or something. Theory bad, something else (I'm not saying what) good. I remember being less than enthusiastic about the topic. I'm less enthusiastic about rehashing it again, now.

I have no desire to guilt her, but I do have an evil desire to prod her about what she's done on the project since we last talked and such. It's not that I want to make her feel bad, but I do want to stop the circling back around.


If I could give grad students a bit of advice, it would be to avoid letting incompletes go cold. Everyone in my program took incompletes now and then. Most folks seemed to finish them up in the week or two between terms; those worked out well, and often enough the person was actually able to make the paper worth the wait. Some people ended putting them off. And then put another off. And then they were faced with finishing up two or three incompletes before they could take their exam, or before they could qualify for an extra year of teaching or apply for a fellowship convincingly. Those seemed utterly painful, and the papers were never worth the wait.


  1. Anonymous12:18 PM

    that's good advice

  2. This is why my school has instituted a 1-year time-limit, with a conditional grade pre-assigned if a new grade is not assigned by the end of that year.

    I, too, have taken a few Incompletes in my graduate career. My last one was for a class that I think I was doing mostly well in...until the final paper was due. My first topic was turned down (for no reason), so I chose a topic I was less-than-enthusiastic about. I was just starting the writing of the paper when one of the professors I worked for as a TA suddenly told me I had to have the 60 papers graded by the due date of this term paper. Since I only had 3 days to grade those papers [instead of 2 weeks], I asked for an extension on the paper due date and Incomplete in my own course.

    In the end, I got writer's block on the paper, and as time passed I no longer saw its relevance to the course. I turned in a piece of crap by the 1-year time limit, and was graced with a B for the course. I took it and ran.

    I think your thought of prodding her to see what has been done so far might be for the best. If she's done nothing, recommend she choose something simple, current, and that she can do quickly. Give her a time limit this time [if your U and department allows you to put that pressure on her], and just grade whatever she gives.

    Now that I teach, I am becoming so aware of the issue of fairness [since I always get accused of NOT being fair when I apply the same policies to everyone equally without favoritism]. How is it fair that this student get YEARS to do a paper when everyone else did it in a semester?

    As I have always told my friend Rebecca, sometimes you just have to shoot for a B!

  3. We don't let incompletes go beyond one semester without a really, really compelling reason (usually major health crisis). Students are advised to take a withdrawal, if appropriate, and to retake the course during the next offering or choose something else with the help of their academic advisor.

    When you mentioned this student was a teacher, I wasn't surprised. We have the greatest problem with completions by students who leave the program to take up teaching. That's such a demanding profession where the bulk of the work time precisely matches up with university term craziness that it's nearly impossible for any newly minted teacher to stay on top of matters.

    I advise students to simply withdraw from the program if they're going to start teaching because I think we've had one student in the past sixteen years actually start teaching full-time and go on to finish their M.A.