Monday, August 25, 2008

Well, Why Not?

I got one of those emails from a student the other day, explaining that s/he was going to be away for a couple weeks during the semester, and hoping that we would be able to work out an arrangement so s/he could do the classwork ahead and such.

My first reaction is to wonder why a student makes plans to be away for two weeks during a semester. The thought it alien to me; it's just something that seems so impossible.

My second thought, though, is to wonder why I'm so rigid about this sort of thing. I can think of numerous things I've missed out on in life because I just thought I wasn't allowed or shouldn't do it. And then later I find out that someone else did it, and things worked out.

One problem is a sort of Kantian dilemma: if every student takes off for two weeks during the semester, we'll have problems holding good discussions (this is an upper level seminar, and not a class where one lectures or something). But that's never going to happen, right? Even if every student did it at some point in his/her career as an undergrad, it wouldn't all be in one semester. It's the sort of false dilemma that I tend to use in my rigidity to make sense of saying "no."

And it's not like the world is going to come to a stop if someone's missing. I know a lot of faculty members who just don't miss class, even if we're pretty darned sick, because we feel like we're the center of the class and that it can't really happen without us. But things can happen without us, and even if they don't, missing a day of class won't bring the world to a stop.

For so long now, I've arranged my life in terms of the academic schedule that I don't question it, though I should.

I have to think about how to make this work because it really is a special opportunity for the student, and the class isn't going to come to a total stop because s/he's not there for a couple weeks. On the other hand, I do think class is important or I wouldn't be teaching it. The class isn't a hoop to jump through, but something that I really try to make meaningful every single day.


  1. I missed time like that in med school plenty, but in regular university? Why? You are off half the year anyway...In med school, there's no real assignments or discussion, just it doesn't matter. You can skip the whole semester for all anyone cares.

    But a lit class? That's missing the point.

  2. Well, my approach when a student approaches me with this sort of thing is, no problem, but your participation grade will be suitably affected by the absences. To me, you can't substitute for or make up for what happens in class. That said, participation is never worth enough of their grade that missing two extra classes (I allow for the equivalent of a week's worth of absences) would mean that they can't get exactly the grade that they deserve in the class. I *do not* offer alternative assignments or individual extra credit, though I have on occasion given one extra credit assignment to the entire class, so nobody's getting special treatment.

    The thing is, I think that it's ultimately fine that a student makes choices about when and where to spend their time. That said, they need to learn that in the real world choices have consequences and *other people* - and yes, your professor counts as one of those - don't necessarily go out of their way to find a way to make your choices not hurt.

    So I'd let the student submit any work that was due early (or electronically on the deadline), I'd penalize the participation grade as it states I do in the course policies, and I'd wish the student good luck.

  3. Yeah, that's how I would put it: this is a choice you need to make. If you think X is more valuable to you than the class, go in peace. But it will hurt your performance in the class by Y amount, so be aware of that.

    (I'd let him make up what he could, but he can't make up what's done in the class, and for him to assert he can is sort of insulting, frankly, though students never think of it that way.)

  4. Sounds to me like s/he actually has an appreciation of the fact that something will be missed. If there's a participation/discussion aspect to the grade, of course that can't be made up, and that's the price the student pays for this other great opportunity. But it makes sense that he or she might at least get the benefit of the reading, quizzes, and writing.

  5. MSILF, My students pretty much work all year around in addition to being students, though. And this is a special opportunity.

    Cr. Crazy, I agree! But I have to say I'm impressed that this student is already working on planning how to get work done early and such, and s/he knows s/he won't be able to do class participation stuff.

    Delagar, Actually, this student's email was admirably polite in acknowledging that s/he couldn't make up in-class stuff.

    Lisa, Good point; I think this student realizes these things, too.

    Thanks for commenting all!