Thursday, October 26, 2006

Absence and Ethics Questions

I have a problem. I've had similar problems before, and I've never figured out a really workable solution.

I have a student with an apparent chronic health problem. He misses a LOT of classes, and hasn't turned in work.

So, we have an office that handles these sorts of things; they basically send us a note that says something along the lines of:

The Office of Such Things is notifying you that Student X has been contacted our office about a problem. You're required to work with Student X to resolve any problems in your class resulting from the problem which we can't specify.

PS. The Office of Such Things doesn't document health or other problems; we're merely reporting that Student X has contacted us.

Okay, so there's a problem, perhaps, with the total lack of documentation. But I sure as heck don't want to ask students for their grandfather's death certificate or a note from their doctor saying they had a really bad cold or whatever. I seriously do NOT want to have to deal with those sorts of things. And I think students are adults, and need to be treated as adults.

So let's stipulate that I totally believe that Student X has a legitimate problem. (No, I'm not naive enough that I believe all students are always telling the truth, or that no one has ever decided to hang out in bed because they don't feel absolutely A-one, but let's assume that some problems are legitimate.)

My problem is in accomodating Student X's needs. He hasn't been in class for two or three weeks at a time. Am I supposed to spend 6-9 hours going over material with him that we worked through and discussed in class in those 2-3 weeks? Am I supposed to somehow reproduce class discussion to incorporate the voices of all the other students? And who do I contact about getting an extra 6-9 hours in my week, anyway?

And how do I involve him in Peer Editing when he hasn't been to class, didn't write a paper (so no other student could peer edit his work), and he wasn't there to peer edit another student's work. Once the work is turned in, I don't really see a point to doing some artificial exercise in which I'd what, write a fake paper so that Student X could pretend to peer edit? Make a copy of a paper I've already graded so that Student X could pretend to peer edit?

Peer editing in this class is 15% of the total grade, and Student X has missed half of that.

10% of the grade will be a group project. Do I assign Student X to a group knowing that he's going to contribute minimally if at all, that he hasn't participated in discussions, and so hasn't built up the common experience and knowledge groups will need to do well in the presentations?

I've suggested dropping my class, in more extreme cases, but not all cases are this extreme, of course.

And yet, I'm not totally unsympathetic to a student with a health or personal/family crisis during the semester. I don't want to be punitive.

In a term, be it 10 weeks or 15, we do a fair bit of work in two weeks. In a 10 week term, a student who's out for 2 weeks misses 20% of the learning and work in the class. Some of that s/he can make up by reading a text book, but if the instructor is earning his or her pay, some of it can't be made up by reading a book.

Pedagogical theory and research, especially research into writing practices and learning, stress the importance of group projects of varying sorts, peer editing, presentations, and so forth, as part of the learning students should do in college.

But cases where students miss classes repeatedly, their absences will have an adverse effect on other students, and it's my responsibility to make sure that other students don't suffer because someone else isn't doing the work.

Let's imagine that all absences and such are legitimate.

How do you handle missed peer editing?

How do you handle missed group work or presentations?

How do you handle missed assignments which are time sensitive? (By time sensitive, I mean assignments we'll be working with in class or something, and which won't contribute to if late.)

How do you accomodate missed exams and quizzes?


  1. This is a tough dilemma -- but I think that you need to emphasize that class participation is needed to succeed in this particular course, especially when the weight given to group projects and peer editing is considered. Your concern regarding "causing a hardship" for this individual is admirable -- but are you doing him/her any favors by recreating your schedule? Best case scenario might be to have student retry next semester (especially if student is serious about your subject); if this is truly not an option, what about "pass/fail" based on a revised grade criteria (no class participation or group work)? )(Maybe you could up student's grade based on quality of chocolate bribe brought in...)

    P.S.: Unsure what you may or may not have done, but your sidebar is back in place. AND I couldn't post a note yesterday regarding the comment made about the sporting event due to "scheduled maintenance" on site -- what about making sure a copy of said minutes gets to the coach of the "not so boring" team?

  2. I think it's important to try to accommodate students in legitimate crisis (says the professor who just met with her student who was homeless/carless for a period of 3 weeks) BUT one must balance our desire to be sympathetic with students with our desire to educate them. I'd say that the bottom line is that it is impossible to reproduce the learning experience that this student has missed, however legitimate his/her reasons for missing them. That said, it would actually be HURTING the student to pass him/her through the course.

    1) If something truly horrible is really going on with this student, I wonder whether there is some sort of emergency withdrawal policy at your university wherein the student could withdraw from all courses in the semester to get things under control?

    2) If whatever is going on in your course is going on JUST in your course, then I think that it is on the student to have addressed the problem (either with you or through this office) much earlier than at this juncture. Had the student sought accommodation earlier, it may have been possible to come up with something equivalent to the requirements the other students face.

    As for how I handle missed peer review, group work, presentations, or quizzes, students can't make them up and they get a zero. Those are the breaks. And that's how it's got to be unless you want to start playing the excused/unexcused absences game - or unless you want to let everybody make everything up, which is just not efficient (or effective) teaching, to my mind.

    Have you actually had a conversation with this student? Not to find out what's going on necessarily but to discuss possible ways in which you could accommodate the student? Because that really does need to happen. I think that my compromise solution would be to say the student could not make up missed in class work but that he/she could complete writing assignments late as well as could complete some extra assignments to have some credit toward the grade to make up for the missed work. In other words, I would make it possible for the student to pass, but I wouldn't make it easy.

  3. Anonymous9:51 AM

    I think I might ask the Office of Such Things for a little guidance. Telling you that some unspecified problem exists, but they can't tell you what and they can't provide documentation, *and* telling you that you're expected to "accommodate," without telling you what that word implies...

    There's a university policy problem here.

    There are some classes that you just can't "accommodate" on -- choir, for example. Students HAVE to be there, and they HAVE to be physically able to sing in order to participate. Your class sounds similar, really. Accommodation for a legitimate heath reason might be allowing a Withdrawal.

  4. I've tried to talk to the student, but my email went unanswered. I thought he'd dropped, to be honest, and then he appeared in class the other day for the first time in a couple of weeks. We did talk a little earlier in the semester.

    You're right, we/I need to hold a fire to the feet of this office and see just what they suggest.

    I tend to be sympathetic, but you folks are right that the point is this students' education, and that isn't best served by his remaining in the class. But I still feel guilty and bad.

    PS. Artemis, the coach probably already knows. But the probably adjunct coach of the woman's hockey team at a school like ours has way less power than a tenured faculty member. A football coach would be a different story. It's more that this guy seems to be full of little sexist remarks.

  5. I have to admit to being sympathetic and ruthless at the same time. I tell, and have told, similar students, I'm very sorry and I wish you the best but you have missed stoo much of substance in this course and you must drop and try it again. I think sometimes these students need to be told that it is okay to sit out a semester while you deal with a chronic health problem or something of that nature. Missing 2-3 weeks at a time is not something you can recover from in a class that gives grades for in-class work. I never let students make up in-class work and that's why my absence policy works--once you've missed 2 weeks, you've missed critical information of one type or another (especially in composition). You can sympathize with the illness and struggle but you have to be ruthless about academic/educational standards.

    That said, I feel your pain. And it is never easy.

  6. The problem seems to have been solved; or at least, she's once again disappeared from the class. I haven't gotten any notice that she's dropped, but she never answered my email, or came to see me, so I can only hope.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

  7. I've had this kind of situation in the past, and it is pretty hard.... I've been wary ever since I was 100% lied to by a student who claimed family trauma her own mother, when contacted by counseling, denied outright.

    A couple of things may help.... Think about the alternate ways the student could show you skills learned. I once asked for a volunteer to give a paper for an additional peer-review so that someone with health problems could have the experience of doing the revision. I gave extra-credit to the student who read the absent student's paper and made comments.

    Also, remember that this is only one class and the purpose of the class isn't to grade their lives. Sometimes students aren't in a good place in their lives to be doing school work and they need to recognize that. Otherwise, when the inevitible F happens, they think that they are academic failures when really they just weren't able to do it at that moment. Give the student (if you can contact them) the freedom of a withdrawl, with the assurance that they'd be welcome back in your class at a later date, when they are able to complete the course.