Saturday, February 19, 2011

An Early Thirsty on Being Flexible

I've dug myself a hole over the past few weeks.  My syllabus states that I do not accept late work, yet I have been accepting it anyway. 

It's reached the point now that snowflakes will just set it on my table and announce "this is late!"

I've thought about putting an end to this by having them sign a form when they pick up their late work.  Then again, they will gladly sign anything as long as they get to deface the document.  "Print your name" means be illegible.  And good luck getting them to find the signature line.

Normally, I would prefer to say no and let it end there.  However, this kind of thing seems to need a paper trail.  Something along the lines of "As of February 26, no late work is accepted".  I don't think that I can just say "Well it's in the syllabus to begin with" because they could easily say "You accepted Jeff's late assignment!"  Atleast with this, they have a tangible deadline beyond which there is no more grace.  As for the snowflakes who don't receive this, well I never have trouble telling them no.  They were first in line to tell the school to "fuck-off" so my conscience is clear when I tell them no.

Here is what I am really concerned about.  I have heard so many stories from teachers about how being flexible can open you up to lawsuits and all sorts of other fun.  Is this true? How can I clean up the mess that I have caused by being flexible?


  1. Don't worry about lawsuits. They've been discussed several times on CM and RYS. Genuine lawsuits, and not rumored or threatened lawsuits, from students about academic matters turn out to be quite rare. Ones from sane students that win are even rarer. Faculty should be indemnified anyway, even if they did win.

    Far more likely will be incurring the ire of your colleagues. Kindly stop being such a namby-pamby, because you are making it harder for those of us who do have standards, and enforce them consistently.

    Do what Delaney Kirk did with her "class from hell" (see, and take back your classroom. Have a special announcement, both verbally and in a written handout given to every student, that late assignments have become unmanageable and therefore will no longer be accepted, as per the syllabus, -without- exception.

    And then stick to it. Never mind getting them to sign anything, half of them can't write anyway. If they try to challenge you, call them on it. Repeat after me: -no- exceptions means -no- exceptions.

  2. Sorry, but when you flex upon items that you said you would not be flexible to in your syllabus, you opened the floodgates. Closing them is no mean feat. I prefer the school of thought I learned as a summer camp counselor: it's easier to lighten up than to tighten up.
    The likelyhood of the lawsuit seems pretty small: in my world, students threaten and blow smoke and almost never follow through. Expect to pay for this seachange in your policy on your evals, but at the end of the day, understand that your "jellyfishness" has earned this for you.

    As for how to clean up the mess: post a message on Blackboard, send an email to the entire class, and GROW A SPINE! Flexibility can be a good thing, but stick to your syllabus, dammit! When you play fast and loose with your class, your students come to my class and expect the same damned thing. The upshot is, of course, they think you are really nice and I'm an asshole by maintaining standards. Also, the lesson you teach your students is that deadlines are flexible, which is a really awesome message to give students going into the workforce: you can ignore your boss and deadlines don't really matter.
    No, you are not responsible for the downfall of western civilization, but you are not doing your part to slow its' decline! Handholding your students and not holding them accountable for deadlines makes you a poor role model and that's not a good message to pass on to your students! Treat them like the adults that they are and that means setting and maintaining rules! The most mature students will thank you for this and the adult children will be whiny babies.

  3. What makes things difficult is that a student will tell some sob story to the Chair without having spoken to me first. Then the Chair asks me to accept that person's late work. If I tell the chair "okay" then I am contributing to flakey behavior. If I refuse, then I might not get classes. There is no union where I work.

  4. I think you have to let the chair know that you consider sticking to the terms of a contract an essential skill for those entering the workforce, and that you are committed to helping develop those skills even if it sometimes makes you less popular than teachers who shirk that commitment. Does your chair accept late applications when filling a position? Does he/she let you be late to meetings? What about starting class late, or just skipping it? Are you allowed to do that? I presume you are a person who meets time obligations; helping your students to become the same kinds of people is a service to them. Surely there is a gracious way to deliver that message to the chair.

    But a chair's job is not to undermine his/her faculty's authority with students, either.

  5. So are you saying that every single student has gone to the chair with a sob story? There are certainly times when exceptions can be made (which should be in your syllabus), but it sounds like you're looking for justification for your letting yourself down (my chair made me do it). And your chair should be withholding judgment before speaking to you!

    I think if you publicly make a stand and then STICK TO IT, DAMMIT, you'll be OK. I agree with Chemistry that you're not doing the students OR your colleagues any favors (b/c now they don't respect you, either). Whenever I find myself saying, "Nope, can't accept it now," I remind myself that the same student would likely go back to his friends and say, "Prof. Ack is such a pushover. Just tell them you had a headache/cramps/flat tire." They gloat about such things. They do! Just like we do!

  6. How can I add something to my syllabus about accepting late work only under certain extreme circumstances? I wouldn't want to open up a huge loophole, but I don't want things turned in weeks later, either.

  7. I have my syllabus read as follows:

    If you plan to be absent from class, negotiate an excused absence with Dr. Ack before you are absent. Simply informing Dr. Ack of your absence is not a negotiated absence. Any work missed while absent from class will result in an F unless it is submitted ahead of time or you have negotiated with Dr. Ack for an excused absence.

    If you are sick, have an emergency, or have a medical condition that renders you unable to come to class, notify Dr. Ack before class (use that cell phone!). Upon your return, bring official notification to Dr. Ack. The notification needs to show sufficient documentation to warrant a legitimate excuse to make up the work (e.g. a Health Services note; funeral program; AAA receipt, etc.). Work missed due to illness that does not result in a doctor's visit will be dealt with at the discretion of the professor AS LONG AS THE PROFESSOR IS NOTIFIED BEFORE CLASS.


    Students let their friends know that they aren't going to be in class (b/c often, I can ask a friend, "Where is Slacker Steve?" and they respond, "Oh, he's at Target." They can just as easily let the professor know. I tell them this on the first day. I also tell them that if they're going to be sick, they'd better let me know, otherwise, I won't work with them. So far, no one, in 15 years, has challenged me on whether they were REALLY too sick to leave a message or send an email before class.

  8. I no longer take attendance. It is a pain in my ass. I tell them that I don't care why they are absent. If they are sick, in fact, they should stay home rather than infect the rest of us. On the other hand, I do teach in a discipline where missing class screws you, but not me. I don't run labs that have to be re-run for you, etc.

    Anyway, in my classes ONLY thing that they absolutely positively MUST do is be present for exams and turn in their (relatively small) number of assignments on time. They can only be excused from this if they have documentation. (Doctor's note, coach's note, police report.) A student actually brought me a copy of his admission records to the hospital when he got hit by a car on the day of his exam that instance I felt like the cast might have been sufficient, but I very gravely took his admission document and filed it. My colleagues also like to bash athletes, but my student-athletes have also been very aboveboard in scheduling make-up exams well in advance and even accepting different tests from those their peers take. (No 'but our questions were haaaaarder' crap so far.)

    I find that I am inclined to be spineless, and having fewer rules makes me much more likely to stick to them.

    I also think that FFF has an excellent idea...the phrase "has become out of control / abused" is ideal. While it's best not to lose control in the first place, the idea that they did this to THEMSELVES can be powerful.

  9. the problem, as I see it, with inflexible policies is that sometimes, the flexibility is humane and sensible. and you should have the perogative to make exceptions according to your judgement. After all, shit does happen, and when we need a break, we hope our students give us the courtesy--I see no reason why we wouldn't do the same.

    but, the sob stories are just too much. one thing after another. and most of the time, I just don't want to hear it.

    At my current institution, there's a standard penalty for turning in late work - 10% of the final grade, per 24-hours or part thereof. This means no late work EVER after 10 days - and most of the time, 2 days is enough to put a serious hurt on a student's grade. It works. and profs. have discretion to grant extensions - IN ADVANCE.

    As an undergraduate, I had a professor who allowed each student two "free late" days over the course of the semester - to be used in any combination on any paper assignment. After your two free-late days, your grade on an assignment dropped precipitously. No excuses were asked for, none were given. If you blew your days early on for no good reason, then found yourself in a bind later on - tough shit. Not using your late days at all was worth something at the end of the course, I think.

    I've liked both of these systems.

  10. Documentation. It's the only way to go. There are very few legitimate excuses that can't be documented.

  11. I have a clear late policy in my syllabus (X% off per day late up to X days, after which I won't take the work any more). I also say it's up to my discretion whether this gets waived, and I may ask for documentation. So far no one has complained. There's a clear guideline, but I also have flexibility to either excuse a late paper if I feel it's warranted, or simply say no if the student can't provide proof or I think they're bullshitting/abusing my good faith.

  12. > ...sometimes, the flexibility is humane and sensible.

    Then I mark them "excused," upon being given a copy I can keep for my files of their documentation. I never give make-ups for anything, nor do I accept late work, EVER, not even for good reasons. Sometimes I do need to explain to exceptionally dim student-athletes that being marked "excused" doesn't count against them, but it's most important to be clear: NO exceptions!

  13. P.S. Crazyprof's chair deserves a kick in the pants, the meddling jagoff. He needs to be told that his interference in your class is undermining your students' education: among other things, they need to learn the importance of deadlines. I know, I've had chairs like that too.

  14. What does one do with a meddling Chair/Dean?

  15. A colleague of mine who is a genius invented a late policy. It goes like this: late work does not get comments. You can tweak it a little to have a late deadline, so you have the "no comments" deadline and after that the "marks off and no comments" policy, whatever.

    The genius of the policy is that "no comments" includes "no arguing about your grade". I emphasize to my students that comments have a value, and that they can decide, as adults (HO HO HO), whether the value of the comments is worth it to them, or if they need the extra time.

    Then, of course, it is necessary to apply the policy, but it's not one students tend to argue with. Your work's a couple days late? Fine, no skin off my nose. Not having to comment on their work cuts my marking load way down.

    Last semester I had one slacker who handed all his work in late, got Cs or lower on all of it, and couldn't do a thing about it. He came to see me before the exam and said "I know I can't ask you for feedback on my late work, but would you please..." and I just smiled and said, "nope, sorry."

  16. @crazyprof: Sadly, one's options for dealing with a meddling chair/dean can be limited, particularly if one doesn't have tenure. The next time yours tries to meddle, though, I would simply point out, diplomatically and in so many words, that late papers have become unmanageable (they seem to like the word, "unmanageable"), it never should have been this way in the first place, your syllabus explicitly says so (they like this too), and above all, your students need to learn the importance of deadlines. Good luck!

  17. P.S. When dealing with a meddling chair/dean, try reasoning: it's supposed to be what we do here in college. Above all, stay calm at all times. Losing one's cool means losing control of the situation. If the meddling chair/dead yells at you, do -not- yell back. That I had to learn all of this the hard way made my tenure journey much harder than it had to be.

  18. "I never give make-ups for anything, nor do I accept late work, EVER, not even for good reasons. Sometimes I do need to explain to exceptionally dim student-athletes that being marked "excused" doesn't count against them, but it's most important to be clear: NO exceptions!"

    Froderick - I understand the policy, as stated above, on things like quizzes and homework - and even midterm exams, I think - but how would being "excused" from an assignment that's worth 30-40% of one's final grade work? It makes everything else count more AND if the paper/project is designed to demonstrate mastery of a significant part of the course, how on earth do you evaluate the student?

    Just wondering how this works in practice.

  19. Not speaking for Froderick, just for myself:

    What students can be excused from are scheduled, in-class sorts of things: exams, quizzes, and so on.

    All of them are cumulative. Each of them requires mastery of the material preceding it, for the entire course (or courses, if it's a sequence).

    If your subject doesn't permit that (and how would it not?), then you'll have to give makeups. But I don't, and I gather Frod doesn't either.

  20. @VC: None of my assignments count that much. There are nine homework assignments, due on Fridays throughout the term, counting between 2-6% each, and counting 25% total. There are two mid-term exams, the lower of which is dropped, counting 10%. Twelve near-weekly labs count a total of 10%, with unexcused absences for three or more counting an F for the entire course. The research paper, 1200 words long and due on the last day of instruction and returned to students via postal mail after the term is over, if they'll be good enough to give their postal mail addresses, is worth 20%. (And yes, I read all 100 of them, every term.) The Final Exam is worth 35%, and is comprehensive. Except for lab, I don’t take attendance or count participation. Frankly, if student s don’t want to come to class, I’d rather they don’t come and spoil it for the students who do want to be there.

    If they miss anything but the Final Exam, they get marked either zero (if it's inexcusable or undocumented), or get marked "excused" if it is documented. If they miss both mid-term exams, and if it's documented, they get marked "excused," but cases of this are rare: even the dimmest student-athletes sense that it’s in their interest to take at least one of the mid-term exams. If they miss the Final Exam for a good reason that is documented, they get an Incomplete (I) for the course. Those, very simply, are my rules, having reached their present state after 12 years of evolution by artificial selection.

  21. P.S. I stopped giving in-class quizzes long ago. They're done during labs, and we may curtail the practice altogether, because of the difficulty presented for students needing time-and-a-half or more in a separate, distraction-free environment.

  22. P.P.S. I do NOT give make-ups, ever, EVER, EVER!!! And you're going to have to torture it out of me, before I crack. And having taught for as long as I have, I now have a VERY high threshold of pain: good luck!

  23. One last thing:

    @VC: I suggest you schedule a time near the end of the term as "Catching-up days," for students who arrange in advance in writing, the way professionals do, in case they have legitimate reasons to miss anything big that you can't reduce in size.

  24. Looking for a tool to help you organize your syllabus? Check out the Online Syllabus Template Tool at

    It's a PDF file that opens in the free Adobe Reader program.




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