It's the middle of the semester once again, and this week I gave mid-term exams to all of my classes. The mid-term date is listed on the syllabus, and I make very clear that the exam is not to be missed for any reason short of a dire emergency, one that falls within official university guidelines for excused absences, and that is also supported by appropriate documentation.
Last Sunday, the day before one of the exams, I received two emails from two different students. The first read:
From: Student A
To Defunct Adjunct
Subject: Mid-Term Problem; Need help
I'm freaking out a bit over a problem I have encountered. It's not because of the test itself, but I went out of town by bus this weekend, and now the returning bus is no longer in service and I don't know if I can make it back into town today. I'm working on a solution, but it is not going well. I absolutely hate to ask, but would it be possible to do the exam on Tuesday? I believe in the honor system and would never try to take advantage of something like this. [more details about the specific problems]
Anyway, please let me know anything you can do, so I can either scramble for an immediate solution (if there is one), or plan to get back tomorrow without the panic.
The second email went like this:
From: Student BOn the surface of it, there doesn't seem to be too much difference between these situations, at least in terms of how I would normally deal with them. If someone misses an exam for any reason, my policy, as I said above, is to require full documentation.
To Defunct Adjunct
Subject: PLEASE READ IMMEDIATELY
I am in your Monday 3.00-4.30 class, and we have our mid-semester exam tomorrow. A last-minute issue has come up, and I have to go out of town tomorrow morning. Is it possible for me to take the exam a day late? I would appreciate any help.
Student B, as you can see, was completely unforthcoming about the actual reason for the anticipated absence. I emailed him back noting that "an issue has come up" is not sufficient explanation, and he replied asking whether a "note from a parent or guardian" would do the trick. I explained that this does not really qualify once you're an adult college student.
But the specific reasons, and even the somewhat deluded notion of what constitutes documentation, aren't even really the issue here. The issue is what I call the "credibility gap." The gap is one that exists between these two students, and that caused me to treat their situations very differently.
Student A is always on time, always does the reading, always contributes to class discussions, and his contributions are always of the highest quality. He not only answers questions about the material that leave other students in the class stumped, but draws connections and offers detailed comments that show a really thoughtful and analytical engagement with the materials.
Student B is late to almost every class, and for most of each class meeting sits near the back, either fooling around on his computer or whispering with a classmate. I've actually had to tell them to shut up in class a couple of times. Student B has never once made an intelligent contribution to class discussion, nor given any indication of having completed the assigned reading.
In short, by the time those two emails landed in my inbox last Sunday, Student A had built up a ton of credibility with me, and Student B had basically none. And that influenced how I responded to their requests. I held tightly to my policies with Student B, and I sent Student A an email that said, basically, "Do your best to get here, but if you can't, we'll work something out."
I've always believed that we should treat students equally, and I've told quite a few students in the past that I couldn't just let them do extra credit, or give them a chance to re-write the paper, because it would be unfair to the rest of the class. But I also believe that treating students equally, in situations like this, is not quite the same as treating them identically. While I never unfairly require more of my students than is laid out in my syllabus, I am willing to be more flexible with some students than others, based on the (admittedly rather nebulous) issue of credibility.
To be quite blunt, if you've been goofing off all semester in my class, and have shown no inclination to do the work, I'm likely to suspect that you're just trying to pull a fast one when you email me the day before the exam to tell me that you have "to go out of town." If you've been clearly the best student in the class, and one of the best students I've taught in the last five years, I'm more likely to take your claims seriously.
Nor is this simply about intelligence, or going easy on the "A" students. I've had some brilliant students who were clearly capable of A-level work, but who were still goof-offs, and who I would have treated like I treated Student B. I've also had some not-very-bright students who worked their asses off, and who I would have given the same sort of consideration that I gave to Student A. While effort and commitment will not, by themselves, get you a good grade in my class, they do buy you some credibility that you can cash in when the shit hits the fan.
I'm writing not just to tell my story, but to see if people here at College Misery do something similar. Would you have done the same thing as me, or would you have been as hard on Student A as on Student B? Do you think I'm being unethical here? I would be interested in everyone's feedback.