Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stumped Stevo Poses an Early Thirsty. "What Do I Say?"

Okay, I'm revealing my complete newbie-ness as a college proffie.

I teach at neat little college in the middle of nowhere - seriously. We have ALL kinds of students, traditional and returning. But the returning students always sap me. They miss class, but they have great excuses. They come late, but they have sick kids. They hold down 2 part-time jobs and take care of ailing parents.

It's heartbreaking how much they want to pass, how much they need to pass, and I find myself weak in front of them. (They're all older than me.)

The kids? I can handle the kids. They give such lame excuses all the time that I see right through them.

But what do I say to a 55 year old woman who has MS who wants to retake a test because she missed it taking her mother 200 miles for an MRI that had been scheduled and reschedules too many times to cancel?

I suspect I should say that the class must be fair, and all of that, but I swear, in the face of some of these folks, I feel like I can't trot that excuse out on them.

Q: Do I bend? How far? Who should I be fair to?

A: Post replies below.


  1. I find this is always easy for someone else's class, but never for my own.

    It's true that many returning students have pressures that far exceed those of a "traditional" college student.

    But, you need to continue to teach a college-level course, with deadlines, assignments, and accountability.

    Laxing it up for some with legitimate priorities ahead of college devalues your class and their progress.

  2. Look at it like this: this is also training for the real world. The 55 yr old has to decide her priorities. A higher education may not be cut out for everyone. If someone is doing this for retraining purposes (due to the economy), they better get on the stick.

    If they are ill or have family problems, provide a reasonable, but defined, absence policy.

    If they said they had to work and missed an assignment, there may be opportunities when you can ask for proof. I had a situation a few weeks ago when I knew the guy was BSing me about missing a major test; however, I knew (due the nature of his work) that he could get a note verifying his absence. He agreed to do so and... dropped a few days later.

    [Caveat: the above is easy for me to say, though; with the exception of one or two students this semester, I'm a bit older than all of them and could easily be their parent.]

  3. Oh for Christ's sake. let her take the exam. Ask her for some sort of documentation if you want. Explain that it's just to be consistent (so other students can't say, 'well you didn't ask HER for proof!") but give the woman the exam.

  4. I tend to be willing to give one "reasonable high stakes excuse" card per course to a student (like your 55 year old with MS taking her mom for an MRI). She can't do it twice; at that point she has to accept that her current life circumstances make it impossible for her to take the class right now.

    I have a student who missed a test because he had to work. Then he missed the makeup, presumably because he had to work, but he didn't get in touch to tell me that or try to reschedule. Then he missed the second quiz and the second makeup. He has one last shot to do the second quiz - he's already got a 0 on the first one. I'm sorry his work schedule is so impossible that he can't make regularly-scheduled quizzes, but you know what? He's the one in university, and he needs to decide his priorities. If he really needs this job and can't negotiate the hours, then he should drop the class. I can't help him.

  5. Here are a couple of things that work for me.

    First, cut students some slack (did I just write that?). You have an official policy but it can't cover everything, like your 55 year old student's situation. Talk to that student and let them retake the exam. If this unofficial policy snowballs into everybody getting retakes, require more documentation for the next round of exams. I've found that things don't turn out that bad.

    This semester I found out that our Dean of Students' office is willing to handle all student excuses. This increases the effort required for students to get excused from class (they have to walk all the way across campus to his office!) though they still can if they have documentation. I am no longer responsible for determining excused absences. I can override the dean's decision but they don't know that. More students attend class and I spend less time dealing with excuses of those who do. This is one of the best administrative policies my university has.

  6. My class doesn't have exams, but it does have several major papers. I allow all students one extension. No excuse is needed, they can request it for any assignment. I usually assign a new due date for a few days after the original one.

    With this particular case, I'd probably let her retake the exam. But for future classes, maybe including a policy about showing documentation.

    If you think this will be an on-going problem, due to the nature of your students, you could build make up exams into the schedule.

    Good luck!

  7. I'd cut slack once, but make it clear that you'll need documentation, just like you would with other students, and notify them that they'll need to negotiate with you in the future, if they have outside responsibilities, just like you would have to do with your chair if you had to drive your mom to her MRI during a time when you needed to be in class (if it were a regular occurrence, at least).

  8. I require documentation, dead grandmother in Mexico? Surgery? Colicy baby? Show me the paperwork. The one I won't accept, jail time. I had a student call me from jail once wanting an extension.

  9. Establish and maintain a hierarchy of valid excuses with appropriate standards for documentation - and enforce the requirements.

    In some cases, the proper remedy is denial of excuse, in some cases the solution is a medical withdrawal. A structured, documented rack of W's is better than a pile of F's. And a medical or other planned withdrawal provides a path for return when things are different.

  10. It *is* tough when they are older than you. But that's not relevant to the situation at hand -- you are credentialed to be teaching them, whatever your age. So, yeah, I'm on the side of documentation. You can even ask for it somewhat apologetically, as in, "I'm terribly sorry to add to your burden, but documentation is required to excuse the absence." Note the excellent passive voice. I have a clause in my "excuses" policy that you can be excused if a dependent needs medical care, with a note. It covers the parents and those doing eldercare just fine.

  11. If I were in your shoes, I would ask myself, "What if I don't bend the rules, and then the student freaks out and kills herself or someone else?" So I tend to bend the rules, but only as much as is necessary to avoid feeling regret/remorse/guilt later on.


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