Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hopeless Harold in Harlem With a Timid Big Thirsty.

Help me, Yaro.

I am a longtime reader but first time poster here at the Misery.

I already know I'm making mistakes in this, my 2nd year of teaching at a large city college in NYC, but I need a better state of mind in order to defeat the volleys of my students.

I think I know what your answers will be, and I probably will agree with you. But I don't know to sell those answers to my students, who seem desperate to stay in the class, even when they exceed my attendance policy's guidelines (much the same as the college's.)

Q: What do I say when students ask me to loosen the attendance policy for them, their emergencies, the things that get in the way of their attending class? These range from "Baby Daddy is in jail and I had to bail him out," to "My job with the transit authority changed hours on me for 2 weeks." These are often good students, hard workers. Their excuses seem real. I tell them the policy and they stare at me with big eyes and say, "Well, how am I supposed to be in class when I have to pick up my kid?" "How could I make class at 9 when my shift changed?" "Did you want me to leave my brother in the emergency room so I could come here for a quiz?"


  1. (sigh) -- this is precisely why online learning has so much potential. Not for the for-profits that are raping these kids with false promises of future jobs, but done properly, with these students in mind, allowing limited flexibility for the ER visits of our lives.

    Sorry I don't have advice. I would point them to a good online university, like Southern New Hampshire University online.

  2. Hmm, AcadMonk, I would agree with you with the online potential, but would really like to know how you came to your opinion of SNHU.

    Firsthand experience led to a very different conclusion.

  3. As a NYC area teacher as well, I have to say I've heard some of the same excuses from my students. However, some of them are just as fake as the good old "my grandmother died" one. For instance, if you have a student whose "baby daddy" is in jail and needs to be bailed out, why can't she wait until after your class? Realistically, she should be angry at him for getting into jail in the first place and not go rushing to save his sorry behind. You need to ask them for documentation of all these emergencies. If a loved one goes to the emergency room, tell them to get a doctor's note and bring proof of relation. If the MTA changes their shift, tell them to get a note from their employer or something to substantiate it.

  4. If this is a major problem for many students, then your school needs to evaluate their absence policy. Some schools attract these types of students and other schools don't. Schools need to create policies that are consistent with their students.

    Apo's advice is good too.

  5. I'd like to add a different take to AcadMonk's wishful thinking about the potential of online learning.

    Having taught in both venues, I find no less prolific the number of excuses from online students. In fact, excuses are probably more prevalent. Now, you've got people working full-time on top of full family obligations, add a legitimately sick relative or two and students wonder where they can "stick" their schoolwork?

    And, not for nothing, but when you teach on campus, you can be pretty confident that your students live within an hour's drive of campus. In an online class, every major storm, power outage, earthquake, civil unrest, etc., etc. (yes, I've heard all this term alone) is cause for derailing studies. How can one instructor be legitimately expected to validate and verify any extenuating circumstance which could occur worldwide?

    Sorry I don't have any good advice for you, Harold. Personally, I'm in nearly continuous turmoil myself trying to be reasonably flexible without crossing into being an utter pushover.

  6. I want to hear more from Aware and Scared...

    I find that students are students and will send you excuses all the time. However, I find that the excuses change from the practical "I had to pick up my kids" or "I was in the hospital so I couldn't come to class" to "I was in the hospital today so my contribution will be submitted later tonight.

    Which is more easily accommodated than "tell me everything we did in class."

    But I'd also like a direct appraisal of SNHU. It is my impression that they allow a little more creativity and effective teaching styles than, say, University of Phoenix.

    Have I been misinformed? If so, I would like to know! Dish, dish, dish.

  7. will someone answer
    the poor man's query?

    this waiting around
    as made dick tingle weary.

    I, myself, rely on "fairness," you see,
    but I would learn too, if you'd share with me.

  8. I don't think there is an easy or even clear answer. Ideally, I'd grade on work produced alone (which argues for the online solution, but, yes, one ends up having to be something of a hardass there, too, especially about deadlines and the inescapable facts that the semester ends and the class -- mine, at least -- is not self-paced). But if the class includes discussion, or group work, then "attendance is only required unless something more urgent comes up" really doesn't work, at least not in the present climate, where students increasingly seem to have more urgent things coming up on a regular basis. A significant part of the recipe for success in many endeavors is, indeed, just showing up, but many people of many ages seem increasingly unwilling to do so (unless, of course, a sports practice or game is involved; church activities, for whatever it's worth, are not, at least in my experience, an exception to this rule). And at some point the class loses critical mass, and/or individual students stop being engaged with its work. Two of my four sections currently feel like they're nearing that point, and it worries me, too, and I don't know what to do about it, all the more so because I thought I had a pretty good system of incentives and penalties in place. We'll limp through to the end of the term, and many of them will have learned a good deal, but the experience is pretty unsatisfactory, for both me and the students who do show up. My two sections where most of the students are showing up most of the time are much more satisfying for all concerned (except, perhaps, the few students who aren't attending regularly). But I don't think I can take any credit, or much blame, for either one; the main cause seems to be the time of day, and the kind of students who sign up for different time slots. The same, as others have pointed out, could be said for whole colleges/universities.

  9. I just think you have to have a pre-set list of acceptable excuses and require documentation on letterhead for them. Mine are: you or a child is ill (doctor's note), you are the victim of a crime (crime report), you have an away game or ROTC duty (note from coach or supervisor). Employment issues, personal crises, and computer problems are not grounds for being excused from class. You can do this, or you can do what some of my colleagues do, and have 2 "free passes" where they don't need to offer any excuse at all, but anything beyond them is unexcused.

  10. Heh, this week I had a student bring a computer to class that crashed, and I actually knew how to fix it! (I knew those 2 years as a computer tech would pay off someday.) Her projects was, indeed, done. There was, indeed, something very wrong with her system, but we got it copied off before it crashed again. Woot.

    Uh, anyway. To answer your question I have no set list of acceptable excuses. I ask for documentation and if it can be produced work with the student to determine a good time to have that work turned in by.

    I think there were times when I was an undergrad when I should have taken advantage of University policies about these things and I didn't. I had my nether regions transformed into a walking biohazard during a Physics 2 exam once and the prof didn't believe me. He thought I wanted to go to the bathroom to cheat. I didn't. Believe me. I should have challenged that decision (I had a doctors note having been treated for anemia and blood loss that afternoon, pardon the TMI). I had weeks where relatives died, I moved, and I had bronchitis. I still got everything in. I would have gotten everything in if it killed me.

    But I wonder, now, if my profs wouldn't have been more forgiving if faced with the truth (or, in one case, a note from their bloody Chair). I soldiered on and I think, perhaps, there are times when I shouldn't have. Extensions and test retakes would have saved my grade AND my dignity. I'm glad to listen if it's documentable, and glad to work with them if I receive that documentation. Being a good student and wanting to stay on top of your work (for example, giving the excuse BEFORE anything is late) is a commendable thing and should be worked with, at least in my class.

  11. Shouldn't your student have just backed up her project? These days, there is no excuse for not backing things up.

  12. @AcadMonk, et al.

    Yes, it is true online you often will get "Something came up, so my assignment will be submitted later tonight/first thing tomorrow.'
    And, personally, so long as an assignment arrives before I get to the bottom of the correction "pile," it makes me no never mind.

    But ... it still does get overwhelming to monitor natural disasters worldwide.

    In other news, one program just sent out a notice that they have established a dedicated EMail address through the Disabilities Services Office for medical excuse documentation. (All others are at the instructor's discretion.)

    @ AcadMonk, dish, dish

    OK ... well, I began my online career with SNHU in the early 00s and really enjoyed it for the first couple of years. They had 8 week quarters which always struck me as a bit short in which to jam semester equivalent content, but I worked nearly non-stop for them for 6 years.

    Toward the end, they were morphing into a Phoenix model with even shorter terms and a MUCH greater focus on "student as customer" philosophy. I never saw as many flaky complaints as I did with SNHU. I then got the silent pink slip. (Though, to this day, I still get regular notices from their spam filter.)

    They are a university in name only. They began as a hospitality college (that is still their biggest on-campus program), later tacked on a few liberal arts Master's and I think their only doctoral program is a DBA.

    Basically, they were a wannabe SLAC who capitalized on the ascendancy of online learning with, generally, the right ideas. But when they saw they weren't growing as fast as Phoenix, they jettisoned the good ideas.

  13. I teach almost exclusively online to a student body that is in these schools BECAUSE of their busy, adult lives. The administration encourages us to be flexible and I am. Always. I don't see my job as teaching these people what the working world, the corporate world, the bureaucratic world, etc. are like. They know more about that than I do. They live in it much more closely than I do. In class, my deadlines are reasonable and are generally enforced, but I'll admit I don't need much of a story to bend the rules. They don't get out of the work, but they get the benefit of the doubt. Most of the time, they are good about it - not using the whole extension, not asking for another extension, etc. In my particular environment, accommodating works.

  14. I do a version of the 2 freebies and no more thing. If there are, say X number of essays or other homework assignments that have to be turned in, I build X+1 or X+2 of them into the syllabus. And then I say, you have X+2 chances to complete X assignments. No late work, no extensions, no excuses. You decide when you need to use your skips.

    This is a technique I learned at my first job back in the UK, where it is reasonably common. It doesn't work 100% of the time, but the few times I've experimented with not using it, there was a statistically significant increase in the amount of whinging and excuse-making on the part of the snowflakes.

    The one thing you have to decide beforehand, because it will come up, is whether or not you want to let the super-keeners turn in X+2 assignments and drop the lowest grade or grades. I go back and forth on this. These days I am allowing it, because, hell, if they want to do extra work, who the fuck am I to say no. Other times in my career I've said no on that one because it isn't perfectly fair to give some students a statistical advantage. Just decide what your answer is beforehand, put it in the syllabus, and under no circumstances negotiate.

  15. This is a pretty good question. Does anyone who works in a face to face environment have an answer?

    Are there really that many online proffies here? Adjuncts, junior college, etc. All fringers? Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    I guess the Chronicle is for the traditional professoriate.

  16. Adjunct adjunct adjunct adjunt defunct.

  17. @Frog and Toad: Backups? Well sure. She actually has a subscription to a backup service. It hadn't ran since she finished the project. She had an earlier draft, however. When the laptop died and wouldn't boot (and therefore couldn't connect to the service) she was working on it.

    Like many of us, students don't usually back up until a draft is done. Heck, I don't unless it's REALLY important (like my dissertation... that got backed up a lot. My term papers or even articles now? Not as often.)

  18. How's this for hitting bottom:
    online adjunct!

  19. I teach face-to-face as an adjunct at multiple colleges. None of them have official attendance policies and it's left up to the professors. What I've implemented is a two absence freebie policy. There are no excused or unexcused absences and I definitely do not accept doctors' notes (I found students forging them). I even warn them at the beginning of the semester that my class is fatal to their grandparents so therefore I will not accept family deaths as an excuse either. If they miss more than two classes, I dock their grade. Once they hit six absences I automatically fail them. I'm a hard ass about all of this but I found this is the only way to get them to actually show up.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. I allow a week's worth of freebie absences, however many that happens to be. I also allow excused absences, but require documentation, and put in my syllabus that vacations don't count and that notes from parents, resident advisors or roommates don't count. We also have a great Student Services unit at Main U that weed out a lot of BS excuses. Because the classes I teach at Secondary U are typically once a week, students magically find a way to be at all classes.

    What kind of excuses do I accept?
    Court: Summons or ticket
    Sick: Doctor or Student Health Services
    Car accident: accident report
    Car trouble: tow receipt, new tire receipt, mechanic's receipt
    Bailing out of jail: not yet had this one, but bail receipt (I assume there is some paperwork involved here, no personal experience)
    Work schedule change: note from boss, on letterhead
    Computer crash: repair receipt, or service receipt from campus computer folks
    Pick up kid: Why are you taking a class when you have to be picking up your kid?
    Sick kid/relative: doctor's note for kid/relative (I had one student bring in the hospital bracelet, not at my request, but that was definitely sufficient)

  22. I work at a community college in a somewhat urban, very poor area with a huge immigrant population. This semester, I didn't have an attendance policy. I do have some assignments that you must complete in class or else you cannot complete them. However, I have also worked into my syllabus a system in which all assignments don't need to be completed. That way, if you miss an assignment, you miss it with almost no make-ups. You do need a minimal number of points for my class though, so if you miss too many assignments they will begin to count as zeros.

    If you let me know ahead of time or as soon after as possible, I'm more willing to help out with what you missed in class, although I do post everything on blackboard. If you wait until the next week to ask me, I shrug and tell you that I'm sorry, but that's already past.

    I've found that this gives allowances for my good students who get into trouble, and I've already heard some amazing stories. My one was in the hospital for diverticulitis and then her son nearly died in a DWI accident. Another has a stalker that is messing with her life. At least one of my students is living out of her boyfriend's car since they were evicted, and one of my students was just diagnosed with cervical cancer. I could actually keep going. You know how gandma's seem to always die? In my neck of the woods I've seen more friends die than grandma.

    I've also found that my poor students are still doing poorly even with the ability to not have an attendance related grade policy and not having to complete all assignments. Catching yourself up on missed work is not easy and takes commitment. Students making excuses tend not to have that kind of commitment.

  23. "Catching yourself up on missed work is not easy and takes commitment. Students making excuses tend not to have that kind of commitment."

    So true. I have a combo version of the two absences, then zeros for missed work unless your excuse is one of a list of permissible (with documentation) reasons (the list grows as I hear new verifiable horror stories). At the end of this list, I have "and at the discretion of the professor." In other words, I get to decide. I know---this leaves me vulnerable to charges of playing favorites---I basically will give anyone with a good enough story---one they can prove if possible or which sounds so horrible but improvable that I feel my hands are tied. But what I put in my syllabus is this: together, a student who has missed work and I will set a new deadline for completing the missed work, one that is reasonable depending upon the reason for the delay. After that time, there will be no extensions, not for any reason. More than half the time...shit more than 75% of the time, the student misses that second deadline as well and the whole thing turns out to be a moot exercise anyway. But they can't say I didn't try to help them.

  24. Yeah, I work in meat-space and am full-time tenured at a metropolitan university.

    Everybody gets three freebies or they don't get the attendance bonus. That way, there's no actual "penalty," just no bonus.

  25. I got the idea from RYS a long, long time ago to institute an attendance policy of "I don't care why you were gone; absent is absent" and I'm so glad I did. That way I don't have to look at any documentation or decide what's "excused" or "not excused." I always accept homework early (my school has a nice drop-box system) and up to one class period late for a 50% penalty.

    My higher-level class has planned activities; if they're absent on a day when we don't have a quiz or activity, I don't care. Activities can be made up for half-credit, quizzes cannot. My lower-level classes have a participation assignment nearly every day - I use it to keep track of who was there as well as to give them some practice with the concepts. It's worth about 20% of their grade, and that seems to have worked well in the past. No make-ups, though, for any reason. I may drop one or two by the end; we'll see.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.