Monday, January 19, 2009

An Inconvenient Time

Some of us will be teaching classes during the inauguration on Tuesday, including during Obama's speech. Perhaps some classes can watch the speech live as part of a course-related activity, but that's not realistic in a large introductory physical science class.

Those of us who will miss the speech because we are teaching can listen to it later, after class, and of course any students who are so inclined can do so as well. There are perhaps some students who will skip class to listen to the speech live, and I don't have any problem with that. Even so, these students are responsible for the course material they miss, just the same as if they missed the class for another good reason (major illness), a semi-good reason (missed the bus), a semi-bad reason (weather not sufficiently nice to venture outside), or a bad reason (too busy updating Facebook page).

Although I will go out of my way to help someone in dire need, there is a large gray area in which I cannot distinguish between the goodness or badness of the excuse for skipping class. Of course, many students don't bother with an excuse, but I tend to hear a lot of class-skipping-reasons anyway, especially once students realize that there is an exam question or two from every class. Perhaps the students think that I will hand over my non-existent lecture notes to them or tell them exactly what will be on the exams if their excuse is good enough, but what students find compelling and what I find compelling tend to be different things. Examples:

- Didn't have enough quarters for a parking meter so unable to attend class? FSP says: not compelling.

- Had to help a friend move? FSP says: nice but not compelling.

- Mother made a doctor's appointment for you and the appointment was for a time during the class? FSP says: give your mom your course schedule and/or make your own appointments; not compelling.

- Had to be in court to argue about unpaid speeding tickets? FSP says: I hope you won; not compelling.

- Went to a rally about Tibet, baby seals, war(s), state funding for the university etc? FSP says: That's great and maybe even compelling, but I can't give an automatic get-out-of-class-free-card to students who go to rallies or marches or protests or sit-ins and I'm not going to help one student more than another just because I think a particular cause is more important than another.

- Innocent bystander at a sports-related riot that resulted in the loss of a semi-major organ? FSP says: compelling, don't worry about the course, I'll help you when you recover.

Owing to the continuous stream of reasons/excuses ranging from the convincing to the bizarre and owing to the difficulty of making fine distinctions among the non-emergency reasons, I treat everyone the same; that is, I place the responsibility on the student to get class notes from another student, to read the relevant pages in the textbook, to look over the review material, and then come to me with informed questions. After a student has made some effort and worked on the review material that I provide for the class, I will answer their questions and try to dispel any lingering confusion. I will not start from zero and re-do my lecture for them just because they missed class, no matter what the non-emergency reason.

I hope some of my students do miss class to listen to the speech on Tuesday if this is important to them, and then I hope that they shoulder their responsibility as students and put in the time and effort necessary to make up for the information they missed.

22 comments:

American in Oxbridge said...

I'm a bit surprised that something as important as the inauguration would not cause classes to be suspended at the time of this historic event. I know from my student days how inflexible the time-table is, but at the same time this is a truly historic event in American history and I think if I was the one lecturing the course I would probably cancel the lecture!

Anonymous said...

During my engineering undergrade, I can't think of a time when I approached a prof to discuss a class I had missed (for a good or a bad reason). Isn't that what your friends/classmates were for - to copy their notes when you missed class

Anonymous said...

Tuesday is the first class day of our semester. It is a pity the administration didn't just extend the winter break by one more day to allow students and faculty a chance to watch the inauguration. (I must teach at 1 pm). Similarly I think we should have a no-classes day every 4 years on election day even if just because it reinforces for the students the significance of our ability to vote for our country's leader.

Professor Staff said...

At my university this has only been getting worse. When I arrived 10 years ago, student affairs basically said "don't be the judge of who is sick -- send them to student health services." As of 2 years ago, they now say "don't send them to us - decided on your own."

This doesn't include the non-sick excuses.

The net result is that most of my colleagues now adopt one of two approaches: 1) there are no excused absences or 2) the 'one free' missed test/assignment rule.

I've found #2 is rather effective, if you have enough assignments. Students like it, and from a grading perspective, it really doesn't seem to affect final grades that much (few students use it, and they a majority perform pretty consistently from exam to exam anyway). We use an A/B/C/D/F (no +/-) grading system.

#1 just gives you a reputation as a heartless jerk, no matter how good your evaluations are (I tried it, learned it!) prior to adopting that policy. It was the #1 critique on my evaluations the one time I tried it.

Curt Fischer said...

Inauguration this year happens to be on a Tuesday, so I think it is OK to complain again about how our Election Day is on a Tuesday. Tuesday is a horrible day for major democratic events. They should be on weekends.

Curt Fischer said...

Those of us who will miss the speech because we are teaching can listen to it later, after class, and of course any students who are so inclined can do so as well.

Conversely, what if you recorded your lecture and put the video up online?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Perhaps the students think that I will hand over my non-existent lecture notes to them or tell them exactly what will be on the exams if their excuse is good enough, but what students find compelling and what I find compelling tend to be different things.

Speaking of lecture notes, where the fuck have these little pissants got the idea that handing over detailed lecture notes or printouts of lecture slide decks is some kind of motherfucking entitlement?

When I was in college, graduate, and professional schools, lecturers *never* handed out notes or slide decks, and requests for them would have been met with derisive laughter. Effective notetaking was considered part and parcel of being a good student.

Nowadays, I always get a bunch of students bitching and moaning in their evals that "Dr. PhysioProf doesn't have enough text on his slides; Dr. PhysioProf doesn't give us detailed enough notes; wah, wah, wah..."

Fucking little babies. Sack the fuck up and listen to the fucking lecture and take some motherfucking notes.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely intend to be downtown on the National Mall tomorrow to see the inaugural parade. Yes, it will be insanity. Yes, it means more than a million people in a very tiny space. Yes, it means standing around in the freezing cold for hours. Yes, it would be more comfortable and warm to stay home and watch it on teevee.

But that's a bit like watching a reality show instead of getting out and living life. And, no, I'm not skipping work to do this - I already have the day off.

female Science Professor said...

For various reasons beyond my control, I cannot cancel the class on Tuesday.

Alex said...

Being at a state school with a lot of commuter students, many of them less advantaged than students at other schools, I have to be a real bastard. It's hard to say to a guy working a job to help his family while going to school "No, being stuck in traffic on your way from work is not a good excuse to miss the test." But I have to say it. If work has to be a priority for that student, then don't take a class that starts shortly after work ends. And for God's sake, if you live 90 minutes from campus, on the other side of mountains that get snow in winter, don't sign up for an 8am class in January! (That guy actually did really well on all of the things that he showed up for. Too bad he didn't always show up.)

I know that my students have a lot of conflicting priorities to juggle, but they're going to have to learn that some things really are incompatible and they need to plan for that rather than expecting everybody else to change plans for it. College classes are actually far more predictable than most of the other things in their difficult lives, and if they need to learn how to schedule and prioritize then college classes are a good place to start. Nothing else will be as predictable as my class, with the experiments and assignments and lectures and tests all laid out for them in a calendar with a manual and book detailing what they need to know for each part.

I probably sound like a privileged person who just doesn't understand the situations of others, but I'm actually willing to be accommodating now and then. That accommodation is easier in small classes with upper-division students who have already proven themselves and earned a certain benefit of the doubt. (I also feel less guilt over denying requests by seniors who have spent years building a track record of unreliability.) With 100 freshmen that I know nothing about, it's a lot harder to accommodate every hard luck story.

anon said...

Why the hell is it such a historic event? I mean, he's going to be president for four more years, and I assume that the actual election would be more historic than a swearing in 'ceremony'. Speaking as a non-American who lives in DC, I'm staying the hell away from anywhere close to the mall. Gah, what a headache.

I had a dream that when I went there I died. No seriously. It was really fucking cold, and then some terrorist suicide bombers blew up in some places, there was a huge rush of people and I broke my legs in the stampede; then I lay there in pain 100 meters outside of the Lincoln Memorial in the bushes beside the freeway as I slowly died of hypothermia while the army ran all over the place. After that dream, I decided that I'm staying home. I can just say that I was in DC at the time of the inauguration with a straight face. It'll be historicy enough to watch it later on MSNBC online.

Or, wait, I get it! I'll tune in a week from now and read about some actual 'historical' policy decisions instead of standing in an extremely crowded cold place and walking home for two to three hours because the metro isn't working. That should impress the kids way more. And if not, they are no kids of mine.

quasarpulse said...

My professors have been kind enough not to schedule tests, quizzes, problem set due dates, or review sessions on Tuesday; given that the school has decided to hold classes, that kindness is about all we as students can ask. To those professors who have done the same, thank you.

FSP, I think your policy is eminently reasonable. And Physioprof, from a student's perspective: handing out notes is counterproductive. (Of course, personally, I *hate* Powerpoint to begin with...but if you want your students to pay any attention whatsoever to you while you're using it, at the very least don't hand out the slides.)

Anonymous said...

CPP: "Speaking of lecture notes, where the fuck have these little pissants got the idea that handing over detailed lecture notes or printouts of lecture slide decks is some kind of motherfucking entitlement?"

Amen! I used to tell students that they couldn't have my powerpoint slides because I use a lot of other peoples' photographs that I have permission to display, but not distribute (which is true for most of them). Now I just say "No, I don't give out my slides". When pushed I tell them that note-taking is a skill that I expect them to develop and practice. I *always* get complaints about my failure to provide my slides on my evaluations.

Post Doc

daisy mae said...

thank you! on the "handing out" of slides, notes, and review exams - it's all absolutely ridiculous.

my undergrad NEVER did it - the one visiting prof who did got lambasted. imagine the surprise when i showed up to grad school and the students pitched fits when they didn't get the slides?!?!

note-taking is a critical skill. if you're not good at it, that's what they make small recorders for.

Anonymous said...

I am absolutely riveted by the unwillingness of you and others to have detailed handouts available. I told my stage 2 (!!!) class a couple of years ago they would have to take lecture notes and there would be no handout as such of powerpoints or notes and there was almost a riot, including a visit from the student rep for the course etc etc. After discussion with colleagues I have gathered: apparently it is absolutely standard at this university to give out detailed handouts; and it is considered desirable to give out detailed handouts as the most effective learning will not take place if they have to take notes, as they then do not pay enough attention to what is being said. I find it hard to believe that students can get through an entire degree without learning such a basic skill.

Lisa said...

There's a big difference between "The students can't take notes" and "More material is absorbed when the students aren't so busy frantically writing everything down that they miss the big picture".

Of course, reading off of power-points that are also available online is basically asking students not to show up. Actually, reading from power-point at all is basically asking students not to show up. But there is a value added by a good instructor, and having a general summary of topics available is a supplement to that not a replacement.

yolio said...

I would find the court thing compelling. Every time I've ever had to talk to a judge, they just give you a date and time and DO NOT consult your schedule. You either show up or you're out of luck. Unpaid speeding tickets have been known to result in jail time.

Sure, if they were better drivers, more organized or less broke, they might not have this problem. But if they hadn't gone skiing, they might not have a broken leg either.

As for the notes things. Getting the lecture slides is not a substitute for taking notes. As a student, I benefited most from doing both. I give out my slides if it is easy to do, but I would never produce additional materials just for this.

The classes I teach rely on elaborate diagrams, graphs and maps. Often, it is completely unrealistic to expect anyone to reproduce these in their notes, and the material might not be in the book. And I don't want to be bothered making more than the bare minimum of handouts. So I make the slides available.

Gingerale said...

Anonymous Post Doc at 02:27:00 PM wrote, "I *always* get complaints about my failure to provide my slides on my evaluations."

So do I. But I agree with CPP and Anonymous Post Doc anyway. There's no way I can do what I'm actually paid to do if I'm ruled by my inbox.

Anon at 04:29:00 PM wrote, "I find it hard to believe that students can get through an entire degree without learning such a basic skill.

I agree again.

And FSP, I loved reading your reasoning about treating all excuses the same. I agree completely. The few times I've made exceptions at a student's request I've later regretted it.

What irks me most is the self-righteousness of other faculty. "You could be more understanding" -- OK -- then let's understand the students who had the same emergency or worse and didn't even ask me for a break. Let's be fair to the whole class instead of rewriting the rules for only a few.

I also sometimes want to say to my faculty colleagues: Let's value being respected more than we value being liked.

quasarpulse said...

Lisa said...
There's a big difference between "The students can't take notes" and "More material is absorbed when the students aren't so busy frantically writing everything down that they miss the big picture".\

Yes, which is why PowerPoint is evil; you can put way more information up there than you can reasonably expect students to assimilate over the course of an hour, but not enough context to make it understandable upon later reading.

If you give your lectures "live" with basic outline, problems/solutions, and graphs written by hand on the board, students will have no trouble at all keeping up with the writing and will be able to take in the information and understand it; we understand far better if we see the process by which you arrive at a solution (complete with mistakes) than if it's presented as a fait accompli.

If you need students to have more information than you can reasonably present in that format, you can refer them to a book or a website, which is infinitely preferable to a set of PowerPoint slides because information is in complete sentences with context.

Anonymous said...

I received the following e-mail this morning (we had an inch or two of snow, and classes were not cancelled):

I am one of your students in "graduate genetics class." I am contacting you to let you know that I will not be present in class today. Unfortunately the weather conditions out where I am are neither favorable nor safe, so I am going to work from home today. Would it be possible for us to meet sometime this week or next to briefly discuss the material covered in class today? If not I will try to arrange to meet with one of my classmates.

I was annoyed at the gall of this student to suggest that I give him what would have been essentially private tutoring - and that meeting with a classmate was his second choice! This is a class in which PowerPoints are posted on Blackboard.

Doctor Pion said...

At our college, that court date would be an excused absence (meaning we are required to give a makeup exam or allow late work to be submitted) provided the student took the documentation to the Provost's office in advance. That applies whether you are a juror, defendant, or witness.

Everything else, tough.

But I projected the first part of the ceremony during class, then did what Obama said to do: Got down to business.

Anonymous said...

Re: Posting notes/distributing handouts.

I'm particularly fond of the skeleton notes approach. That way, the students who want to prepare for class can see clearly what we'll be covering. I even recommend that they attempt to figure out what I'm going to put in the blanks. They can see which problems we're going to solve in class and give them a try on their own. I'm well aware that only a small fraction of the class put in this type of preparatory effort, but it's available to those who want to. It also means I can throw data tables I want to reference into their notes if they want to look at them later while studying.

The first few years I did this, most of the students thought it was awesome and wonderful and amazing - even though I never post a filled in version. Heck, I haven't made an electronic filled in version. Most of them still really like it as it reduces their writing, but still makes them write the important stuff. Some students print off these notes and take separate notes alonside them - which is also great (and what I did for most of my undergrad since most of my profs used the same technique). In the last couple of years, I've started to get occasional complaints about how the incompleteness of my posted notes makes it difficult "to catch up if [a student] misses class"; however, I'm not about to post full notes as I don't intend to enable class skipping.