Saturday, May 5, 2012


A colleague of mine gives a quiz during the first week of her classes. The topic? Her syllabus. She wants to reinforce to her students the importance of understanding what they are getting into by enrolling in her courses. A quiz is her way of trying to ensure that students internalize pertinent information regarding the way she conducts her courses, the requirements, her policies, etc. I'm beginning to think she is on to something.

Most college professors have some sort of policy articulated in their syllabi. For some, it's attendance, others talk about behavior, and others, plagiarism and cheating. When I first started teaching my policies were few: come to class, do your own work, be respectful. It took me less than one semester to realize how woefully inadequate my policy section was.

Over the years it has grown and changed. Some things that I used to think were important I no longer care much about. Other things have emerged as 'problem areas' that need to be addressed from the outset of a class. The biggest reason for the change is the change in students and administrators. When I began teaching, few students really questioned the policies in the course and most conformed to them with little fuss. But all it takes, of course, is for one person to challenge you and to have one administrator refuse to back you up because "it's not in your syllabus." No matter that you said this policy aloud, on multiple occasions throughout the semester. If it wasn't written, it wasn't valid. So the syllabus has become longer and longer and the policies have become more and more detailed. The one I want to talk about today is my 'make-up' policy.

My policy for making up missed work is simple - there is NO make-up. That's right - none. If you choose to miss class for whatever reason and you miss an activity that is worth points - it's a miss. A zero. Simple. Fair. It applies to everyone. No exceptions. No special circumstances. Everyone gets treated the same.

Now, before you start thinking that I'm totally out of touch and unreasonable, let me clarify a couple of things. Yes, I realize that sometimes emergencies come up. Sometimes you get a flat tire on the way to campus. Sometimes you or your kids get sick. Those and other things all happen and are all reasons people might choose to miss class. People also choose to miss class because they have a hangnail, because it's sunny outside, because it's Tuesday. I don't ever want to put myself in a position to judge the value of someone's reason for not attending. I can't judge that one person's reason is good and another person's isn't. That's hardly fair. So, I don't judge at all. The policy applies to everyone, all the time.

In a class that meets twice a week we have approximately 30 class meetings during a semester. I have some sort of point generating activity in virtually every class session. Eleven of those activities are quizzes, the dates for which are announced in writing in the syllabus. If students know they are going to miss a class period with a quiz, I allow them to take a quiz in advance - one time only. I also drop the low quiz at the end of the semester so if they happen to miss one unexpectedly, that quiz counts as their drop.

Most of the other days of class I have some other sort of activity. All the activities are in response to what we are discussing in that particular class period so if you miss the discussion, the activity is meaningless. Most of those activities are worth 5 or 10 points. Occasionally there's an activity worth 15 or 20 points, but those are relatively rare and are also announced. Some of those activities are 'completion' activities, meaning if you do the activity you get all the points. Missing one or two or even three of these activities are simply not going to impact someone's grade in any significant way.

Even so, every semester I get emails. They generally go something like this: "Dear Judy. This is so-and-so from your such-and-such class. I won't be in class today because..." And from there you can just fill in the blank. "Because I have to pick my mother up from the airport, because I have to take my little brother to soccer practice, because my cat died, because I'm not feeling well, because my grandma is in the hospital, because my boyfriend's cousin's aunt's sister is in labor..." This sentence is then followed by "Please allow me to get credit for being in class anyway and allow me to make up the points I will miss."

My reply is standard. "Dear so-and-so. Thank you for your note. I'm so sorry to hear your cat is sick, you're not feeling well, your grandma fell. I certainly understand that we can't help it when we get called into work unexpectedly, when family obligations come up, when... I'm sure you understand that I must treat all students equally so I must follow the policy stated in my course syllabus and cannot allow you to make up today's activity. Please remember that this is only 5 points and this one absence will not hurt your grade. See you next class."

Most students respond as you might expect. "Okay. I understand. Just thought I'd ask." If I were them, I'd have asked too.

But every now and then someone decides to get big. This time, it was really big. "You are a horrible person. Your policy is unethical. I'm paying for this class and have the right to miss whenever I want without a penalty. You clearly don't love your family. I'm going to tell everyone I know how horrible you are and that they should never take a class from you..." You get the idea.

I know I've written about the entitlement attitude before. This particular student seems to have any number of other issues going on in addition to that -- lack of maturity and unwillingness to accept responsibility for her choices are but two of those. Even so, I am fascinated by this student's approach. From the immediacy and ease of her responses, it seems that this is the technique she most likely employs in most life situations. And maybe, for the first 20 years of her life, it has been working for her. Hopefully, this experience will be her wake-up call.

Journalist and host of CBS News Sunday Morning Charles Osgood is quoted as saying, "There are no exceptions to the rule that everybody likes to be an exception to the rule." My experiences in teaching certainly continue to prove the truth of this sentiment.

Today's cartoon comes from: