I got to thinking about this because of a tale told by Maude, a tale of a student challenging a fairly meaningless grade, as well as because of how a student responded to me recently when I reminded the student that zie didn't need to notify me regarding absences, for I don't do the whole excused/unexcused thing.
First, let me just note for the record that my course policies used to be way stricter on paper than they are now. Deadlines? If a student didn't get it in by the deadline they'd get a zero. Tardiness? A student who was more than 10 mins. late would get charged with an absence, a zero for the day. Can't be in class on the day of a test? Zero. Zero Zero Zero. I was the "You get a zero, you do not pass go, you do not collect 200 dollars" lady.
But the thing that I realized, after maybe a couple of years on the tenure track, was that though I was the Dragon Lady on paper, I wasn't actually enforcing my policies properly. Why? Because it took so much energy to do so, and because whatever the theory behind them, they just weren't working - for me, or for my students.
I mean, I'm a Mean Lady and all, but I couldn't find it in my heart to be the Enforcer. It took the joy out of teaching for me, and it really wasn't producing the desired effect - engaged and invested students. And so I made some modifications.
Now, I don't say this to quarrel with anybody else's policies at all. I think that when I first started on the t-t I felt like I had to show who was boss. I don't think, though, that I really believed that I was the boss, and so my policies weren't really my policies - they were policies that I cobbled together that I thought would make me the boss. The problem is, if one isn't comfortable with one's policies, the whole boss-lady thing falls apart. You're not the boss, you're a jerk. So the thing is, I don't think that there was anything wrong with my more strict policies in themselves - it's that those policies just didn't work for who I am as an instructor.
So I've been operating under a revised set of policies for about the past 4 years. The policies that I have, I follow. But they offer me much more flexibility than I had previously, and that flexibility (which fits much better with my style as a teacher) has resulted in a happier me and in happier students. Here are some examples:
1) When I said that I'd give a zero to any paper not in by the deadline, I found I didn't follow that in all cases, which was pretty fucked up. So my policy now is, if I choose to accept a late paper (which I typically do, though I reserve the right not to do so) it gets docked a letter grade for each calendar day that it's late. Because I've spelled that out, I get many fewer students trying to beg for clemency or for an exception to the rules. Instead, there's a policy clearly stated, and I follow it, and they know what's coming if a paper comes in three days late.
2) I used to say that I wouldn't accept any papers via email. Except students would still email them. And I'm a softie, and so I found myself accepting them and printing them out. Now (in face-to-face classes) my policy is that if you email it by the deadline, I'll count it as in by the deadline, but it's the student's responsibility to get me the hard copy within one week of the deadline. You don't get the hard copy in, without me hounding you, you get a zero. Never have I had to give a zero for that reason. At the end of the day, they're thankful that I'll accept it as in on time, and they're sure to get me the hard copy. Less scrambling for me, less having to listen to tales of woe about printers that don't work and tragedies related to papers left in the car/at home/at ../*boyfriends houses, etc, and ultimately, less hassle.
3) It's cool with me as long as students get me a paper on the day that it's due. Again, I'd rather not listen to tales of woe and judge whether I'm being manipulated or lied to. Nobody tells me a tale of woe with this policy in effect.
4) While I still have policies related to absences/tardiness (which affect the participation grade, I also have added language that says that if you are tardy x amount of times or absent x amount of times, I'll just ask you to drop the class. This makes my life so much easier than when I was trying, day in and day out, to play the role of Enforcer. Students do, on occasion, refuse this request, but it's very rare, and when they do, if they don't get it together, they're not surprised when they do poorly in the course, so at the very least I don't have as many grade challenges on my hands. Dude, even they get that if a professor asks you to drop the class that you may very well end up doing poorly if you remain.
Those are the main things.
Now, the interesting thing, though, is that some students actively want me to be more hands-on in my approach, and this brings me to the student who seemed actively insulted when I reminded hir of my absence policy and when I indicated to zie that it wasn't necessary to email me with excuses for each absence. This student has been ill, and I don't doubt that, but dude, I'm not the Judge of Acceptable Absences. You get a week free. I assume you're using those absences wisely. Once you go beyond the freebies, it affects participation. I don't think less of you if you are absent more: I just grade you accordingly. But there are students who really think that I stay awake nights thinking that they're slackers. FYI: I don't. I seriously don't care. It's their education, not mine. But some students really, really don't like this. They also don't like that even if they have a "good reason" for getting work in late that they still get penalized. Ultimately, they don't like it that I refuse to treat them like children.
In that regard, you're kind of damned if you do (choose very strict policies that require a lot of time and energy to enforce) and damned if you don't. But my thought is this: if you're damned either way, why not choose policies that require less time and energy? Especially if you can get better results doing so?
But some other things I've learned regarding this enforcement business:
1. If a student sends an email that does not require a response, I don't respond. So the student who seemed insulted at the email reminder of the course policies? Yeah, zie didn't ask me any questions in that reply, and I didn't respond. Email takes time. I've got precious little of it. As long as zie is aware of what's going on with hir grade, we're square. If zie were to email me again, see #2.
2. I don't conduct business over email that would better be conducted in person. If you want to challenge a grade or a policy? You need to make an appointment to meet with me in person. Something that can take 15 minutes in person can totally take hours and days over email. Not worth the hassle.
3. It's not how strict your policies are that gives you authority: it's how well you enforce the policies that you do have. And it's a hell of a lot easier to enforce policies that mesh with your general personality and teaching style than to enforce policies that are contrary to those things.
2 years ago