A number of posts recently have been floating around the blogosphere about professors who shirk their responsibilities, particularly with break on the horizon. It all started with this post at University Diaries, which then Historiann riffed off of and followed up on, and then finally Dean Dad wrote a post dealing with similar issues yesterday.
I've read all of the above posts with a kind of detached interest. See, at my uni it is university policy (and we are reminded of this every semester) that we must have some kind of "culminating experience" during the final exam period, and as far as I'm aware, people take that seriously. In other words, I'm not aware of any of my colleagues - whether within my department or outside the university - who take off for greener pastures as soon as the regular semester is done. I'm sure some may exist, but I don't know 'em. I've been on campus both Monday and Tuesday this week (although I didn't have a final Monday), and while I will be at home grading today, I'll be back there tomorrow to accept seminar papers from my grad students. I'm not sure whether I'll go in Friday, but I may well do. I won't be on campus next week because the reality is that with the electronic submission of grades there is no need for me to go in.
What's interesting about all of the above posts is that while the central issue appears to be "Professors flee during final exam week! How dare they?!" the subtext is really much broader, and has to do with an anxiety that somehow professors selfishly seek to short-change students in a variety of ways (whether it's not assigning substantial writing projects, not giving "real" finals, not offering an exam during the exam period, not grading their own students' work, not checking in over the holidays, not being available outside of regular business hours and the regular semester via email or to meet, not holding enough office hours, etc.) in the service of their own personal convenience. This narrative creates a binary opposition between privileged tenured folk and students/administrators/adjuncts/TAs, with privileged tenured folk on the side of all that is self-centered, lazy, and wrong and those others on the side of hard work and fairness and right. This opposition is, to my mind, very simplistic and not terribly useful. While I'm sure there are some professors who abuse the autonomy, flexibility, and lack of accountability (i.e., the lack of a clock to punch) that the profession affords, I'm willing to venture that the narrative about professorial slackitude, while convenient, doesn't present a realistic picture of the motivations and actions of most professors.
First, let me address the issue of exam week.
1. How does the university schedule the final exam period? This is crucial. My university schedules it M-F during the week immediately following the end of classes, and finals are scheduled at roughly the same time that the course typically meets. This scheduling makes sense, and it encourages faculty to administer some sort of graded work for that period for a number of reasons including a) students won't have legitimate reasons why they can't attend the final; b) profs have at least four days after the exam period is over in which to tabulate final grades; c) there is enough time after final grades are due - even if one doesn't get them in until the very last minute - to complete holiday travel (and let's note that for the majority of faculty, holiday travel is likely because of the nat'l job market and the fact that one can't settle in his/her hometown near to family, though I suppose one might argue that faculty should just ignore things like "family" over the holidays).
2. Number of students/number and type of preps/the presence or not of grading assistance. If one is teaching two comp courses, say, and then two other writing-intensive literature courses, one might be inclined to have one or more "final" equivalents due prior to the regular exam period of the course, if one is responsible for all grading. In that case, the issue may not be about fleeing from campus but rather about having the time to conscientiously grade the work submitted before submitting final grades.
How I have come to approach exam week:
In writing courses, I typically will have a portfolio due on the first day of the finals period (regardless of when the scheduled exam period is) that includes revisions of previous work and a final research project. This amounts to about 30 pages of writing per student, and the only way for me to get it all read and evaluated by the time grades are due, I really need a week for grading/commenting. Students know about this deadline from the very start of the semester, and this is an excused exception to our "you must meet during the exam period" policy. In courses that count for general education, I hold a traditional cumulative final exam, with a mix of types of questions, from identifications to matching to short answer to essay, and it's typically worth about 20-30% of a student's final grade in a course. In upper-level classes, I've moved to having a short oral presentation during the final exam period for the final that is worth only around 10-15% of the final grade, in which students are asked to synthesize what they've learned over the course of the semester and to link it to their final paper project. This is a relatively new development in my teaching, and pedagogically I find it much more beneficial to students than a traditional exam, since as students become more advanced in my field, what matters more than their ability to spit back plot information or definitions of terms is their ability to write and speak about the literature and the theory. The paper is really the most important thing they'll do for me, and a more traditional final doesn't really show me anything substantive in addition to what this oral assignment does. It's also less stressful for students, which I think is a good thing. And the presentations are easier/faster to grade than a traditional exam. For graduate students, they write a seminar paper. The idea of testing my graduate students is absurd to me. If they need a test, they shouldn't be in graduate school. (Note: this is the norm in my field.)
So am I slacking? I'd say I'm not, but I think a person could ostensibly read the above information and say that I am. I only give traditional exams in approximately 1/2 of the courses that I teach. But I'm not jetting off to glamorous locations as a result of my pedagogical choices. Because my choices are pedagogical - they're not about me getting out of work. Why would we assume that professors are, when they choose not to give a certain kind of assignment or a certain kind of test, that they make those choices without regard to their students? It seems to me that those assumptions are underwritten by a kind of anti-intellectual suspicion that I find deeply, deeply troubling.
And I think that anti-intellectual suspicion drives other complaints related to professorial workload that have nothing to do with exam week. For example, it's unclear to me why it's so unthinkable for a professor to have a teaching schedule that is only two or three days a week. I have had a schedule like that for the past few years. It doesn't mean that I'm not on campus five days a week - much of the time I am. It's just that having a schedule where I'm not teaching every day allows for me to use those "off" days for other things - like research, advising students, meeting with students in my courses, committee work, professional service, and course preparation. It also means that I have to cancel fewer meetings for conferences, which I need to attend in order meet the basic requirements of my job. While it's true that I may not come to campus if I don't have something scheduled, I do check email on the days when I don't come in, and I do work on the days when I don't come in. Similarly, when we talk about things like course releases or sabbaticals, we're not talking about professors "getting out of work." We're talking about a redistribution of workload, an acknowledgment that there are aspects of this job that exceed the work that we do in the classroom.
So here is the thing. I'm not a fan of the discourses about how professors don't do their jobs, or about the discourses that reduce professorial workload to time spent in the classroom and to specific approved classroom practices. This isn't because I'm all "poor me! look how hard I work and how much work I do!" It's because I think it's stupid and fails to produce any productive results or productive conversation about workload. And perhaps more important than that, it fails to acknowledge that maybe there are multiple ways of doing the best we can for our students, and maybe doing our best means allowing for some flexibility.*
*Within reason. I am not saying that I think the whole thing should be a free-for-all wherein professors are completely unaccountable. It's just to say that it's important to realize that pedagogical choices are not uniform across disciplines or even across individual instructors, and that it can be the case that deviation from "the norm" isn't about slacking or the desire to slack.
3 years ago