Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some Thoughts about Course Policies and Class Management

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.


undine said...

"It's not how strict your policies are that gives you authority: it's how well you enforce the policies that you do have." Exactly right. There's no point in draconian policies that you (and the students) know won't be enforced.

Shannon said...

I used to be the same way with my policies and have also loosened up a bit for similar reasons. The key difference for me, I think, is the late penalties for assignments. I used to be a grade a day, but I've changed to a one time (largeish ~15%) penalty with an ultimate last day of acceptance (i.e. assignments related to the midterm exam need to be done before the midterm).

The reason why is that I started thinking about why I have my students do these assignments. Each one of them has some pedagogical value, and frankly, if I can't justify that, then I shouldn't be giving that assignment. So, for me, I want to encourage students to do these assignments on time. But under the grade a day regime, at some point, students would simply calculate that they'd lost too many points, so it wasn't worth doing any more. Or they would do a half assed job to ensure they didn't lose any points. The one time penalty encourages timeliness, but also encourages students to actually do the assignment and do it right even if it's late. Few students are late, but those who are tend to turn in quality work.

Maude said...

I think I'm getting closer to that balance where I have policies I can enforce. I at least try to be merciless in the first few weeks to weed out bad behavior and then when a crisis arises I can show mercy.

But at this point, I have no mercy left.

I like this business of accepting the email as on time with the requirement they bring the hard copy to you within a week. Next semester I am going to do that.

Clio Bluestocking said...

I sometimes wonder about those excuses that they give -- when they don't have to -- for absences. Are they responding to another professor's policies? Are they responding to their experience in grade school? Are they responding to their experience in the workforce? Like you, I can't really take on all of their problems, so they get a week of "free" absences before their grade is affected. Still, e-mail on top of e-mail apologizing profusely, telling me their life story, and swearing that they aren't purposely avoiding class. It's kind of sweet (in an annoying way).

Brigindo said...

I am often amazed at how students need to tell or ask permission even when you've made it perfectly clear that the policy doesn't require or invite such behavior. I also have an "X" number of absences policy. Go over and you're dropped from the class (luckily I don't have to ask; if it is on the syllabus it is my decision to drop them). I don't care why you're absent and I don't have to see any proof. Yet I do, constantly.

I also have a policy where students get "X" number of late days for assignments. This can be used on one assignment or across several assignments (I give a number of small assignments). Again I don't care why you are late but once you are I start going down letter grades. Most students aren't late but the few who are always ask if they can use a late day. My slacker students? They don't hand it in at all.

PhysioProf said...

(1) I am so fucking overjoyed that my not-insubstantial teaching duties do not require me to have anything whatsoever to do with grades.

(2) zie, hir, BLAMMO!!!!!!

(3) 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.

So you check to be sure that the students aren't e-mailing you garbage and then spending another week generating the final work product?

Dr. Crazy said...

Yep, the two copies have to be identical, or it's a zero. I just open the attachment when they submit the final thing and compare. Takes 20 seconds. And if they try to pull a fast one, I've got evidence, and they're in violation of the honor code.

Dr. Crazy said...

By the way, nobody has ever abused the email then hand in a hard copy policy.

PhysioProf said...

What if they e-mail you an intentionally corrupted file and claim it got corrupted in transit (which can happen)? Apparently, you can actually buy specially made corrupted files to your specifications that have metadata and shit that make them look legit.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, Physioprof, how can you think I would not have thought of this? It's actually in my course policies that they must submit these things in a particular format (MS word or rtf) and if I can't read it (whether corrupted or whatever), it doesn't count.

Look, I was an undergrad who looked for loopholes. Probably more than most of my students do. (Hell, I was a girl in undergrad who lied successfully and said I'd had mono in order to be allowed to miss two weeks of class, to turn in a paper after the deadline, and to do an exam late, in a course that had strict policies about attendance, deadlines, and exams. This may be why I don't do the "excused absence" thing, perhaps.)

When I write course policies, I think of the smart-ass, too smart for my own good, slacker student I was in designing them. The true slackers don't rise to the level of diabolical subterfuge that I myself practiced: the students who are like the student I was, well, the policy stops them cold in their tracks.

Also, it's probably helpful to note that I'm notoriously one of the most (if not the absolute most, though I probably am) tough profs in my dept. The ones who want to play the odds to try to get away with shit just don't enroll in my classes. I'm widely known as the Meanest Professor Alive. Even advisers to freshmen know this: and seriously, those students don't typically show up in my classes.

PhysioProf said...

I'm widely known as the Meanest Professor Alive.


Janice said...

You're wise and right to have policies that you can enforce and not feel out of control with those you can't. My policies aren't the most draconian in the department, but they are fair for all students and they work for me.

I'm impressed that you don't get more pushback from your students about having to follow up email submissions with a hardcopy. I get that every year.

I suppose the problem is that I do accept electronic submissions via WebCT since that tracks and gives me back-up storage. If someone sends me an email copy, they seem to expect that it replaces the WebCT version and that's good enough. Of course, it doesn't. I can't give them the feedback through the assignments section.

I had one student get absolutely irate over a zero mark on an assignment last year when the student only submitted it by email and never followed up with a hardcopy. Even when I bugged the student point-blank to get me the hardcopy, this was somehow a surprise imposition the following week when everyone else but this student got back marked assignments. *sigh*

human said...

To me it's just basic politeness to give the professor a heads up if you can't be in class, no matter what the attendance policy is. I did this when a student and I wish my students would do it now. (Well, if they have a legit excuse. If they are just blowing off class, I don't want to hear it.) I don't get mad or anything when I don't hear from them, but I do think it is kind of rude and would be more polite for them to just send a "Sorry I couldn't come to class, I was sick" or whatever email.

I had my college socialization at a school in the Deep South; I wonder if there's a regional difference? Or maybe it's just be. But it surprises me that y'all find this behavior annoying!

PhysioProf said...

To me it's just basic politeness to give the professor a heads up if you can't be in class, no matter what the attendance policy is.

Nah. Professors don't don't give a flying fuck if you're not in class, and certainly don't want to receive some whiny-ass e-mail about how you had to take your fucking dog for an anal gland cleaning and thus can't be there.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, perhaps Physioprof goes a wee bit overboard in his response (be nice, Physioprof!), but here's the thing: If I write, as I do, in the course policies, *Please do not email me when you will miss class,* then you are not being polite if you email me: you are failing to do what I'm asking to do, you're refusing to follow directions, and you are burdening me with unnecessary email, to which I will not respond (thus making you think that I'm rude) and that is not going to improve my opinion of you.

Ultimately, if somebody very clearly states that they don't want you to do something, then to do that thing anyway because you decide that you know better than they do is *really* freaking rude, as far as I'm concerned.

(To be fair, if I didn't explicitly state this in the policies, as well as verbally on the first day of class, I don't think my irritation would be warranted. But I state what I want very clearly. The reality is that I have approximately 90 students this semester - no TAs - in 4 different sections, and I really do not need the 180-360 emails that would potentially be generated by people emailing me when they're going to miss class. As it is, with the ones who refuse to do what I ask, I'd say I average around 30 emails over the course of a semester, which to my mind is 30 unnecessary emails too many.)

Firefly said...

Yes, I've learned not to make rules I don't want to enforce, or that drain my time and energy, and not to assign papers I ultimately don't want to read!
As far as sticking to the rules, You Always have the latitude to be benevolent or mercful as you choose: human heartedness. Otherwise the rules do the deciding for you.
Machiavelli could be benevolent when he wanted, because people didn't expect it. It didn't undermine his authority. To me it underscores your authority to do as you see fit.

Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D., Instructor said...

... they e-mail you an intentionally corrupted file and claim it got corrupted in transit ... you can ... buy specially made corrupted files ... that ... look legit.

Well, I'll be damned. Learn something new every day. I do believe I have had this very stunt pulled on me.

The software the school uses for posting assignments is notoriously buggy, and it would be easy for students to take advantage, especially with an adjunct. We are so out of the loop! Tenured and tenure-track people probably keep each other apprised of all the latest tricks.

OK. New policy. Student's responsibility to post far enough ahead of deadline to allow hir to check that it's correct. If I can't read it, it hasn't been submitted.

Maude said...

I have that in my syllabus, too. Whether through the fault of the student or not, if I get a corrupted file and cannot open it, even if it is in my email box on-time, if it's unopenable by that time, it's late. So I strongly suggest to my students that really the only was to ensure that their work is not late is to just show up to class on time the day the work is due.

human said...

Oh, yes, of course. If you're telling them in the syllabus not to do that and they're doing it anyway... that's a whole nother thing. :-)

PhysioProf said...

My policy on e-mail is that the only classroom student e-mails I answer are ones seeking to make an appointment to see me in person. Period. I refuse to address any procedural, substantive, or other class-related issues via e-mail. Anything in student e-mails other than a request for an appointment I don't even read.