$@*&%@#! Spring Break Miracle

I thought I would put my Journalism midterm on Blackboard (our "online classroom environment")  so students could cut and paste from the fact lists in the questions into their lead rewrites. The web portal, MyPlymouth, crashed and we spent 15 minutes trying to get all but one student logged in. Finally, I had to throw in the towel and make a take-home exam.

What are the lessons I can take from this?

A. Since you can't trust technology you should make a backup exam - in other words, do twice the work ahead of time or do the twice the work after the fact.

B. It's not ITS's fault the servers crashed. Even though the classroom has 20 computers, the system was never designed to allow more than four people to logon at the same time. I should have the other students wait in their seats until the first four are done.

C. One person's Spring Break miracle is another person's March 30 nightmare or -- since the take home exam will be an essay exam--the WHOLE CLASS'S March 30 nightmare.

D. Why bother to kick the ball, Charlie Brown?

Minority Report - OR - I couldn't write my paper last night because I was in jail. Can I turn it in late?

No kidding. I had that excuse once and I think it was true because the kid's face looked like hamburger...I said no. I also don't excuse absences based on the flu or someone's desire to start Spring Break early. Less outrageous excuses: my aunt died, my grandparent died, I broke my shoulder snowboarding. I excuse those absences if they seem sincere. Last semester, one of my students' best friends was killed in a car accident in Wyoming. I not only excused the kid from class, we spent hours in my office over the next month talking the thing out.

I have a policy:

Regular attendance and active participation in class discussions are mandatory. You are permitted to miss two classes, excused or unexcused. For every absence beyond two (2), I will deduct 5 points (5%) from your semester grade. This includes absences excused by the University or your doctor.

Effectively, that means my students can have a week's worth of absences before it hurts their grade. I assume they will only miss class because they are ill or because something important came up. If they want to sleep in on a cold and rainy Tuesday morning when there's nothing due, though, that's their business. I assume these things won't happen often. Almost every job I ever had allowed me at least a week's vacation--they get one too.

And beyond the two I officially allow, let's be real, if the student has been engaged and keeping up with the work, and if they really ARE missing class for something important like a conference or a family emergency, why not cut them some slack? Unfortunately, it seems that tragedy and sudden intense illness most often strikes those who've already had attendance problems--specifically those who've already used up their week's worth of absences. Uncannily, it often strikes on or just before a day when major work was due to be handed in. For those folks, unless they can provide compelling evidence, the policy stands.

And in all cases where a student will miss a significant amount of class beyond the week allowed (say another week-and-a-half or more), I suggest they withdraw from the course and point out that their absences and missed work will make it impossible to pass. If my courses could be boiled down to readings from the book, what do you need me or the rest of the class for? This is what they call "teacher-centered" thinking...a form of thought-crime akin to "mechanic-centered" automotive repair and "carpenter-centered" house-framing and "doctor-centered" heart surgery.

My quaint policy's probably about to change. This week, one of the committees I sit on passed a policy change that would institute a University-wide attendance policy to forbid faculty from penalizing a student's grade for "excused" absences. Jail is not on the list, but "documented" illnesses, injuries, deaths in the family, sporting events, jury duty, etc., are. Not a word on what constitutes appropriate documentation. The new policy also requires alternative exams or assignments when such absences occur.

The vote was not unanimous and so this is my minority report.

I don't want to be unfair--the backers of the new policy are reacting to some ugly circumstances. In one case, a student's father died of cancer and a professor would not allow the student to make up an exam given on the day of the funeral! That's unconscionable. I think the Dean and the student's academic adviser had every right to hector the instructor for an explanation.

So the backers truly are reacting from the right place. But hard cases make for bad laws. As I see it, the issue in that case was a lack of compassion and clarity on the instructor's behalf that would have led them to consider an exception to a policy that is otherwise reasonable...and founded on experience. I'll grant that the policy will create some clarity, but it won't create a more compassionate professoriate. And that new clarity will make it easier for some students to abuse the system--after all, the policy diminishes the role of the instructor in negotiating what is and is not a legitimate absence. In fact, it creates a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate absences that implies that undocumented absences are bad--what if my best friend's father dies and I want to support him at the funeral? Emotionally, that may be just as powerful as the death of my own relative. What if I've got a bug and I'm too sick to get out of bed? Does that mean my illness was less legitimate than my roommate who saw a doctor for his sore throat? Under my policy, students have the power to decide what is a legitimate way to spend their two absences.

As for the committee, I won't rub my hands together and say I'm proud to work with these LOVELY people and then imply that they're idiots and charlatans. I'm not dismissive of their arguments, suspicious of their motives, or even unsympathetic to their reasoning. In fact, in their content-driven fields (rather than my skills-based field), a liberal attendance policy may even be appropriate. If the policy passes at the Faculty Meeting it will be because good people and worthy colleagues voted their conscience.

But this policy will hurt my students.

When I assign a final grade, I'm making a claim to the student, the university, and the world about how well the student met the objectives in my class. What if one of the course objectives is to enhance their collaborative skills or to develop workshopping skills? How do you assess students who aren't in class (or meeting with partners/groups) when those things are taking place? How do you recreate those experiences in makeup assignments? In writing classes, writing assignments are obviously the best way to assess student progress, but they're imperfect. Attendance alone is an even worse indicator...but taken together with coursework and reading quizzes and class participation, I'm confident that the grades I give are a fair representation of a student's accomplishment. If a student misses three weeks of my class, but has to be scored the same as another student who engaged daily in class, I'm no longer confident that my grade has as much meaning or integrity. In short, the student pays for the grade but they may not take away much else.

Confessional: the teachable C-word

While waiting for Journalism class to start today, I was handing back papers, fussing with the computer, talking with our fantastic guest speaker (Mark Bevis, News Director for NHPR), and generally preparing for class. Not many people had arrived in class, maybe a half-dozen, when I paused to compliment a student on a story he had done the previous week. In the course of the conversation, he very casually used the "C" word.

Yep, that one.

I'm not going to give more context because while the person he was referring to was not a student in the class, only a few hints would be enough for some to figure out the identities of all the characters. I don't want to stir up anything between them and, besides, what difference does it make who it was? Anyway, before the kid (for he was clearly demonstrating his lack of maturity) could finish his sentence, I shouted "Whoa! You don't say that in a classroom!"

Bevis added "Or anywhere."

In six years at Plymouth, I can honestly say this was the first time anyone had used that word in my presence. I was stunned. I was offended. I was embarrassed. I was hurt. I was knocked off-balance.

Other than that initial response, I said nothing.

It gets worse. Here's the furious email I sent as soon as I got home (in fact, this is what I was writing when the Li-Young Lee story I mention in my earlier post came on TV):

I wanted to follow up on our conversation before class today. In six years at Plymouth, you are the first person to use the word "c***" in my hearing. I'm not very uptight about formality in my classes. However, as far I'm concerned, there is never a time to use that word. Certainly, I won't tolerate it in class. It's not only incredibly unprofessional, it demonstrates the worst kind of ignorance and sexism and easily violates my stated participation policy or any standard of professional conduct. As a writer, I would have imagined you would acknowledge that words have real power...and real consequences. Because I thought highly of your work last issue, and because there was a guest in our class (who was obviously as offended as I was) I was surprised and put-off and did not respond as forcefully as I should have. Had I not been taken off guard, I would have A) challenged your offensive language, and the underlying attitudes/bias, in an even more public manner in class, or B) asked you to leave class altogether. Consider yourself warned.

And option "B" is why I'm writing this...I don't support speech codes. That was my anger getting the better of me. The First Amendment protects stupid and hurtful speech precisely because such speech is presumably unpopular, a characteristic it unfortunately shares with most speech that would move us forward.

How should I have handled it? I spoke to my friend/colleague/mentor/confessor, Robin DeRosa tonight and she says that, had it happened outside of class-time, she might have reacted similarly (minus the speech code bit). Maybe she's just saying that to make me feel better. But had the event happened in class, she would have spoken about the freight that word carries--not just what it denotes, but what it communicates about the person who uses it. Namely that they are (to paraphrase my email) ignorant and sexist and unprofessional. In short, rather than forbidding the use of the word, she would have expressed her anger and disappointment, but she would have also turned it into a "teachable moment" where the student, and the class, could confront the consequences of their language. Her "safe" classroom would thus remain an open classroom.

When my students misspeak in regards to a question of theory or application in Journalism or Tech Comm or Poetry, I press the teachable moment. "Funny you should mention that... Why do you feel that way..." And we very purposefully talk about sexism, racism, etc. in class. In fact, we even begin the semester talking about the five "fault lines" along which most journalists form biases (race, gender, class, geography, & generation). I should have pressed the moment. But, in essence, I failed to react. Then, presumably when I had had time to cool down, I reacted in a manner that was less than thoughtful.

So here's the point. Because I believe words have consequences--and for some reason that printed (or online) words may have even more consequence--I'm making a public pledge (for me and the three people who read this blog every time I drop the hint that I've made a bi-annual post) to do better.

  1. I will not create a speech code...but I will confront students on their language choices: its intentionality, its implications.
  2. I will react to that language...but I will also articulate how the speaker must often own the reaction.

But there seems to be a third promise that I can't quite articulate. I'm ashamed that this happened in my classroom. As if something I've said or done must have invited this. Somehow, language that would be unthinkable in other classes/settings (not because of speech codes, but because of respect and professionalism) was deemed OK in mine. I want to have an open classroom. I don't want students to be guarded in their language or ideas. Does an open classroom simply (ha!) force me to struggle with the same paradox that forces the ACLU to defend the Ku Klux Klan even while they despise their views? Or am I right to fear that whatever low-frequency signal in my classroom that allowed one student to feel comfortable expressing that sort of misogyny is being received by everyone?

We now end our broadcasting schedule... [Queue the anthem]