Monday, September 11, 2006


The Last Possible Minute, and Beyond

The Boy loves when Buzz Lightyear, from Toy Story, says “To Infinity, and Beyond!” He doesn't get the joke; he just thinks it's a cool, superhero-ish thing to say.

The bane of this time of year is students trying to sign up for classes at the last minute, and beyond. And they don't usually have academic superpowers.

Students trying to win exceptions to 'add' deadlines almost always use the wrong approach. Conditioned by years of rewarded whining, they come in with the standard 'queen for a day' hard-knock stories, begging for compassion. This is exactly the wrong strategy.

The reasons for 'add' deadlines are several. Operational considerations matter – financial aid reporting rules, registrar needs, and the like. Faculty preferences matter – it's a pain in the neck to try to bring a kid up to speed after a class has started, especially if it has met more than once. But the biggie is actually compassion for the students.

Experience and internal statistics indicate that adding a class after it has started dramatically increases the likelihood of failing. The later the add, the surer the flop. (As we used to say at my previous college, last in, first out.) Since we don't consciously try to exploit our students, we don't want to take their money (and the taxpayers'!) when we're reasonably certain that it's for a fool's errand.

As a Dean, I'm the appeal of last resort for students who are trying to add classes at the last minute and beyond. There aren't that many when taken as a percentage of the student body, but when you see every single one of them personally, it feels like a lot.

Knowing that, what would be the most persuasive appeal for getting into a class late?

Begging? No...

Whining? No...

Flirting? No...

wait for it...

Show that you're so exceptionally able that you'll be able to handle it!

The flaw in that, of course, is that if you were so exceptionally able, you probably should have been able to comply with the official deadline in the first place.

There are times when a truly able student comes in late, and those are the times I'm likeliest to bend. As a cc, we get the local kids who initially went away to school, then turned tail and came back home in two days. (It's much more common in September than in January.) Sometimes the issue is the moral turpitude of dorm life, sometimes it's financial and/or familial and/or medical, sometimes it's just really advanced homesickness. Since most colleges start around the same time, by the time the kid has come home and gathered her thoughts sufficiently to try us, she may have missed the deadline. In those cases, if the kid shows a strong high school record, I'm likelier to cut some slack.

But the reason for the slack isn't compassion; it's probabilities. I'm looking for a sign that the kid who wants an exception is herself exceptional. Absent that, it's not gonna happen.

There's a moral ambiguity involved in saving students from themselves. Part of me thinks that, all else being equal, a big belly flop may be just the learning experience that would stick. But I've also taught, and I know how demoralizing it is in a discussion-oriented class when people stream in a week or two late. And from the standpoint of a steward of taxpayer resources, there's a limit to the amount of bad money I want to throw after good. I don't want to have to explain why a kid who signed up in October for a class that started before Labor Day, went twice, and failed, was entitled to publicly-funded financial aid. That's not a good conversation for this public servant.

Besides, sometimes hearing 'no' is a learning experience in itself. One of my bloggy sparring partners likes to say that the natural check on colleges' impulse to lower standards is employers' unwillingness to hire graduates with weak skills. I've seen remarkably little evidence of that – from what I've seen, the business climate at any given moment has a far greater impact on the rate of hiring than do graduates' writing skills, particularly for entry-level positions – but I will grant that employers prefer people who can be counted on to show up for work. If we teach by example that deadlines are meant to be broken, we're not doing anybody any good. Telling a kid he can't get into class two weeks late is also teaching, in its way.

I love the smell of 'add' forms in the morning...

My first semester at my current CC I would sign add forms left and right... anybody who wanted in could get in and I thought that was a good thing... until I noticed that 95% of them failed and that they were 80% of my withdraw/fail group.

Generally, I don't sign add slips. I can't prevent them from adding in the first few days -- even after two class meetings they can add without my consent, but if I can block them from starting late, I'll do it.

What is pretty funny to me is what they do when I refuse to sign their slip. I suppose I should explain to them why, but I don't want to get into either the a) I'm a good student with tough luck, or b) that won't be me failing... debate, so I just say "no".
I'm so old I didn't even know that adding a course late was a possibility. Not allowed in my day--or at least I never heard of anyone trying to do it, and it never occurred to me.

Thanks for info. I enjoy your often unexpected point of view.
Excellent post, sir. My personal favorite is when they expect an add and don't even give a reason why, or else they use the "I just found out I need this to graduate" excuse.

Once I had a student show up after my class had met eight times, asking not if, but WHEN could I sign her override. As if there were any reason for me to say no. Gotta love it!
Amen!! Every time a student asks to add my course in the second week, and I've agreed, ("I will do all of the reading and homeworks to bring myself up to speed, and then I promise I'll be especially conscientious for the rest of the semester!!!!") that student has gotten a C or worse in the class. I do actually think this is an exceptionless generalization.

It hasn't happened to me yet this year, but if someone asks to add late, I'm seriously thinking of telling them, "You may add this class, but statistically speaking, you are 98.5% likely to get a C or lower in this class. Please consider that before you ask me to sign that form."
Amen!!! I am hesitant to allow students to come after missing the first day, and I will NOT sign anyone in during the second week -- for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Not only are these students statistically much more likely to fail, but if they don't, they are exponentially more likely to act like giant pains in the butt. No, I learned my lesson when I signed in a self-proclaimed brilliant student and spent the rest of the semester trying to get rid of her. :-)
Ditto to all of the above, but, Dean Dad, can you actually add a deserving student two weeks into the semester without the consent of the instructor?

If that happened to me, I wouldn't be very happy.

Technically, yes, but I've never done it. After the first week, I require the instructor's and department chair's signatures before I'll even consider it.
I used to be nice; really I did. But I decided this semester that I'm opting for honest over nice. So it now says in my elementary language syllabus that if your average is below 75, I'm going to tell you to drop. And I'm not signing any add slips. The course begins the first day; there is a quiz on the second and fourth class days. You can't catch up. This is particularly true now that we have given in to student pressure and have language classes that meet for 2 hours/2x per week.

The other thing that depresses me is seeing the students who have already set themselves up for failure by the second day of class (today). 5 out of 25 have not gotten a textbook (although I e-mailed them before the semester began and said that they must have it for the first class, and it costs only $30) and could not answer any of my questions ALREADY. Where do they have to go but down??? This is why I'm thinking about an administrative job....
In my four years as an undergrad, I replaced two courses at the bleeding edge of or just after add-drop period. I dropped both because the instructors were clearly going to be insufferable, and I dropped them at the end of the add-drop period rather than right after the first class because I wanted to give them a second chance, and to make allowances for the first-day bogeyman routine some profs would put on in order to scare away half-hearted students. In both cases, I ended up getting As in the replacement courses.

I understand that many students get in over their heads when they transfer in late, but I also firmly believe, based on my experiences, that students should be able to vote with their feet when faced with a prof who's clearly unprofessional or a whack-job. For the transfer that occurred after the official add-drop, I went to the department chair and told her I was having difficulties with the instructor. She asked, "Did he say something about your body?" I replied, "No, just my clothing." She said, "Oh, I guess he's getting better about that." I said, "I'd like to change sections, please!"

Just a war story from the other side... I'm glad I had profs and department heads who didn't dismiss me out of hand for wanting a late transfer, and while they may be frequently abused, I also think they're necessary.
I was inclined to sign the add slip last week when I got a call from a PSEO (high school student) who liked his first week so much that he wanted to add more classes here at the cc. I did send him the syllabus and ask him to look it over before signing on. Haven't heard from him since.
I understand that things happen and some students have quais-legitimate (or better) reasons for wanting to add classes late.

What bothers me are the students who do it routinely. I've had students ask to add an intro course after the second week, then show up a year or so later wanting to add an intermediate-level course late, and then again wanting to add an advanced elective late. Usually it's because a family vacation was scheduled for the last half of August...

I am not particularly generous about this.
My favorites are the students who add on Tuesday, when the MWF class started on Monday, then don't come to class on Wednesday. Then there are those that add on Thursday and don't come on Friday.

Though I will say, last year I had two students add at the very end of the add/drop date who did fine. One didn't like the instructor in an honor's class in a different field - a situation like the anonymous poster described. The other was very smart but flakey and somehow didn't realize she was supposed to register. Both adds were allowable, however, which says something too.
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