Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Ask the Blogosphere: Warning Professors about Absences
I am an adult student in my final year of CC and will graduate with an AA degree in May. Next semester I am taking two night classes which each meet once per week. Unfortunately I will be out of town the first week of classes. I am considering my options, but am extremely nervous about consulting my potential professors regarding this. I am an avid reader of academic blogs (hoping to become a professor myself someday), and it seems many professors do not take kindly to these types of "issues" in regards to their students.
If I knew any students in the classes, I would ask them to fill me in, but since it's the first night, I don't have any "study buddies" yet. So here are the options as I see them (I cannot change my travel schedule):
#1) Email the professors now and let them know that I am excited about taking their class next semester, even though I am not happy about needing to miss that first week. I would then ask if they would be willing to mail me any materials handed out the first class (such as a syllabus) and advise me of any assignments due that following week, so I would be able to turn them in on time when I return. I would, of course, provide them with a SASE to do this.
#2) Call the professors on the phone and continue with #1.
#3) Go to the professor's office hours, and proceed with #1 and #2. In the case of at least one of the two professors, I would need to take time off work to do so - not a simple prospect in my line of work.
#4) Do not inform the professors of anything, and just show up to the second class unprepared and completely clueless about what happened the previous week. Then bug them asking for a syllabus and such.
How does the blogosphere of professors suggest I proceed? Would any of these be offensive, or just slightly annoying. Would any of these be welcome? Somehow I doubt it.
If it makes any difference, I have a 4.0, am very serious about school, etc. Blah, blah, blah.......
For my money, option 4 is the most common and least desirable way to go. Options 2 and 3 strike me as within reason. Option 1 isn’t awful, but it’s kind of impersonal. If I were on the receiving end of a letter like that, I’d want to talk with the student directly.
Whatever you do, don’t miss a class, go incommunicado, then waltz in and ask “did I miss anything?” That’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to an instructor. In a fit of pique, I once answered it “No. We sat on our hands for the entire class period, waiting for you.”
Although different personalities handle it differently, I tend to be more inclined to cut slack when the absence is announced well in advance. Excuses after the fact just aren’t as convincing, most of the time.
Professors of the blogosphere – what do you think?
1. Call the professor to tell them what's going on. Ask if they want you to come to the office. Usually no.
2. Email the professor to thank them for any additional help and summarize the phone conversation. This is polite and it helps document what was decided. In the email I'm explicit. Prof will send me note, I'll turn in the assignment late for credit I'll ask a class mate my questions first and than I'll see the professor at such and such a time to ask any additional questions.
I've found that it's good to spell out whats going to happen, it avoids confusion and pain later.
It's worked okay for me.
1) I then have a record of having corresponded with the student about the issue, which is important as I teach 4 classes and if I don't know the student I will immediately forget that we talked.
2) I can then just send all course materials electronically to the student in an email reply, whereas if I talk to the student on the phone, I will have to do the extra step of either emailing them or sticking them in the mail.
3) Email gives me the freedom to respond when I have time - if the student calls, I may have to deal with returning the call, or I may be caught off guard when I'm with a student if the student calls or just shows up at office hours (as I have a lot of students who take advantage of office hours, and a current student will take precedence over a potential student from next semester).
4) Email has the final advantage of being less intrusive. If a student were to call me up or stop by today to ask me about next semester without an appointment, I honestly wouldn't be able to tell them anything other than the books that they will have to buy with any certainty. My syllabi will not be completely written, and I will not have any clue as to what exactly we'll do in class in January. So if the student called or stopped by right now, I'd feel put on the spot and unhelpful and we'd get off on the wrong note. If the student sent an email, I could reply that I didn't have the information yet but that the student should email me again in the week before classes begin and I would send back the materials that I distribute on the first day.
Finally, a general comment: I've had this happen with students before, and it's really not that big of a deal. The main thing is this: don't go on and on about your conflict as if it's infinitely more important than the class - just tell it like it is and communicate your desire to fulfill your responsibilities to the course. "I have a work conflict, and I unfortunately can't rearrange it" is enough for me. I don't need details. Moreover, if your conflict is, "I'm going on vacation to Aruba and I'm really excited about it," I am going to have exactly no sympathy for your plight. You know when the semester starts - don't schedule vacations then. Period.
Finally, don't expect for the absence to be "excused" or to be able to make up in class work. Not all professors (for example, me) allow those things in any situation. I don't "excuse" absences in my courses - you'd have one free absence. If you used it in the first week, then that's your decision, but if you miss after that, it will begin to affect your participation grade. I don't negotiate about that, so that's one reason why I'd want the student to contact me in advance - because if the student had a problem with that, I'd want him or her to drop.
I figure I have conflicts and have to make choices. As long as I'm told ahead of time, I've got no problem. Maybe it's because my students spend their working time doing things like saving lives, but for whatever reason they tend to be responsible students.
I've sometimes written back to such requests rather curtly (reminding the student that they have only X number of permissable absences, and this will be one of them), but I've always sent given the student the benefit of the doubt and emailed the requested info.
Sometimes the student DOES go on to become an unreliable, problem student, but equally often the student turns out to be one of the best in the class. I think it's unlikely that any instructor would completely write a student off based upon this one initial absence; it's definitely not a great start, but it's ultimately your performance in class and on paper that matters.
I'm not a big fan of the phone, not often sitting right in the office to answer it, and playing phone tag about something like this would get aggravating.
I think the annoyance over students missing classes is when they go on and on about how they're going on a cruise or whatever and expect all sorts of special dispensation because they're going on a cruise (as if that makes them more special than the rest of the class).
Tom Wayman has a poem about this:
The week before classes start, send the e-mail asking for the syllabus -- frankly, any earlier and I know I wouldn't have a final version and thus would forget to send it.... I'd probably also ask when their office hours are (sometimes they are evening times) so that you can ask any lingering questions.
However, my graduate program has some part-time students with families and jobs. I assume this is even more common with CC students. I'm willing to listen - it just has to get through the "BS detector". Valid excuses include kids going to the ER and work-related trips (my boss said I had to go). My standard is this: would this cause me to skip teaching class? (As a program director, I HAVE been told by higherups I must be at a meeting, class or no class). My graduate courses that I teach often don't have a sub I can call on.
I had a student in my class who informed the student services and they contacted me on her behalf. that's another and in my opinion acceptable way of doing it. (caveat: I am in a small institution. This will probably not work if student services covers a large university)
Anyway I sent her the material she needed. I knew why she was missing was the first days of class and she knew she had to put in extra work to catch up - everybody is happy.
If the student doesn't hear something in a week, then call.
If the student calls, I ask them to email me asking for what they want and then I send them the syllabus.
Also, if it is far enough beforehand, doing any in class work and sending it on in before class starts is a good plan. It makes the teacher feel like you are actually going to be doing the work.
Meeting someone in person makes it much harder to be dismissive and demonstrates more effort. If you don't know the professor and are missing the class on the first day, I recommend showing up at their office hours for a very brief introduction. "I wanted to introduce myself, I'm looking forward to your class but I have to miss the first week due to my real work/family-related obligation. OF COURSE, I will find someone in the class to get notes from. Thanks for your understanding."
Then follow up with an email for their records.
The best defense, IMHO, is a solid offense. Go see them.
For most absences, I really, sincerely prefer #4. As I am at an R1 and teach one class that has 200 people in it, I am not going to notice.
When the class has gotten rolling, I really, sincerely do not care if they don't show up or provide an excuse. They are responsible for their own choices, and if they don't show, I can assume they had something else to do. I don't need to know what it is. I'm not paying for them to be in my class.
I get tired of the "my family is going on vacation and I want to go, too, can I..." emails. So go. Or not. Figure it out. Either arrange to have a friend record the lecture, work ahead on your own, get everybody's notes, or realize your performance is going to suffer...but take responsibility for your choices and quit trying to rope me into helping you avoid having to make tradeoffs.
Lisa, Paper Chaser. This is my feeling on it exactly. I do not want to "ask" a professor permission to miss his/her class. At my school classes are quite small (often 20 or less, and always less than 40) so absences are noticed. If I've needed to miss classes in the past, I typically inform the instructor and let them know I've already made arrangements to get the notes, turn in assignments early, or whatever. This is simple when I've already gotten a syllabus that explains the consequences of absences, policies regarding late work, and dates for assignments and exams.
In this case, I don't have a syllabus to know what I'll be missing and/or the policies regarding absences. But I'm certainly not planning to give a long sob story about why I need to miss and will they please let me, blah, blah, blah.