Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Ask the Blogosphere: Warning Professors about Absences

A cc student asked me to get feedback from the active faculty out there on the following:

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?

I'm not a prof but I am in a situation similar to the person with the questions. When I've had to miss class I've done the following.
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.
I prefer 1 and 3, partly because I don't really like the phone (long story). When a student shows the responsibility and initiative to contact me before the class to let me know of a planned absence, I can tell that the student is serious, and I'm more than willing in that case to help out. E-mail me to let know, then we can set up a time when I'm in my office so we can talk. Most times, though, I can take care of these things online by emailing the relevant course materials. Garble's plan to thank the prof in a follow-up email is good, too, and something that frequently happens with those responsible students. Option 4, as you pointed out, is not so good.
Honestly, I'd rather the student send the email.

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.
Finally and then finally again in that last comment - coffee has not kicked in yet :)
I agree with Professor Crazy. I teach graduate nurses. I prefer an email in these cases because it's easy to save and document and I can deal with it when it's convenient. I'm happy to email the syllabus and then meet later with a student in this situation. Because my students are almost all working adults, I rarely have difficulties with the "I'm missing class for a cruise" type excuses I hear from those in other fields.

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.
Email would work for me. As an adjunct I don't have a phone with voicemail so phoning me isn't an option; this may be the case with your professor too. If it isn't the case then an email followed up by a phone call would be my recommendation.
I'm with Crazy. A short, professional email, and then a follow-up email of thanks (and/or a stop into the professor's office to introduce oneself/say thanks) is fine. I would also be less receptive to a phone call.

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.
Yes, an email will do. As Dr. Crazy says, it gives a record.

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).
Re: "Did I miss anything?" and your piqued response:

Tom Wayman has a poem about this:
I have this happen all the time -- and usually they take the "show up the next time' option, which is the worst.

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.
I'm at an R1 university, so usually my students are 18-21, middle class, and have a dead grandmother or a ski trip. So I'm pretty unsympathetic.

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 would prefer option #1. You don't take up any more time than needed to get your message through and the professor will most likely send you the syllabus and any other information via email anyway.

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.
I prefer the students to contact me beforehand. I don't check my school email often, so writing several weeks beforehand is good.

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.
Crazy and Suzi make good points. Email gives a record, and doing some work in advance shows good faith.
I agree with what everyone is saying about email, but there are some professors that might miss the email or dismiss the email because they don't know who the student. I have heard some horror stories about the email approach because the professor just doesn't know the student before the start of the semester.

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.
I'd prefer an email, offering to come in to my office or telephone (preferably giving me a number to call them). That lets me either reply by email or schedule a phone call or meeting when most convenient for me. As the student is asking me to do extra work, I feel justified in asking them to fit their schedule around mine.
I see why you make that suggestion, HT, but I think I'd try emailing first before going out of my way to go to the prof's office hours. Email, give it a week, and then if the prof is non-responsive, then try the in-person route. I'm just thinking that with how booked up my office hours are right now that I'd be annoyed if that was a student's first method of approach, especially if I had absolutely nothing to tell them about the course, as it is currently months before that course will begin and my syllabi are not done. That said, I agree that if a prof doesn't respond to email that the in-person route will make it less easy for the prof to be dismissive.
End the email with the right type of flattery, and you'll be fine: "I will drop your section if that's what you'd advise, but I've heard so many good things about how you teach, I would prefer to take the course with you."
Particularly for part time students I'm fine with #1, with the addition that when the student does get to the class (presumably the first meeting in week #2 in this case), he or she comes up, introduces him/herself to me, and so on.
Just an additional comment about email. We have an online course management system, so I pay very careful attention to emails I get inside the system--I know they can't be spam, I know they're highly likely to be course related. My school goes out of its way to encourage to communicate using that email system, not the general campus syste,/
Email is best for me, but a phone call to my office phone would be fine. Even better is the combo -- email, and if I don't reply in a couple days, make the call.
Oh, I'd much rather have the student come and talk to me; too often, e-mails come through as demands for accommodation in circumstances like this rather than requests for help -- as they should be. I'm far more likely not to be hostile when presented with the issue ahead of time. And DD, like you, I tend to get snipey when asked a week later if the student "missed anything last week."
As a former non-traditional student, I can say from experience that when my wife was out for surgery, I was able to speak to the profs and tell them, They were quite understanding, and attendance requirements were waived in light of the adult handling of the matter, as well as my hard work to cover the missed ground.

The best defense, IMHO, is a solid offense. Go see them.
. . . and another strike against option 4 (as if it needed another): at my school, if a student doesn't show the first night and hasn't cleared the absence ahead of time, he or she can be dropped as a no-show. Students who show up at the second meeting of one of my classes are generally told that they have been dropped and their spots given to another student.
For the first day of class, I'm perfectly happy to deal with somebody who has a reason to be gone. Go ahead, send the email, or call. Both are fine. It's a special case.

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.
Hello, I am the original person who emailed the question to Dean Dad. Thank you to ALL of you who commented. I read many of your blogs already, and some of you I'm going to check out.

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.
Let us now discuss the real issue, what should Professors do when THEY have to ::strikeout::mess::nostrikeout:: miss a class?
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