Friday, September 10, 2010


Ask the Administrator: When Tuesday Becomes Monday...

An occasional correspondent writes:

I realize it takes some gymnastics to make the number of class meetings equal out what with Monday holidays and whatnot. That being said, as an instructor I find it madness when I teach two sections of a class with one or even TWO less meetings in one than its counterpart. It causes me to have to skip things, or insert total fluff "lab classes" to equal things out. What do your wise and worldly readers think about solutions like "Monday Classes Meet on Tuesday" or twice a week meetings once a semester vs. the merits of keeping it simple and letting the chips fall where they may?

I won’t presume to speak for my readers, but In my own observation, there’s no winning this one.

Briefly, the dilemma is that holidays are not evenly distributed across the week. In the U.S., historical personages seem all to have been born on Mondays -- odd but true -- and Labor Day is always on a Monday. Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday. Most colleges face the dilemma in the Fall of trying to squeeze everything in between Labor Day and Christmas, without spilling over, running low, or bumping up too closely against holidays. (Wednesday night classes before Thanksgiving are notoriously quixotic undertakings.)

(I refer here to the holidays most commonly observed. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur don’t always play well with the academic calendar, either, since they typically happen just a few weeks into the Fall, and they move each year. I’ve heard some pretty valid arguments from some Jewish faculty that it’s unfair that they have to use personal days for their holidays, but Good Friday is a freebie. Honestly, they have a point.)

One way to handle the calendar is just to ignore it. Mondays are Mondays, Tuesdays are Tuesdays, and holidays happen when they happen. The beauty of this approach is that it’s intuitive, and it’s in line with what most of the rest of the world does. It allows people with commitments in multiple places to juggle them with relatively little additional nuttiness. That could mean students with jobs, adjuncts with courses at other schools, or even regular employees who need to schedule, say, dentist appointments well in advance.

The problem with that is that the number of class meetings will vary, sometimes non-trivially, depending on which days of the week the class meets. In lab sciences, say, losing multiple Monday lab sessions to holidays could put the students in a real bind relative to students who happen to have their labs on Tuesdays.

In response to class-time inequities, some colleges relabel a few days. For example, I’ve seen the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving conducted officially as Thursday and Friday, respectively.

It’s pretty effective at leveling out the number of class meetings. But the other hurdles it creates are substantial.

The most basic one, embarrassingly enough, is forgetfulness. Somebody always forgets that the day has switched, and so you get wrong professors in wrong rooms.

Beyond that, though, most campuses don’t only have people whose only time commitments are on that campus. Freeway-flying adjuncts may suddenly have schedule conflicts when a Tuesday becomes a Thursday on one campus, but remains a Tuesday on another. Students with part-time jobs -- that is, most of them -- may not be able to move their hours just because the college did. Even things like meetings with external agencies can become tricky.

In a perfect world, every class would be flexible enough that we could just go with the actual calendar and not worry about it. (Alternately, holidays would be evenly distributed.) That might take the form of additional out-of-class assignments, online components, or some other work-around. That would help not only with the predictable stuff, like holidays, but also with snow days and other abrupt interruptions. (I lived through one winter in which every blizzard seemed to hit on a Tuesday. The folks with Tuesday night classes were apoplectic.) But I know that’s not always possible.

As a student, I was always a little miffed when a professor would announce that we’d need to shift gears to deal with missing a day for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is predictable; failing to plan for it just struck me as lazy. But given the realities of snow days, instructor illnesses, and the random stuff of life, I’m increasingly convinced that instructors are well advised to build some reasonable level of flexibility into their plans. (Instead of blow-off days, I’m a fan of online sites as backups, but that’s me.) That’s easier in some courses than others, but neither I nor anybody else can guarantee that blizzards will never strike on Tuesdays.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a reasonably graceful way to deal with uneven distributions of Wednesdays, and/or snow days?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

This year I'm teaching the same course on Wednesday and Thursday. The Thursday course meets THREE fewer times than the Wednesday.

I had to adjust the schedule so that the Wednesday folks get the day off to take an on-line exam, while the Thursday folks take it over the "holiday" ---
At my school we say "God may call it Tuesday, but we're gonna have Monday classes" At the end of the term, even out the calendar.
I have to remind myself that most of the rest of the country doesn't have a full week off for Thanksgiving. Here in WV we do... because we're a state of hunters and half of the classes (yes, even in middle and high school) will be out anyway to hunt. So that takes care of the Thanksgiving disparity.

Schools here also start before Labor Day, so we get a few extra days to play with.
I think the worst was taking a class that was supposed to meet once a week, on Mondays in the spring semester.

Not that this helps, but U of MN has basically done away with holidays. We start the day after MLK, Jr. Day and the only time off is a week for spring break. In the fall, we start after Labor Day and only have Thanksgiving off. As much as the holiday issue can be a problem, I really prefer having a day off now and again. Going 15-16 weeks without much of a break is not fun.
You can't fight the law, so our college has to close on state holidays.

Our biggest problem is that we have some labs that meet all week. We can't have the kids do the Labor Day lab during the Monday of Thanksgiving week. That just will not work, and we can't afford to reset the lab in mid week nor can we have kids doing a lab they haven't prepared for the week before. The solution is to not have labs meet on Monday, but enrollment has played havoc with that plan.

What I would change is the date of Thanksgiving. It is too close to Christmas break. Push it up to around the second week of November and the stores would be happy and so would our students.
Everywhere I was a student, we pretty much ignored holidays. At my undergrad college (small, private), we often started on labor day, and we finished our first of three terms before thanksgiving. The only day during a term we didn't have classes was a single Friday in the spring term where students gave presentations on various types of research or art. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break all fell between terms.

At my graduate university (very large, public), we got Thanksgiving and the day after off, and we got Martin Luther King day off. That was it for holidays that fell during the week, so at the most you could end up off by one class meeting a semester.
Give W/R/F for Thanksgiving, and M/T for Labor Day in the fall. Problem solved, and everybody loves their four-day weekend.
The other day, I half-jokingly told my students that because the college closes for Christian and Jewish holidays, it should also close for Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Yoruba and Wiccan holidays, as the college has faculty and staff from all of those belief systems.

One students eyes lit up. "We'd never go to school again!" he exclaimed.

Seriously, I once asked someone in the Registrar's office why we start in late August and why, for example, this Tuesday is on a Friday schedule. She said that the state department of higher ed (in NY) mandates that each class meet for a certain number of hours. Juggling the schedule, she says, is the only way to ensure that each class meets for the required number of hours in the semester.
I've been at a school that did a M-W-F for an hour and T-Th for an hour and a half schedule, but that was a SLAC where most courses didn't have repeat sections and so profs weren't trying to keep a M-W-F section synched with a T-Th section. I know I always get more accomplished in three shorter sections rather than two longer ones, so losing the occasional Monday or Friday sections and being down to two a week that week would be much less of a blow than losing a Monday in a system with W-W and T-Th classes for the same amount of time.
It's sometimes tough, but really you just have to plan the course around the calendar. Lay in the holidays first, then adjust the schedule to make it work. Harder, of course, with multiple sections...
Good Friday is a freebie? Not at my CC, and not when I was a state employee in another sector. I find that sort of odd, unless you meant when you worked at a private entity.
I taught my classes on Labor Day. Easter weekend is exactly that; it's a Saturday and a Sunday. Good Friday is a regular class day.

We do not observe holidays; once a student came to class in October and I asked him where he'd been the previous class day. He said that that day had been the Columbus Day holiday. He was shocked to discover that we did not observe Columbus Day. Or any other day.
I personally don't see this as a big deal. If you have multiple sections that are part of the same class (e.g., taking the same final exam), schedule them all on the same day of the week. Boom, problem solved.

As for the fact that MWF classes might have one or two fewer days than TuTh classes: I'd say, suck it up and deal. The calendar is known in advance; just plan and work within those constraints.
Fool around with the final exam schedule. If, in a given semester, there are fewer Monday class days than Tuesdays (or whatever), then hold regular Monday classes in the last week of the semester and don't start finals until the following day (run final exams from Tuesday through the following Monday). That allows you to even out the times in classroom, regardless of whether the class is M/W/F or M/W or T/Th or whatever else.

Something similar can be done with the start/end days for your fall or spring break to balance class times across week days.

Of course, that doesn't always work wonderfully. Some semesters, I've ended up giving final exams on December 23 because of this (makes it hard if you have a lot of students who travel long distances home for Christmas). And this spring, because of the dates for Easter and Passover, my school is doing away with a traditional spring recess (long weekend) in order to have everything done before those holidays - which is going to make for a very rushed/packed semester. But that's just how it is sometimes.

About 40% of our students are commuters with other major life responsibilities, and about half of our faculty are non-tenure track (meaning many have other jobs, too) so playing the "Monday is really going to be Tuesday this week" game wouldn't work so well for us. Maybe it would work better on small, traditional college campuses where going to school is really all most people do.
A lot of private schools in New York City deal with this by putting everyone on a six day "week" that simply rotates through the available class days. When I was a kid I noticed that those schedule layouts they put in the front of composition notebooks always had a slot for Saturday, but no one I knew had Saturday classes. I noticed that my niece had filled in all six days of one of those forms. She explained their approach and that it was chosen to avoid the unevenness of holidays.

Do note that these schools have LOTS of holidays. When the family owns two or three homes, they really appreciate being able to have lots of time off to do a week in Vail, Maui or Martha's Vineyard, without worrying about taking their children out of school.
Rotating schedules are difficult for part-time students, given that the rest of the world works on a weekly schedule.
"In the U.S., historical personages seem all to have been born on Mondays -- odd but true -- and Labor Day is always on a Monday."

Um, what?
We killed off Monday labs and added evening sections.

One idea that Eli has had is to have TTh and WF 1.5 hour classes and reserve Mondays for tests and very short interdisciplinary courses.
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