Monday, October 29, 2012

 

And Then, The Scramble

As Sandy continues to rage, I’m already anticipating some messy rescheduling issues as people stream back.

Bureaucratically, the cleanest form of natural disaster is the kind that hits everyone at the same time, and from which everyone emerges at the same time.  The messiest ones are the ones from which some people are up and running the next day, while others are unable to show up for several days running.  (Anything involving downed trees tends to play out that way; some neighborhoods are barely affected, while others take days to dig out.  Some places keep electricity the entire time, while others are out for a week.)  It’s hard to penalize students for living on the wrong street, but it’s also hard to extend infinite flexibility while still upholding the integrity of the course.

Of course, students aren’t the only people affected.  When professors can’t make it to campus -- again, through no fault of their own -- students lose time.  In disciplines with labs or studios, the points of vulnerability multiply: if the professor makes it in but the lab tech doesn’t, then there are real limits on what the class can do.  In classes with group work -- particularly presentations -- penalizing the students who showed up for the one who didn’t just violates common sense.

For some sorts of classes and some sorts of disasters, the internet is a savior.  If a fairly traditional class has an online component -- which is becoming more common -- then a given week’s lessons can be adapted to online delivery to avoid losing time.  This works especially well in January, when the typical disaster is a snowstorm and most people still have power.  

But when power is spotty, the internet doesn’t help.  

Every time something like this happens, there’s a call for a Policy That Will Solve Everything.  I understand the impulse, but it’s hard to imagine what that would look like.  “Don’t penalize students for missing class this week” would be pretty heavyhanded, and would set the kind of precedent that even a levelheaded sort would find alarming.  “Treat these absences as you would any other” is heavyhanded in the other direction, and is still much more directive about how faculty teach than I think an administration ought to be.  There’s quite a gap between what I personally think would be a good idea, and what I’d be comfortable having The Administration announce as a policy.  Academic freedom covers a lot of ground.

We’ll probably fall back on “use your best judgment” by default.  That doesn’t provide the clarity or consistency that would be ideal, but it’s hard to imagine something that would that wouldn’t be overly directive.  

Thinking out loud, this may be a good topic for a future professional development workshop.  If everyone is allowed to make their own calls, it’s probably a good idea to at least have some open discussion before the next disaster about the ideas to consider when making those calls.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found or seen graceful ways to deal with students fairly in the wake of an unevenly-distributed recovery from a disaster?  If so, how did it work?

Comments:
You left out a category I remember from disasters past: students whose local National Guard unit gets called up to deal with a disaster in another part of the state. They can be gone for weeks even with no damage in your area.

BTW, in that case I found that e-mail (send a pdf of some in-class exercise and get a scanned written reply back) worked better than some of the synchronous "distance" systems, because they really couldn't work on a schedule.

You have to be flexible, which is where an experienced core of faculty with diverse backgrounds helps a lot and why your idea of an open p.d. workshop is a very good one. Maybe a "what did you do and how did it work" theme looking back on this event. You can even start it now, with your college's on-line systems for faculty use or just make up something with survey monkey or the equivalent.

Start them talking now. In my field, canceling one lab often means canceling the entire week of labs, but that is easy to deal with compared to what I call the "spring break effect". I recall one event where the disruption was akin to all of the forgetting that takes over Spring Break or Thanksgiving. I didn't anticipate it, so didn't plan for a way to get them back in the swing of learning when schedules got back to normal.
 
How about allowing your professors to work out their own methods of make up work for the students? The professors know their subject matter and what must absolutely be taught to the students for the next level of classes. Then encourage the profs to teach that absolutely necessary stuff. Labs? See if the essential learnings from two labs can be combined into one lab.

Offer Saturday and Sunday makeup classes. The ft and adjunct profs are smart. They can figure it out individually. Throw the ball for rescheduling to them.

I come from the south central region where we have tornadoes in spring and ice storms in winter. Sometimes the weather disrupts our classes for a couple of days. By now (15 years as an adjunct while teaching full time in public school)I always put a throwaway day (my term) in my schedule. If I need it for makeup day because of a college closing, I can use it. If I don't, I can use it for more practice/review for final tests or individual conferencing with my students.

Not every student collaboration activity or powerpoint has to be done. When I was an undergraduate and graduate at my R1 university, often we would sit at the feet of the sage and have only lectures and quizzes. No learning groups, presentations, or elaborate labs.

I know some professors will swear that every word spoken, every lab assignment, and every quiz given in every class is absolutely needed by the student if the student is going to be prepared for learning the material in next level of class in his/her major, BUT maybe not.

So encourage the profs to make adjustments to their curriculum for choosing what absolutely must be taught and what can be left out.

And I hope there was no damage to your family, home, and college.
 
[Spam at 2:09]

I've found it helpful (and necessary) to distinguish between isolated and widespread outages. Some students are inclined to go out in the middle of a storm looking for a connection, not realizing that that's a really bad idea and that any reasonable professor/institution will extend deadlines under such conditions; some don't realize that when campus, the local public library, Starbucks, and other walking-distance locations all have power/internet, the fact that there's a tree still sitting on their home line is not a particularly good excuse for not getting work done.
 
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