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...