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.