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?