So glad this isn't the positive thinking week

So I'm proposing a course for my department.

This has become one of the big advancement objectives of late, and the school is all about objectives. Maybe this is happening everywhere. On my syllabi now, I not only have to list my objectives for the course (a good thing), but also the department's overall objectives (a questionable thing), and the university's general education guidelines (much more questionable). My syllabus, on average, has gained a page and a half due to various objects and explanations of objectives and explanations of how thing X satisfies objective C. I remember this from the business world, and I recall from my days managing there that it didn't do much to create the "excellent customer service opportunities" it was meant to because really, who wants to listen to ten minutes of that crap just so you can check your balance.

A syllabus works the same way, kids. I remember in grad school being given a 42 page syllabus from a professor who was teaching a course that I desperately wanted to take. The syllabus though was Exhibit A - in 10 point font and excruciating detail - of this professor's mania. Somewhere around page 13 of our in-depth reading of it, I found myself so disinterested in the course and the topic that I politely excused myself, went to drop the class, and began to rethink whether this was the thing for me to study or not.

Maybe this was the professor's point. And actually I don't have a problem with them designing a syllabus that way if it was their goal. I'm fine with the quick reading I got of the prof and all their issues, faults, and quirks. A good syllabus should probably do exactly that. But I do have a problem with being forced to represent someone else's manias in my syllabus. If I'm going to look crazy, it should at least be an honest representation.

All of which leads me to the course I'm designing for the department. There's been a lot of pressure lately for our department to participate in an interdisciplinary Master's program being toyed with here. Calls have been made, edicts passed down, discomfort has been registered. But I like designing courses, and I want the chance to work with graduate students again, so in I jumped. Thinking that the first course we should have would need to be flexible, I put together a pretty flexible special topics course that would allow whichever of the limited departmental faculty who could find time to teach a course a way to either tie to an existing course (and thus manage an extra prep somewhat more easily) or to do something related to their current research and interests.

As part of the exercise, I had to design a syllabus for this course which isn't on the books (and help me out here, that is the point of this right? To get a course on the books so that someday it might be offered?). And I received the committee's comments and requirements for making the syllabus for this imaginary course. Among the easy to fix but utterly silly gems was a demand for office hours to be listed. Okay, it's silly and nit-picky, but alright. I can make up fake office hours for a course that hasn't been approved in an as-yet undetermined term.

The amusement goes on. One comment says they can't make sense of how grades are tabulated. I work on a points system. All the work in any course is always worth a total number of points (let's say 500). Each assignment has an assigned point value (let's say there are six assignments, two early ones worth 50 points, and the other four 100 points each). Confused yet?

I guess math is hard, Barbie.

But more irritating was the continuing attendance policy question. Out of the eight changes that were requested, three of them have to do with attendance policies. Random people from random departments will call me at least twice a term to ask how Student X's attendance has been. They never ask how their work has been. No one has yet called to ask me how a student was doing with the actual business of a course; they only ask if they've been spotted in a chair in recent memory.

My university loves attendance policies. It seems to have a passion for attendance policies that I can only compare with my love for my bed on a Sunday morning.

To be clear, attendance policies irritate the hell out of me. As I tell my students - in my syllabus and in the opening day lecture - attendance is assumed. You'd be stupid not to come to every class, mine included, at every available opportunity. You're paying enough for it, after all - and that's what you're paying for: not a grade, not a good grade, not for me to listen to your problems and solve them, not for me to give you warm and fuzzy feedback, not for me to agree with your views or to hide my own. You're paying an entrance fee to be exposed to ideas, to have me help you evaluate and use those ideas, and to have me use those ideas in the evaluation of your work.

Let me repeat (as I do in that opening lecture): I'm not here to be your mommy. I don't care if you attend. In fact, if you can't show up interested and prepared, I'd rather you didn't so that the students who were smart enough to take advantage of what they're paying for don't have to suffer your disruptions.

How do I grade on attendance? I grade your assignments. If you're not attending, it will absolutely affect your grade. I'm not going to give you points for your ability to sit in a chair. And I'm not going to waste my time taking points off if you come in late or leave early. My time is worth more than that, honestly, and deserves to be better spent. It will come out on its own, thee I do assure.

What could be clearer than that?


4 Responses to “So glad this isn't the positive thinking week”
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Unknown said...

I would just be happy if they didn't take issue with the course itself and the content/objectives you presented.

October 23, 2007 at 11:17 PM
Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, so I have a slightly different take on attendance policies than you do. On the one hand, obviously you're right: it should be obvious that in order to succeed in a course that you have to attend. EXCEPT. I think back to my own experience as a student, and I know that this just wasn't true. So, how do students know which courses they have to attend and which they don't? Well, by which ones have a policy about attendance in the syllabus. At least in some cases.

My attendance policy is pretty lenient. Everybody gets a certain number of free absences, two if the class meets two days a week, one if it meets once a week, etc. No absences are excused. If you use up your freebies, it hurts your participation grade. All that is required of me is that I notice who's there and who isn't. Which I'd do even if I didn't have a policy.

So why do I have one? Well, students do attend more regularly and tend to do better with keeping up with the work with an attendance policy in place. That makes for a better class dynamic and for better grades overall for them. Is that me babysitting? Maybe. But if I had NO policy in place, I think I'd get more challenges to my authority and I'd have less back-up if a student challenged their grade.

Finally, as for people asking about a student's attendance - I think that that question gets to things about whether the student is having some sort of extracurricular meltdown and/or something that might make them drop out. This doesn't necessarily have to do with whether a student is doing good work in the course. (Example: that time when I missed like 3 weeks of my Great Books class in college, lying and claiming I had mono, because I was working a bunch and because I was taking a course overload. I got an A in that course, but I was totally freaking out and not sleeping and a mess. The attendance reflected that - not the work I did for the course.)

October 24, 2007 at 12:04 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

It's funny because I don't get a sense from the process or from people I've talked to about it or helping with it that there's even much attention given to the actual content (to be fair, I pitched the course to the person overseeing the graduate program first, though, so...).

And I should probably tread a bit more carefully in my polemic, as I don't mean to suggest that I don't think there's benefit to having an attendance policy. In fact, I think there's the most value to be found in having a variety of them.

For the record, here was the policy I put in the syllabus:

Because this is a graduate course, your attendance is assumed as a requirement and is not counted as a direct part of your grade. Lack of attendance will hurt your grade without me having to assign a value to it.

and here was the response I received:

Please clarify the attendance policy


The syllabus does not indicate a penalty for late arrivals or early departures from class.

Now honestly, the idea that anyone for any course - even a graduate course - should spend time docking points at late arrivals and early departures is maddening to me. In part, it's because I think there are courses where attendance is more crucial than others - courses that are geared towards student interaction and feedback (for example, public speaking courses should have an attendance policy because you want an audience).

It's interesting that you mention that Dr. C. mentions her own experiences as a student, because it's my own experiences that have shaped my own view of attendance policies today.

As an undergrad, I hated courses that I could ace without attending that required me to be there. If I could get an A - or, honestly, think I can get a grade that I find acceptable - without attending, then my thought has always been that I should be able to run the risk and pay the price. That's a point I emphasize at the start of my courses: that you're making decisions and you're responsible for them.

For me, having no attendance policy also seems to make for less grading hassle rather than more. If a student complains about a grade to me, the only discussion to be had is about the assignment itself.

That's a good point about why people are calling, by the way. Certainly some of the calls I've received have been for those sorts of meltdowns, but some have been purely about academic ones. And for those, the idea that attendance should be the only question asked makes me gag the same way I do when a student offers "but I worked really hard" as their support for a good grade in spite of the fact that they've done entirely the wrong thing.

October 24, 2007 at 4:25 PM
Dr. Crazy said...

I think the penalty for late arrivals and early departures nonsense is RIDICULOUS for a grad level class. I'll admit, when I commented before, I was thinking in terms of undergrad (even though you clearly stated you were talking about a grad course in the post, but I was being a lazy commenter and I immediately forgot what I'd read before I commented :) )

I remember in grad school that the rule of thumb was that you could miss one class meeting (for a one day a week class) without it being a big deal. Maybe if you just added something like, "Missing more than one class meeting will negatively affect your grade in the course" would satisfy the naysayers - you know that the way that it will negatively affect the grade is because they won't be able adequately to do the assignments - it doesn't need to be a grade specifically for attendance (as it never was for me in grad school). As for the stupid (and I do believe it's stupid) late arrivals/early departures thing, I'd be inclined to add a sentence like, "Students are expected to arrive on time and to stay for the full class period. Consistent failure to do so will negatively affect a student's course grade." Again, it's loose, but it addresses the concern.

I suspect that the reason that these are the comments you're getting is because people are anticipating problems moving it through the curricular process. At my university, that is the kind of crap that comes up at the college-wide or uni-wide level - not stuff about content. That's where the big-deal snags happen. I'm not sure if that's the case where you are, but this may be where people are coming from - that they think the content is fab but they're trying to make sure that the course moves through without any snags. In which case, sure, it's annoying, but it's not what you actually would have to do were you to teach the course - it's just about getting it through the process. (By the way, I'm really dying to know where you are. I know, you're anonymous for a reason, sucka, but I promise that if you revealed your super-secret real-life identity to me in an email I'd keep it secret! And I'd tell you mine back! I'm at reassignedtime at gmail dot com should you have the inclination)

But anywho, back to my comment: I see what you get about taking the risk and paying the price - and especially in a grad class I think that students should know what the expectation is - but I think that for crappy students they aren't necessarily good at the risk assessment, which is why it's good to give them a clue with the policies. At least at a school like mine, there are even crappy students (not that they aren't smart, just that they aren't necessarily good at the student thing) in grad programs.

As for the grade dispute issue, part of the reason I'm as legalistic in my syllabi as I am is because of gender shit that regularly affects student responses at my institution. Stuff that they'd take on the chin from male colleagues with less stellar publication records than mine who are in my same age range and with the approximate same amount of time at my institution, they will question coming from me. And question in pretty fucked up and vicious ways. And so, I'm now the legalistic syllabus person, because I know that if I don't cover all the bases that I may be challenged, and unless it's in the syllabus, I may not get the support I need.

October 24, 2007 at 10:45 PM