This semester I have experimented a lot with my teaching and classroom policies. While implementing new policies certainly adds more work (and frustration) to an already busy semester, my hope is to find the right mix of assignments and policies so that ultimately, running my class is less work and less frustration. One policy I tried out was changing my approach to student absences. In the past my absence policy has been that students could miss 3 classes over the course of the semester with no penalty. After 3 absences, I deduct 10 points (aka, a full letter grade) from their final grades for each additional missed class. Though I think this policy is quite generous, it created a lot of headaches for me. Students would be cavalier about missing classes early in the semester (missing 3 within the first 6 weeks of the semester) and then, when cold/flu season hit the campus (and it always does), they would miss even more classes and then beg forgiveness. I once had a student show up in my class looking like the Crypt Keeper. When I asked her why she came to class when she was clearly very ill and contagious she said that she had used up all of her absences and didn’t want to fail my class. Another student showed up to class drunk (very drunk) for the same reason. This led me to become the “absence judge, jury and executioner”: I would have to determine how the student would make up the additional absences in a way that was fair to the students who did the work and showed up every day . I also had to determine which truant students would have an opportunity to make up their absences. Does a sick aunt warrant missing 3 additional classes? What about a really bad break up? A court date?
This process is exhausting to describe and, I assure you, even more exhausting when experienced in real life. I have so much to do with my job and policing absences made me cuckoo-bananas. So this semester, after consulting with many other professors, I came up with a new plan. Students were still allowed to miss 3 classes without penalty. But then, I added this paragraph to my syllabus:
Students may “make up” missed classes by turning in a 4 page paper that describes, in detail, what was discussed in class during the missed day. This requires obtaining the notes of at least 2 classmates and piecing together the missed lecture/class discussion from these notes and from discussions with classmates (i.e., NOT me). If the missed class is a Tuesday, the paper should also discuss the reading assignment. If the missed class is a Thursday, the paper must discuss the week’s assigned film. This paper MUST be turned in within 2 weeks of the missed class. This is the ONLY way to “make up” a missed class. You must take care of obtaining notes from classmates on your own. After 2 weeks, the absence will be counted. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS POLICY.
This semester I had approximately 30 students and in that entire group, only 2 students missed more than 3 classes. One of the students missed many classes early on and took it upon himself to withdraw from my class. He actually apologized for his truancy and then said he hoped to try to take my class again in the future. There was no whining or pleading (and there usually is in these situations). He took responsibility for absences and removed himself from my classroom. I was actually shocked by how maturely my student handled the situation — it was kind of like interacting with a real adult! The 2nd student, who missed 4 classes, just turned in his make up paper. Again, this student did not attempt to make excuses for the classes he missed. He just turned in his paper and that was that. I say this because I have never had a semester at East Carolina University where students have attended classes so regularly. I could attribute this to the fact that I taught 2 upper-level seminars filled almost entirely with film minors who were invested in the class and its material — that probably helped. But I also think that having an absence policy that removed the weight of policing student attendance from my shoulders to their shoulders may have also helped. I also think that I have been making the mistake of coddling my students a bit too much. If I start treating them more like independent adults, they will act that way. Or at least, that is how it went down this semester.
The other change I made this semester was to the way I managed the students’ reading assignments. I had been finding that even in classes filled with my best students, there was a reading problem. That is, students weren’t doing the weekly reading assignments.
It got so bad last semester that I finally just asked my students point-blank “Why aren’t you reading?” And they told me. They felt the reading assignments were either too long or they didn’t see the need or value in reading them on the days when I didn’t go over the reading in detail in class ( in my day we did 50 pages of reading for a class, the professor didn’t discuss it with us and WE LIKED IT! but I digress….). So I listened to this feedback and changed things up. This semester I taught shorter essays (10-20 pages tops) and I also required the students to compose 3 tweets about the week’s reading and post them to Twitter every Monday, using the course hashtag. Here is an excerpt from the assignment I handed out at the beginning of the semester:
Guidelines for Twitter Use in ENGL3901
-You must post at least 3 tweets each week by 5pm every Monday (the earliest you may post is AFTER 5pm on the previous Monday)
-you must read the following short pieces by Jan 22 [Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “After the War,” pp. 436-443; Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “Transformation of the Hollywood System,” pp. 443-451]
so the tweets about that reading are due anytime BETWEEN 5pm on Jan 15th and 5pm on Jan 22
-You may do all 3 tweets in one sitting or spread them out over the course of a week
-All tweets MUST include the hashtag #E3901 so that the class (and your professor) will be able to see them
-All tweets must contain at least one substantial piece of information on or about the week’s reading assignment
As with the adoption of any new technology, there was a learning curve involved in using Twitter for classroom credit. Over half the students had never used Twitter before and therefore were not accustomed to its 140 character limit. I also had to send out weekly reminders for the first few weeks of class. But by the end of the semester I was surprised to see that the students kept up with this assignment and that they were actually processing the reading in useful ways. Being forced to take a complex idea and express it in 140 characters forces the student to engage with the material more deeply than if s/he had simply read the assignment and then put it down (or not read it at all!). I also think that having to account for their reading labor (and it IS labor) publicly — to the professor and to classroom peers — made the students realize the value and importance of the weekly reading assignments.
I actually wrote about this experience — as well as my experiences using blogs in the classroom — in a new short piece over at MediaCommons. If you’d like to learn more about the value of social media in the media studies classroom, you can click the link below. Please comment!
So while instituting new policies has been time-consuming — both in planning, executing and documenting — overall, I am really happy with the results. I have a tendency to “mother hen” my students. I check in and remind them of deadlines, I poke and prod, and ultimately I wear myself out. I think I must wear them out too. Both the new absence policy and the incorporation of Twitter to encourage reading in the classroom has shifted some of those burdens from my shoulders to my students’ shoulders (where it belongs). This was most apparent when I realized that no one had emailed me this semester to explain why s/he had missed class and why I should count a particular absence as “excused” (in my class there is no such thing as an “excused” absence, unless the university tells me so). I feel like students took more ownership of attendance and engagement with their reading assignments. When I teach a 100-person Introduction to Film course this fall (a course with a notoriously high absence rate and low reading engagement rate), I will be interested to see how these new policies work. Til then though, I am going to go ahead and give myself a soul clap: