Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Rules - Made for Breaking?

Each semester, I set standards for my classes, and one of them is "Students must turn in papers on time.  No paper extensions will be granted under any circumstances." 

Students are taken aback by this policy.  Most of them are either terrified by it - and some don't believe I will enforce it.  

Well, I agree with them on the first item: it is terrifying. It means you can't have an alien abduction, a car accident, or even a simple house fire the day your paper is due.  What kind of policy is that?

But they are wrong if they think I won't enforce it.  The reason I do is simple: it saves them the sting of the F later.  

An example:  Let's say Paper One is due February 1st.  Let's say that a student we'll call Bob decides to email the paper to me on February 3rd, citing the death of his grandmother and his unexpected departure for XYZ, Oklahoma for the heartbreaking funeral.

My response is to express sympathy for him and his family and suggest that if he is having a hard time coping with the loss, counseling services are available and confidential and free.  Regarding the paper, I regret to inform him that he did not meet the deadline and will therefore have to accept a zero for the assignment.  

The student, naturally, seems far more upset about the zero than he does about the loss of his beloved grandmother.  I, being a student myself, am obsessed with grades.  So I know just how he feels.  That's why I had my grandparents killed before the first week of graduate school - you know, to eliminate surprises and distractions.* 

What I don't understand is why the student will email the paper after he gets back from the funeral - when he just as well could have submitted it BEFORE he left for the funeral.  Even an incomplete or rough draft would meet the criterion.  I accept rewrites.  The zero could have been so easily avoided.

That is, unless he never even started the paper until after the funeral.**

Some teachers, the more compassionate and gentle ones, will simply accept the paper and give the student a cookie.  I will not - and no - it is not because I like to see people suffer and fail. It is because I like to see people with clean shiny transcripts, free of Fs. 

You see, that very student with the newly dead grandmother is likely as not to have ANOTHER dead grandmother by the time the semester is half over.  He is also likely to suffer a house fire, an alien abduction, a freak smelting accident, a failed relationship and at least one catastrophic hardrive failure in which he loses "everything."  

Knowing that these events are likely, I believe it is far kinder to let the F stand, and then gently suggest to the student, when he misses the next deadline, that this might not be a great time for him to be taking online classes, what with all the distractions and troubles he is having.  I then explain the consequences of having an F on his transcript.  I reveal that I, too, failed a course in college, and it sabotaged my GPA and kept me out of top notch grad schools.  (The first part of that sentence is true; the second might have been true had I actually applied to Yale.  I didn't).  I then explain that W grades are not counted in the GPA and actually look rather innocuous on a transcript.  And wouldn't the student like to just think all this over?

It's true, of course, that I sometimes break my own rules.  I once had a student two semesters in a row - a student who proved smart and responsible and mature.  In his first semester, he was a model student.  In his second, he lost his job, wrecked his car, and his wife left him.  I cut him a lot of slack. I was happy to do it because in all that chaos, he only missed one deadline, and he made up the work almost immediately.  

But such students are as rare as alien abductions and Bigfoot sightings - and also about as rare as instances of me breaking my own rules.  

Rules are rules, everyone.  I don't break them, and neither should you. 

* Oh, come on.  You know I am kidding.  
** We're assuming both the funeral and the grandmother were real. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ugh. Is there anything worse than waiting til the last minute to finish something only to have life step in and screw up your last minute plan? groan.