What I did instead of teaching my class today

[This is an e-mail I just sent to one of my summer classes. I’m not sure why I feel the urge to share this publicly. Quick background: I have a class with 16 people. Today, 8 of them weren’t there. One had told me she’s sick and wouldn’t be there, so 7 missed without warning. The class is structured so that 4 people each day are workshopping drafts of their semester projects. Two of today’s skippers were people due for workshop time. And a twist of the knife–I spent 30 minutes drafting this letter to the class, and our Course Management System ate it instead of sending it, so I had to write it all over again! As an exercise in revision, it’s probably better the second time, but it didn’t improve my mood. I feel somewhat better now, thanks for asking. :)]




Right now, it’s 2 pm on Tuesday. I’m sitting in my office instead of class, writing an angry e-mail instead of teaching, because EIGHT of you (seven if I account for the one person who warned me you wouldn’t be there) decided not to come to class today. That includes two of the four people who were due for workshopping today. I realize that individually some of you probably have good reasons for missing, but what the #!@$$*! was that?


I decided to give the two workshop-ees who were in class the lion’s share of the decision to workshop with half the class or to push the schedule back by a day. It seemed fair to me that they should decide which would penalize them the least, since they were, y’know, in class. The two of you who were scheduled for today and weren’t there should thank them, by the way, because courtesy of their input you won’t lose your turns. If you skipped your turns because you don’t want them, then I’d appreciate your just telling me that.


What this means in practical terms is that we’re now one full day behind on the schedule. Because I don’t need time to revise a final draft at the end of the course, that’s not really much skin off my nose. But you need understand what you did, as a group, to your classmates and me—


1.     You’ve taken away one day that people might have spent revising essays or working on the final reflection because we have one more day of workshops than I’d scheduled. Some of you might not mind that, but that wasn’t your decision to make on behalf of other people.

2.     You wasted the time of everybody who came to class—however long it took them to get here, the 20’ish minutes we sat in class deciding what to do, the time they could have been at work, or sleeping, or whatever else they might have been doing.

3.     You’ve essentially announced to me that you don’t much think our in-class workshop time is worth anything. To be honest, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to learn that. And to be honest, that’s why I asked you THREE FREAKIN’ TIMES to tell me if it wasn’t working for you—and not one of you said a word, although when I said yesterday that I’m willing to open up the structure, lots of you looked happy. Which makes the plot twist today even weirder.


I said to the people who showed up today that I don’t take it personally on occasions where something like this happens (no, it’s not the first time). But that’s not entirely true. I can’t actually say to you what I’d like to right now. Let’s just say that if I’m misunderstanding what happened today, and there’s not a statement getting made about what you think of our class, you need to make that clear to me sooner rather than later. I’m not asking you to declare your undying love for our class, or anything ridiculous like that. I am asking you to tell me the truth about what happened today. It’s really that simple.


My hope is that we can all show up tomorrow, take a minute to laugh this off, and get back to business. I’m pretty good at burying hatchets. On the other hand, if we need to have an open discussion about what we’re doing, I’ll make time for that too. We don’t have a lot of time to spare, but I’d rather spend a little coming to grips with our process than just ignoring it and seeing this happen again.


On that happy note, I need to say a couple of things about what happened yesterday, which I suspect might—for at least a couple of you—have something to do with why you took today off.


Twice in yesterday’s class, we (and I mean more than just a couple of us, *myself included*) crossed a line of decorum we’d been very good about maintaining for 3 weeks. The first time was in the discussion of Courtney’s project. We (and again, I’m totally guilty of this) unloaded some brutal opinions about one of her case studies. It didn’t quite register with me until afterwards that not only does Courtney know the people she’s writing about, but that there’s a good chance they’re people she’s quite close to. To us, they’re characters in a story. To Courtney, they’re people. I’m sorry it didn’t register with me sooner.


The second was during the discussion of Rachel’s paper. Although only person made the out-loud statement that was probably a little too harsh (we’ve discussed it, and there’s no need to rehash it here), I’m raising the issue to all of you because I saw people nodding in agreement when it was said. I also saw other people blanch a little bit, but other than a stammer on my part, there wasn’t really any comment about the moment itself. Again, I take responsibility for not intervening quicker, for talking about how we might make those kinds of difficult points in ways that are easier to digest and deal with in a classroom. For the record, I think the point the speaker was making was important; we do need to know when something we’ve said has touched—in some cases slammed—a nerve. But there are times and places for putting that in certain ways.


All of that’s to say I urge us to be a little cautious about how we express emotional reactions to ideas/content in other people’s work, especially when those emotions are negative. Like I said, writers need to know when we’ve said something that upsets someone, especially if that’s not what we meant to do, but I hate to see us damage an otherwise positive (I thought) classroom dynamic at this late stage.


Finally (yeah, I know, you’re welcome): if there’s something I need to know about the conduct of the class or the value of what we’re doing, I’d really, really, really prefer that you TELL IT TO ME instead of just disappearing en masse. Again, you might not have intended the statement this way, but eight people skipping class in one day makes me like a jack[ahem]. If that’s what you meant to do, congrats, and I’d rather you not confirm that. If it’s not what you meant, then don’t say it again.



One Response to What I did instead of teaching my class today

  1. Laurie Ann says:

    Good for you.

    It is ridiculous. Seriously. I hear my college prof friends say this over and over again-the work ethic and the attitudes of their students has deteriorated tremendously over the last several years.

    I seriously think part of it is that ‘grade inflation’ thing that happens in HS; they get freakin’ credit for showing up. They get credit for coming prepared, for raising their hands.

    If they don’t see a tangible benefit, then they don’t come/participate.

    I’m sorry that your students don’t appreciate your time and effort…!

    (and, as I am beginning work next monday, and students return on the first…i am sooo not ready to deal with this crap, because, yes, we do see this entire lack of effort even down in elementary!)

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