Gnocchi, with a side of frustration

In Atlanta for an Enneagram workshop on the instincts (sidebar: FASCINATING STUFF), I took myself to Mirko Pasta for dinner tonight. As is often the case when I eat alone, I pulled out some reading material — first, some student response papers that need feedback, then (once my food arrived) a novel on my Kindle app*.

My waiter, a lovely guy named Sam, brought by a basket of absolutely incredible bread (aside: all bread is incredible, but only some bread is absolutely incredible), and he noticed I was making notes on the papers.

“Are you grading papers?” Sam inquired.

“Well, sort of,” I said.

Contented with this level of detail, Sam walked away. When he came back a few minutes later with a bowl of gnocchi made to perfection, he said, “Do you mind if I ask what kind of papers you’re sort-of grading?”

Smiling, I explained that I teach political science, and that I was reading some student response papers.

Sam’s face lit up at this, telling me that his political science class at Kennesaw State was one of his favorite classes. Then a grimace appeared as he said, “But the teacher … she was … not very nice.”

I just smiled. He took this as an invitation to continue, I guess, because he went on to recount his experience taking this course in his first semester. When the final exam day arrived, he missed the part about final exam schedules being different than normal class schedules, so he showed up one hour into the class’s two-hour final exam block. He walked into a room empty of students; only his professor was there.

“You’re an hour late,” she said.

“I didn’t realize! But I still have an hour left. Can I take the exam with that hour remaining?” he said.

“No,” was her (predictable?) answer.

Sam’s shoulders dropped forward as he said, “I went into the final with a 97%, and that dropped my grade to a 73%.”

Over the summer, I spent a week in New Mexico, at the inimitable Jen Louden‘s writing retreat in Taos (New Mexico, it turns out, is not my place, but Jen is definitely my people). There, I wrote about 50,000 (ish) words on a book project I’m tentatively calling, “STOP BLAMING STUDENTS!”

Sam’s story at dinner tonight reinforces several things I have learned in last three or four years of teaching at a community college. Namely, first-semester students often are left flailing around the college cultural knowledge that the rest of us have just absorbed and assume everyone else knows. Moreover, first-generation students are especially vulnerable in this regard. When higher education has difficult conversations about equity, this is where we often get it wrong. Take, for example, this finding:

“Students who are both low income and first generation who enter college have a 21 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree in six years. Their peers who are not low-income or first generation have a 57 percent chance.”

Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States, access the specific data here

Now, I know what some of my academic colleagues might say; I can already hear them grimacing at their computer screens as they read these words. They’d say things like, “I announce the final exam information in class multiple times,” or “Why didn’t Sam read his syllabus?” or “If there is no penalty for not paying attention, students will never learn to be attentive to details.”

While I wouldn’t suggest any of those impulses are incorrect, I would also ask what the value of harsh enforcement of rigid deadlines attains?

Late work is something every teacher has to struggle to determine a policy about. I know lots of teachers — at many different levels — who take a pretty hard-line approach to late work; up until about three semesters ago, I routinely enforced a more or less draconian penalty on late work, at times docking late work as much as 10 percent per 24-hour period (or fraction thereof) that assignments arrived tardily. When I had an online course evaluated by a QualityMatters external reviewer, I was asked why I was so harsh? I tempered my policy, changing it to 10 percent per week (or fraction thereof) work arrived late.

But recently, I’ve begun to ask myself what goal I’m trying to achieve in doing so. And three semesters ago, I changed the language in my syllabus to indicate that there would be, at the instructor’s discretion, up to 10 percent per week deducted for late work. But in practice? I rarely deduct that much.

“In the real world, deadlines are meaningful!” I hear my colleagues say.

Maybe so. Sometimes.

But when was the last time your boss told you that you definitely had to come to work when you had the flu and were in the contagious stage? In a professional environment, when are we expected to show up to work even if our dog is sick, or our parents receiving cancer treatment, or our grandparent passes? In the professional world for which college purports to prepare students, accommodations are made All The Time.

Why can’t higher education begin the process of training students to behave professionally?

What students might benefit from their teachers giving them the benefit of the doubt? What populations might find college success more attainable if we understand that Life Happens? Is the learning somehow less credible if it happens two weeks — or two months — later than it happened for everyone else in the classroom?

Now, taken to its extreme, this kind of accommodating posture toward student work can be abused — obviously. I don’t allow students to take months, or even years, beyond the final day of classes to complete their work.

But I also remember when, in my first semester of graduate school at the Semi-Elite University That Shall Not Be Named, I engaged in self-preservational behavior by moving out of my house without advanced planning, lest I find myself on the wrong side of a man who said to me days earlier, as he wrapped his big hands around a cat’s neck, “Sometimes you make me want to kill you.” I didn’t finish a single final paper for any of my classes that semester, and my professors were accommodating. I didn’t finish those papers until nearly two years later, and they were sympathetic. That grace was necessary to my mental, emotional, and physical survival at the time. Did my work ethic suddenly go to pieces? No, friends, it did not.

There are plenty of ways to work around deadlines. A blogger (primarily focused on K12 education) I follow offers these ideas for working with late work. Or, check out this Edutopia article, “Tips for Allowing Test Retakes,” this quote from which I couldn’t possibly agree with more:

“Retakes let students know that I acknowledge their humanity, that we all have bad days. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve come to school with a headache or a personal matter that impacted the quality of my instruction. In each instance, my students forgave my oversights, and I feel it’s only fair that I return the favor.”

David Cutler

* Note to self (and a cautionary tale, dear reader): Before you read a rando BookBub eBook bargain romance novel, FOR PETE’S SAKE CHECK TO SEE IF IT HAPPENS TO BE BOOK #13 OF A 20+ BOOK SERIES!!! I’ve been eyeballs deep in the Gansett Island series from Marie Force for nearly three months, thanks to my inattention to that little detail. I’m acquiring nonfiction at an alarming rate, but I know if I don’t finish this series all at once, I’ll forget all the characters and lose the thread of the stories. And so went my fall reading time…

You may also like...