This semester my department has been revising and reorganizing its curriculum, submitting paperwork to re-number our department’s existing courses, and create new ones. As part of this I’ve had to dig out and share old syllabi with other members of my department from classes I haven’t taught in three or four years – before I started examining my written course policies through a critical pedagogy lens. As I was reviewing these old course documents I’ve felt overwhelmed with embarrassment and the knowledge that in my ignorance I’d harmed some of my students. So much so I considered changing the language before I uploaded them for the other faculty to see. Some of the hardest sections to read were those surrounding late policies and absences. I’m going to divide them into two blog posts, though they are related to each other. For more on revising ones syllabus with a critical eye,
Late work policies:
My very oldest syllabi stated flatly that I did not accept late work. Others said I only accepted it for a week after the deadline, that I accepted it for a lower grade, or that only one assignment could be submitted late. Clearly, on some level, I was troubled by my own policies, trying to find some way to thread the impossible needle between not allowing late work and allowing work to be turned in late for “serious” reasons, while not wanting to get into judging whether someone’s reason was good enough. In those days I was helped a lot by teaching at Loyola Marymount where faculty got emails from the dean intervening when students were in crisis, asking/telling us to make accommodations for them. All of that supposes, however, that students knew to tell someone in the administration about their problems.
Such a system, of course, favors students who come from middle-class families, whose parents have college educations, and so know to call and ask for help for their son or daughter. First-generation students and their families often don’t start from that position of privileged knowledge. As a friend who was first gen academic told me, first-gen students like her got where they are by following the rules. It would never have occurred to her that “no late work accepted” had an unwritten caveat of “unless you’ve had a serious emergency.” This was brought home to me in my early days of teaching at CSU Dominguez Hills when I was meeting with a student to discuss her final paper and her grade for the class. In checking my records, I saw that she was missing one of the three earlier essays and that this seemed surprising because she had done “A” work on all the others. When I asked her about it she got uncomfortable and said she hadn’t been able to do it on time and knew I didn’t take late work. While I was trying to digest that, she apologized and went on to say “you see my baby died and I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks.”
I sat there horror-struck at her loss and flattened by her strength in trying to finish the semester. I was deeply ashamed of what I’d done. That of course she hadn’t realized that my “no late work” policy wasn’t really a rule at all. That I was penalizing her and God knows how many other students whose lives are complicated things, not conforming to my arbitrary deadlines. I gave my condolences and apologized, saying I’d drop the missing paper — that I’d let everyone in the class drop their lowest grade.
In the aftermath, I’ve wondered repeatedly who I harmed by these late paper policies and why it took me so long to see my students’ work as reflections of the state of their lives rather than as a statement on how much importance they gave to their classwork.
So what is my late work policy now? This is the language most recent language from my syllabus:
Try not to fall behind on your work. This is a fast-paced class, and not finishing work on time will cause your work to pile up as the semester progresses. Furthermore, in group work, other students’ work depends on yours. If you realize you cannot complete an assignment on time, email me as soon as you can with the date you will be able to turn it in.
It’s better, but definitely a work in progress.
Artwork by June Yarham, used under CC license.