No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic

The TL;DR version: this isn’t how I thought my already online classes were going to go, and, if you’re a college teacher and the way you’re trying to cope is to stick with your original plans no matter what, stop it. No one should fail a class because of a fucking pandemic.

To continue:

During normal times and when it comes to things like attendance and deadlines, I’m kind of a hard-ass. I have a strict attendance policy for my f2f classes and even include language in my syllabus along the lines of “do not bother to bring me a note because there is no such thing as an excused absence.” In online classes, I have a “virtual attendance” policy where if a student doesn’t post anything to a class discussion or activity in a given time (usually half a week) and if they do this too often, I’ll fail them. I do not like late work– unless students let me know before the due date it’s going to be late and they have a good reason– and I deduct a letter grade every 72 hours a major project is late. There are no ways to make up for missed participation activities, there is no such thing as extra credit, etc.

I’ve mentored a lot of graduate assistants (mostly in some role in writing program administration and first year writing), and I know it can be stressful and difficult for a new teacher to fail a student for a class– and really, the same can be said about a lot of teachers who have been doing this for years. The first time I had to fail a student was in my second semester of teaching when I was a graduate/teaching assistant over 30 years ago. I had a student who just stopped showing up for a couple of weeks; then this student reappeared again for one or two class meetings, and then stopped attending for the rest of the semester. I remember talking with my mentor/WPA, a guy named Bill Smith who went on to work at Western Washington University and who retired a few years ago. “Bill, what should I do?” I asked. “Oh, that student fails.” It made my stomach hurt. “Why would a student do that though, just stop coming like that?” I asked. He kind of chuckled and said “because they’re 18.”

(BTW, and for those of you reading this who aren’t college teachers: students vanish from courses for no clear reason and no communication all the time).

It was hard to fail that student. Now decades later and in normal times, I fail students almost every semester and it doesn’t phase me a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete monster. I’ll give breaks and make deals with students who have legit emergencies; but otherwise, no. Thirty-two years of teaching at the college level has taught me that in normal times, you have got to have clear and unwavering rules and you must enforce those rules fairly for everyone in the class no matter what. If you don’t, your students will walk all over you. In normal times, you can start the semester being a hard-ass and lighten up a bit as you and your students get to know each other, but it is impossible to do things the other way around.

In normal times. These are not normal times.

At first, I thought this sudden move from f2f to online would be not that big of a deal for me. Oh, I thought a lot of other faculty would have problems because, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago, just “taking it online” is not the same as online teaching. Rather, moving online now is a lifeboat so we can all get to the end of the semester. But I didn’t think I’d have much trouble because two of the three classes I’m teaching this semester have been online since the beginning, and the one f2f class I have this semester is a small senior seminar. Plus my on-campus time was mostly limited to office hours, teaching f2f, and going to meetings. Working at and staying home would be no big deal.

I don’t think I was in denial exactly about the stresses and challenges of sheltering in place, but I don’t think I was that prepared for it either. Mind you, my immediate family’s situation is about as good as it can be. Our son is away at graduate school and he seems fine, so it’s just me and Annette. We don’t have any other (or small) children to worry about, we live in a neighborhood where it’s easy to get out and walk around a bit, we’re both still gainfully employed (and students are starting to register for the fall, so hopefully it’ll stay that way), and we have plenty of supplies and ways to amuse ourselves. But it’s still scary and stressful and just time-consuming because it takes that much longer to do things like shopping for groceries, and because it’s hard to really concentrate on grading some research papers when the worst president in our history (along with his entire team and family of political hacks and crooks) is trying to convince us that because of their “quick and decisive action” only 200,000 people are going to die from this. But I digress.

Where I was really wrong was not anticipating the difficulties my already online students were going to have with all this– though in hindsight, I should have anticipated it. Most of my online students are not 18-22 years olds living in the dorms or a student apartment near campus, the kind of traditional college kid with maybe a part-time job while receiving lots of support from their parents. A lot of my online students are parents themselves, with real jobs and mortgages and everything. This is typical; in my experience, most EMU students who regularly take online classes do so because of complicated and over-extended schedules, and/or because of complicated life circumstances.

Last week, I spent a couple hours one afternoon tracking down students who had missed due dates once everything started to shift to sheltering in place. Again, in normal times, I would never do this. I am not one of those kind and nurturing teachers who regularly checks in on their students’ lives and who gives them hugs. I maintain a more professional and intellectual persona, and normally, I’d just give them a bad grade and that’d be that. But these are not normal times, and I must say the pandemic has brought out the nurturing “human” in me. I emailed everyone who was late on things (more than a third of them) to find out what was up. Most of them emailed back to let me know they were just slightly delayed just because of adapting to everything, but a not insignificant number of them are struggling. I mean really struggling.

A few intentionally vague examples: I have students who were dislocated from housing– not just the dorms, but their permanent place of residence. I have students who have completely and suddenly lost their jobs. I have students who work in different areas of healthcare, mostly as support staff in hospitals and nursing homes, and they are scared and over-worked. I have single parents who have small children and who must keep down a full-time job while taking care of their children and sheltering in place. I have students who have had to move to a different state to care for family members, students who had to move in with a parent who doesn’t have internet access. I have a couple of students who, for whatever reason (and not necessarily because of the pandemic), didn’t respond to me at all so I really have no idea what’s up with them. And so forth.

So it became clear my teaching was also entering emergency lifeboat mode. I’ve extended deadlines as long as I possibly can and abandoned big chunks of the assignments due at the end of the term. I’ve given up on any sort of deduction for being late in posting things, and I have told students repeatedly that as long as they stay in touch with me and as long as they give it all a try, they will all at least pass the class. Because look, even my hard-assed aloof professor persona believes no one should fail a class because of a fucking pandemic.

I think most of my faculty colleagues out there are taking a similar approach, but I will say some of the emails I’ve gotten back from students and some of the stories I’ve heard suggest otherwise. After I told my students how I was going to be lightening up on things, I got several emails that said things like “I really appreciate you giving us a break because the prof in my math class (or whatever) refuses to do anything different,” or stories about faculty actually increasing the workload since now everyone has more time to work on things while cooped up at home. And I heard one story– which I suspect is really one of those “I heard from a student who said their prof said” telephone game miscommunications and not actually true– where a piano teacher was telling his students that they need to have a piano so they can play the piece they’ve been practicing to pass the class. And if students don’t have a piano where they live, they’ll need to borrow one.

So, if you’re that guy(and I guarantee you 90% of these kind of profs are guys), if you are the college teacher who is stubbornly holding on to all of your original plans, even if it is your own way of coping, you need to stop that right fucking now. 

Me and my students will make it through, and with the last day of classes at EMU on April 20 and with no finals (my writing classes typically don’t have finals), we should be through with things in a little over two weeks. I will not be teaching this summer and I don’t know exactly how things are going to go in the fall, but I do know two things. First, I for one will be sure to have a plan to take my f2f classes online because it seems likely to me that Covid-19 will resurface and disrupt things again for at least another year.

Second, I’m starting to really rethink the value of being such a hard-ass instead of trying to be like an empathetic human.

3 thoughts on “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”

  1. Though my daughter is only an eighth grader in a Christian Private School in SC. This is absolutely the most inspiring and wonderful thing I have heard from an educator! I am a Respiratory Therapist and have to work with COVID-19 patients. I work 12 hour night shifts 3-4 a week which worked out perfect for me to take my daughter to school every morning , pick her up every afternoon and attend any sports activities after school. Now with distance learning, which in no way was her school prepared for, the amount of work and grading so far are unreal ! The 8th grade class has only had one computer class ever and students were not given any type of electronic device for school use. Then bam 💥 learn google classroom, learn zoom calls and they have attempted to continue their curriculum as though these kids are still in class. I can’t get a clear answer about grading policies and I’m pretty sure her principal has decided to avoid my emails now 😂 These children who have parents working on the front line, being exposed continually to COVID-19 can’t have a routine like parents who aren’t working. Kudos to you for reaching out and realizing this is not the same as when students “sign up” for distance learning ! You rock !!

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