Okay, Now Some Students Should Fail (or, resuming “normal” expectations post-pandemic)

In April 2020, I wrote a post with the headline “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic.” This, of course, was in the completely bonkers early days of the pandemic when everyone everywhere suddenly sheltered in place, when classes suddenly went online, and when the disease was disrupting all of our lives– not to mention the fact that millions of people were getting very sick, and a lot of them were dying. Covid hit many of my students especially hard, which in hindsight is not that surprising since a lot of the students at EMU (and a lot of the students I was teaching back then) come from working poor backgrounds, or they are themselves adult (aka “non-traditional”) students with jobs, sig-Os, houses, kids, etc.

As I wrote back then, before Covid and when it came to things like attendance and deadlines, I was kind of a hard-ass. I took attendance every day for f2f classes and I also had an attendance policy of sorts for online classes. There was no such thing as an excused absence; I allowed students to miss up to the equivalent of two weeks of classes with no questions asked, but there are no exceptions for things like funerals or illness. Unless a student worked out something with me before an assignment was due, late work meant an automatic grade deduction. I’ve been doing it this way since I started as a graduate assistant because it was the advice I was given by the first WPA/professor who supervised and taught me (and my fellow GAs) how to teach. I continued to run a tight ship like this for two reasons: first, I need students to do their job and turn stuff in on time so I can do my job of teaching by responding to their writing. Second, my experience has been that if instructors don’t give clear and unwavering rules about attendance and deadlines, then a certain number of students will chronically not attend and miss deadlines. That just sets these students up to fail and it also creates more work for me.

Pretty much all of this went out the window in Winter 2020 when Covid was raging. EMU allowed students to convert classes they were enrolled in from a normal grading scheme to a “pass/fail” grade, which meant that a lot of my students who would have otherwise failed (or with bad grades) ended up passing because of this, and also because I gave people HUGE breaks. My “lighten up” approach continued through the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 school year, though because all of my teaching was online and asynchronous, the definition of “attend” was a bit more fuzzy. I kept doing this because Covid continued to be a problem– not as big of a problem as it was in April 2020, but lots of people were still getting infected and people were still dying, especially people who were stupid enough to not get the vaccine.

By the end of the 2021-22 school year, things were returning to normal. Oh sure, there was still plenty of nervousness about the virus around campus and such, but the end of the pandemic was near. The most serious dangers of the disease had passed because of a weaker version of the virus, vaccinations, and herd immunity. So I was ready for a return to “normal” for the 2022-23 school year.

But my students weren’t quite ready– or maybe a better way of putting it is Covid’s side-effects continued.

In fall 2022, I taught a f2f section of first year writing, the first f2f section for me since before the pandemic. Most of the students had been in all (or mostly) online classes since March 2020, meaning that this was most of their first semesters back f2f too. Things got off to a rough start with many students missing simple deadlines, blowing off class, and/or otherwise checked out in the first couple of weeks. I felt a bit the same way– not so much blowing stuff off, but after not teaching in real time in front of real people for a couple of years, I was rusty. It felt a bit like getting back on a bicycle after not riding at all for a year or two: I could still do it, but things started out rocky.

So I tried to be understanding and cut students some slack, but I also wanted to get them back on track. It still wasn’t going great. Students were still not quite “present.” I remember at one point, maybe a month into the semester, a student asked quite earnestly “Why are you taking attendance?” It took a bit for me to register the question, but of course! If you’ve been in nothing but online classes for the last two years, you wouldn’t have had a teacher who took attendance because they’d just see the names on Zoom!

There came a point just before the middle of the term when all kinds of students were crashing and burning, and I put aside my plans for the day and just asked “what’s going on?” A lot of students suddenly became very interested in looking at their shoes. “You’re not giving us enough time in class to do the assignments.” That’s what homework is for, I said. “This is just too much work!” No, I said, it’s college. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s not too much, I assure you.

Then I said “Let me ask you this– and no one really needs to answer this question if you don’t want to. How many of you have spent most of the last two years getting up, logging into your Zoom classes, turning off the camera, and then going on to do whatever else you wanted?” Much nodding and some guilty-look smiles. “Oh, I usually just went back to bed” one student said too cheerfully.

Now, look: Covid was hard on everyone for all kinds of different reasons. I get it. A lot of sickness and death, a lot of trauma, a lot of remaining PTSD and depression. Everyone struggled. But mostly blowing off school for two years? On the one hand, that’s on the students themselves because they had to know that it would turn out badly. On the other hand, how does a high school or college teacher allow that to happen? How does a teacher– even a totally burnt-out and overworked one– just not notice that a huge percentage of their students are not there at all?

The other major Covid side-effect I saw last school year was a steep uptick in device distraction. Prior to Covid, my rule for cell phones was to leave them silenced/don’t let them be a distraction, and laptop use was okay for class activities like taking notes, peer review or research. Students still peeked at text messages or Facebook or whatever, but because they had been socialized in previous high school and college f2f classes, students also knew that not paying attention to your peers or the teacher in class because you are just staring at your phone is quite rude. Not to mention the fact that you can’t learn anything if you’re not paying attention at all.

But during Covid, while these students were sort of sitting through (or sleeping through) Zoom classes with their cameras turned off, they also lost all sense of the norms of how to behave with your devices in a setting like a classroom or a workplace. After all, if you can “attend” a class by yourself in the privacy of your own home without ever being seen by other students or the instructor and also without ever having to say anything, what’s the problem of sitting in class and dorking around with your phone?

I noticed this a lot during the winter 2023 semester, maybe because of what I assigned. For the first time in over 30 years of teaching first year writing, I assigned an actual “book” for the class (not a textbook, not a coursepack, but a widely available and best-selling trade book) by Johann Hari called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention– and How to Think Deeply Again. This book is about “attention” in many different ways and it discusses many different causes for why (according to Hari) we can’t pay attention: pollution, ADHD misdiagnoses, helicopter parenting, stress and exhaustion, etc. But he spends most of his time discussing what I think is the most obvious drain on our attention, which are cell phones and social media. So there I was, trying to lead a class discussion about a chapter from this book describing in persuasive detail why and how cell phone addiction is ruining all of us, while most of the students were staring into their cell phones.

One day in that class (and only once!), I tried an activity I would have never done prior to Covid. After I arrived and set up my things, I asked everyone to put all their devices– phones, tablets, laptops– on a couple of tables at the front of the classroom. Their devices would remain in sight but out of reach. There was a moment where the sense of panic was heavy in the air and more than a few students gave me a “you cannot be serious” look. But I was, and they played along, and we proceeded to have what I think was one of the best discussions in the class so far.

And then everyone went back to their devices for the rest of the semester.

So things this coming fall are going to be different. For both the f2f and online classes I’m scheduled to teach, I’ll probably begin with a little preamble along the lines of this post: this is where we were, let us acknowledge the difficulty of the Covid years, and, for at least while we are together in school (both f2f and online), let us now put those times behind us and return to some sense of normalcy.

In the winter term and for my f2f classes, I tried a new approach to attendance that I will be doing again next year. The policy was the same as I had before– students who miss more than two weeks of class risk failing– but I phrased it a bit differently. I told students they shouldn’t miss any class, but because unexpected things come up, they had four excused absences. I encouraged them to think of this as insurance in case something goes wrong and not as justification for blowing off class. Plus I also gave students who didn’t miss any classes a small bonus for “perfect attendance.” I suppose it was a bit like offering “extra credit” in that the only students who ever do these assignments are the same students who don’t need extra credit, but a few student earned about a half-letter boost to their final grade. And yes, I also had a few students who failed because they missed too much class.

As for devices: The f2f class I’m teaching in the fall is first year writing and I am once again going to have students read (and do research about) Hari’s Stolen Focus. I am thinking about starting the term by collecting everyones’ devices, at least for the first few meetings and discussions of the book. Considering that Hari begins by recalling his own experiences of “unplugging” from his cell phone and social media for a few months, going for 70 or so minutes without being able to touch the phone might help some students understand Hari’s experiences a bit better.

I’m not doing this– returning to my hard-ass ways– just because I want things to be like the were in the before-times or out of some sense of addressing a problem with “the kids” today. I feel like lots of grown-ups (including myself) need to rethink their relationships with the devices and media platforms that fuel surveillance capitalism. At the same time, I think the learning in college– especially in first year writing, but this is true for my juniors and seniors as well– should also include lessons in “adulting,” in preparing for the world beyond the classroom. And in my experience, the first two things anyone has got to do to succeed at anything is to show up and to pay attention.

One thought on “Okay, Now Some Students Should Fail (or, resuming “normal” expectations post-pandemic)”

  1. This was a good read. During the lockdown I produced a handful of video lectures and created some asynchronous multi-stage assignments that are still perfectly good now that f2f teaching has resumed. I am lecturing less, and doing more multi-step guided brainstorming assignments, giving them a lot of structure and a lot of time to work during class. I might ask students to respond to a video or handout before class, apply that lesson in a timed writing assignment for the first 15 minutes of class, have a peer review and an opportunity to revise their in-class submission before the class ends, and assign another application assignment due before midnight.

    Students who came to class prepared can usually get all that work done during class, and they only need to pay half attention while I go over the material that they were supposed to learn before class. Yes I have more trouble with distracted students, and about the same number of students who want the credit but don’t want to do the work, but those students who can stay focused get the immediate reward of not having any further homework — and I usually ask students in the last 2 minutes of class what they accomplished today, and the students who are already done with the homework due at midnight that night are proud and vocal about their accomplishments, which confirms that my assignments are reasonable and that I’m giving them a reasonable amount of time to complete the work.

    It feels like I’m teaching less because the students are working on their own or doing peer reviews more, and I’ve been conditioned to feel like I’m wasting class time if I’m not lecturing, but if students do focused writing for half of the class time, even in a FYW class of 18, I can talk for 3-4 minutes with each student at least once a week, and when students start assembling their major drafts they are often pleased to realize they can copy-paste whole chunks from their journals or forum assignments, and that makes them feel better about why I asked them to do all the writing and journaling and application homework.

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