Instant Mentor

When You Miss Class

Rob Weir considers how to handle it, as an instructor, when you can't be there.

October 23, 2013
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I was in my office hard at work on a journal article when my phone rang. At the other end of the line was a teaching assistant from the large 100-level class for which I was course director. I was lost in thought when she called and, as it turned out, that was her problem as well. She was in the library doing dissertation research when, to her horror, she realized that she was supposed have led a discussion group a few hours earlier.

The TA was absolutely distraught and offered no excuses. She was so mortified that she offered, "to accept whatever punishment" I deemed appropriate, including a docked stipend. Above all, she wanted to know what she could do to "make it up to the students." My first goal was to talk her off the ledge. Punishment and reprimands are not my style. I shuddered, actually.

Although I have never forgotten to go to class, I wasn’t exactly "tuned in" when my TA called, and I contemplated the many times in which I was one phone alarm reminder away from being AWOL. Plus, this young woman was really smart and very good in discussion groups – her students loved her and she was a dream TA, the sort you can observe once and rest assured the class is in good hands. Once we cleared our respective minds, I asked her to stop by my office so that we could cooperatively brainstorm what to do next. She arrived 15 minutes later, having already e-mailed each student with an apology. (For the record, I would have counseled her to tell them that "an unforeseen situation developed" rather than being brutally honest, but the latter was her style.)

Our small drama raised an interesting question: What should we do when any of us – TA or professor – misses a class? After all, we tell our students they are responsible for any work missed when absent. My TA’s first impulse was to hold a “make up” class. Good luck with that! Today’s students are incredibly busy. Let’s not flatter ourselves; quite a few of them are only in our classes because they fit into their hectic schedules. With that out of the running, we decided to think outside the box. That’s not so hard to do now that we have electronic rabbits we can pull out of the hat. I suggested that the TA create and post a simple PowerPoint slide containing the major points she had planned to cover – essential concepts, terms, and events that might be useful for comprehension (and an upcoming exam). She had the idea to set up a question/discussion forum on the class website, a task we accomplished with a few clicks.

The next idea turned out sublimely. I asked her to share the questions she had planned to use in discussion and we discussed ways that information could be conveyed other than just asking students to read about them. (Reading is legitimate, of course, but we always ask them to do that.) If you really want throw some candy to a 100-level class, offer any kind of "extra credit." We hit upon the idea of constructing an easily digestible exercise drawn from various web-based resources.

The class was divided into thirds – one group looked at a series of YouTube videos the TA vetted, the second group checked out a detailed website, and the third perused an image bank of historical photographs. For up to three extra points on the upcoming exam, each student was given the “option” of writing a one-page summary of his or her findings with a particular emphasis on what they unearthed that most surprised them. (They may be corny, but treasure hunts never seem to go out of fashion.) The last line of their summary had to state the historical significance of their findings – an attempt to separate substance from trivia.

Students were also prompted that half of the upcoming discussion would be devoted to reporting their findings. It was a hit! Nearly every student wrote a summary and discussion was so lively that, later in the semester, the TA reprised the concept by compiling web sources on a different topic and offering a choice between completing an essay assignment, or taking a scheduled in-class quiz. (No one chose the quiz, though they worked much harder on the opt-out exercise.) At the end of the semester, my TA’s evaluations glowed.

Move the clock ahead a year. I knew I would miss a class for an out-of-state conference. The time-honored method of dealing with a scheduled absence has been the dodge of telling students you’re giving them a "research day" to work on their "projects." (Real-life translation: It’s O.K. to sleep in on Thursday because none of you will actually set foot in the library during the time you’d normally be in class.)

This time I assembled an e-class and kept myself on syllabus at the same time. Instead of trying to cram a rapid-fire lecture on Gilded Age cities into another on social divisions during the period, I found some websites, photo archives, videos, and other materials. (The PBS program "American Experience" is often pretty good.) Each student was given a city to research – with overlap because New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are generally easier to research than others.

I merged the missed and upcoming topics, with one third of the class looking at the lifestyles of elites, one third investigating social tensions within the city, and another third at how their city grew physically and demographically. I didn’t offer extra credit per se; instead I said that a two-page summary “automatically” earned up to 3 of the 10 points I allocated for "class participation" in their final grades. The first class back was devoted to an animated discussion of student findings. They missed a few things I wanted them to know, but no problem – I simply put them on a handout posted to the website (along with summaries from their papers) and, the next class, directed them to the handout and why the ideas I added were important.

Professors miss classes for a variety of reasons, including illness. It takes some time to cobble together a substantive make-up class, but the rewards are high and students often appreciate the proverbial change of pace. Plus, such exercises are better than force-merging topics or dropping one altogether. Here’s what I learned from my TA: It really bothered her to think she had shortchanged her students. And shouldn’t we all feel that way?


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