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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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If It Doesn't Make Sense… Refuse

We're in a crisis. If policy seems counterproductive, ignore it.

March 16, 2020
 
 

Because I have not done it, I do not have specific advice how to convert an in-person class to online learning on the fly. Guest blogger Alexandra Milsom covered that with great insight yesterday.

However, I do have many years of experience navigating institutional policy and bureaucracy, factors that are going to be causing problems for many instructors trying to make the best of a troubled situation.

Based on my experience as a contingent instructor, often subject to the whims of policy decided above me, while not having the power to challenge or change those policies, here’s my advice if you are faced with an impossible, or even merely counterproductive edict: refuse to do it.

Depending on your situation, you can either refuse silently or make a public fuss and try to change the policy for others, but either way, if what you are being asked to do is inconsistent with what you know to be in the interests of student learning and overall well-being, just don’t do it.

For example, I have seen word that some institutions are requiring instructors to try to meet their courses synchronously over video. This is absurd on multiple levels.

  1. It is predicated on a notion that’s outdated even in face-to-face settings, that seat time is equivalent to learning.
  2. It presumes that faculty and students have access to reliable technology to pull off such a feat.
  3. It presumes that students and faculty are in a situation where they can meet in a synchronous manner while dealing with the uncertainty of living through a global pandemic.
  4. It fails to recognize that the experts in online teaching tell us that asynchronous activities are, in most cases, best practices.

Don’t do it. If it is both dumb and harmful, refuse.

I have not done things I was supposed to do or have done things I was not supposed to do many times in my career.[1] I ditched my class attendance policy attached to semester grades even though department regulations required it.

How did I get away with it? I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even try to hide it. I would put my polices defying institutional edict in my syllabus that was then turned in to the higher-ups.

No one said “boo.” My guess is this is either because no one was bothering to truly monitor the syllabi, or that the person who was in charge of this also thought the policy was dumb.

Much of what I’m seeing -- for example, instructors being required to craft and deliver their plan for moving instruction online -- appears to be bureaucratic rigmarole for the sake of bureaucratic rigmarole. Somewhere there is probably a policy that “requires” such a plan, but that policy was crafted without considering a sudden midsemester shift triggered by a global pandemic. I’m sorry -- under these conditions, that policy is dumb. If the institution is enforcing it, they’re being dumb.

Refusing to do it, on the other hand, is sensible.

I don’t intend to come off as arrogant or imply that I know better in every single situation, but when it comes to the learning and well-being of the students in the class, taught by me, I do know better. I know better both because of my experience and because I am closest to the situation in the moment. The instructor is best positioned to know what students are capable of during this crisis and therefore what sorts of learning activities are advisable.

You know better than the policy. No one was considering these circumstances when the policy was made. Ignore the policy. If you are not getting the flexibility necessary to do your work, seize it for yourself.

Perhaps you believe, as I do, and as Jesse Stommel does, that grades for this semester should be some version of pass/fail or credit/no credit, but your administration is insisting on adhering to the traditional grading scale.

Do it anyway. Give every student an A. I swear nothing important is harmed if you do this. You have not abandoned principles or rigor. In fact, if you announce your pass/fail policy up front, you will likely receive more and better work from your students as you’ve relieved the burden of anxiety and uncertainty.

At the very least, convert your course to a grading contact. Determine some threshold of work that students will be able to do under present circumstances and have them do it. Don’t worry about deadlines and don’t give any incompletes.[2] Take the work that comes in and assess it according to the contract and assign a grade accordingly.

Writing at Slate, Dan Kois lists all of the previously sacrosanct public policies that are suddenly being lifted as the crisis unfolds. You can now take a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer on a plane. San Antonio has stopped throwing people in jail for minor offenses. Evictions are being halted in multiple cities. Caps on broadband access are being eliminated. Companies that never previously offered paid sick leave are offering paid sick leave.

The emergent nature of the situation has revealed what is worth valuing and what is worth abandoning. It shows that constraints we are asked to live under are entirely artificial. If these things are worth abandoning in a crisis, what makes them worth adhering to under normal circumstances?

Some are possibly horrified at the notion of simply refusing to follow the rules and regulations. I believe they’re putting their faith in the wrong things, and not just during this crisis.

Order in the absence of humanity and compassion is not worth our embrace.

In my view, we should have been refusing lots of things along the way to this crisis, but certainly now is the time to stand up for ourselves and our students.

[1]All without the protection of tenure.

[2]Never giving incompletes is another example of where I refused to adhere to a policy that was harmful to students and me. I always figured out a way to give students a grade at the end of the semester, often in consultation with the student.

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