Ambush the White Rabbit

Michael Arnzen offers what he calls "behavior modification for the chronically tardy."

April 6, 2005

I like to think of myself as an easygoing, at times even cavalier, teacher. I loathed the disciplinarians in my life when I was a student, so I eschew their tactics now. Missed a test? Come to my office hours and I'll give you a makeup. You're playing in the tennis semifinals and have to miss all of next week's lectures? I'll excuse your absence as one for the team. Your dog died? Go bury him and mourn over Fido -- you can give your paper to me next week (if he didn't choke to death on your essay, that is).

I'm a pushover and a softie. But there's one form of student behavior I can't stand: lateness. It's more than a pet peeve -- it's more like a pathological peeve. "Better late than never" appears in my mental phrasebook with the corollary "...but never late is better." Class must start on time because my classes are organized around maximizing every minute of that precious hour I get to expand their horizons. If students arrive late, I will go out of my way to try to scare the propensity for tardiness right out of them.

It troubles me that being a stickler about student promptness is perhaps the reigning cliché of the overbearing schoolmaster (diploma in one hand dangling over their heads, razor-edged ruler in the other), but I wield a mean tardy policy and I hold students to it. I don't know where I got this hang-up -- perhaps baby food was withheld from my lips too long as a child or something -- but whenever students are chronically late to my classes, I turn into Doctor Discipline.  And I'm pretty good at it. In fact, I think of belatedness rehabilitation as an art form.

My methods of dealing with belatedness range from mundane "shaming" strategies to sublime and arcane forms of behavior modification therapy. If a student is late to class just once, it might be forgivable, of course, but it only takes one ignored latecomer to set a precedent for the whole class to follow for the remainder of the term. Students are harried with work and family pressure these days -- I see more and more of them wearing their work clothes and sports uniforms in the classroom -- but even on a snow day I give no quarter.

I care about my work as much as they care about their employment, and I refuse to accept the assumption that my classes are less valuable than their day jobs or their sports practices. Being late betrays not only a lack of courtesy and disrespect, it reflects the students' devaluation of the role of learning in their lives, and I refuse to silently endorse it.

I realize that most university faculty don't take attendance, let alone trouble themselves over tardiness.  Because I frame my courses as grounded in active participation (from writing workshops to class discussions), for me, "being there" matters. Even when a lecture is on the agenda, my beginnings are as important as my endings, and to miss the start is to miss the whole lot. So to show students that I mean business, my boilerplate late policy appears in the same section as a mandatory attendance policy in my syllabi, and it reads like this:

Excessive lateness, early departures, or behavioral issues will generate absences at the instructor's discretion.  You must contact the teacher in advance if you expect to miss assignments; in all cases, it is preferable to turn homework in early rather than late.

There's nothing overtly sadistic about this policy, and while I have yet to flunk a student for being chronically late, I have certainly knocked down the final grades of students who had accumlated enough "tardies" to make even the most apathetic slacker drop his jaw. If these chronic latecomers were punching a clock on the job, they'd be docked pay (if not fired!), and that's precisely the justification I use when I give them a grade reduction. For the pathologically late, I'd say they deserve worse -- like earning only two college credits instead of three, since credit is measured by in-class time -- but that's not a weapon in my arsenal, unfortunately. (But imagine the possibilities!)

Of course, I should rise above such petty bean counting. My job is to teach adult learners in a collegial academic environment, not to count the heads of junior high children coming back from recess. My mission isn't really to train students to become well-disciplined members of the work force, and though I am mindful of their intent to seek careers and learn life skills, I don't see teaching as a career akin to being floor supervisor.

I've read that some instructors who face this problem in K-12 actually have their students punch time cards, but I'm not so anal-retentive that I would even want to keep a complete accounting of class time that way. I'd rather just live with being irked, and feed off that irk-etude to design clever ways of curtailing the behavior so it doesn't become routine in the first place.


Naturally, I employ the typical methods of dealing with late students. I ask to speak with them after class, or, if the habit becomes persistent, I invite them for a serious chat in my office and suggest counseling. I try to help them with their character flaw by giving them advice about everything from finding a good parking spot on campus to developing work habits that put an end to procrastination.

But it's the immediate response that's most important -- the reaction to the latecomer who ambles into the classroom after roll, let alone a lecture, has begun. I give them my patented "steely glare" -- a cold look that could freeze lava. If I'm in the middle of lecturing, I sometimes stop mid-sentence and wait until they stroll to their chairs and unpack their books, not beginning again until they are sitting and risk eye contact. I like to tell myself that they recognize in that instance that they've interrupted me and won't want to do so again. Once that point is made -- in silence -- I continue speaking as though nothing ever happened. But what really happens is that the other students already in the room recognize the rupture in educational time-space that happens whenever a student arrives late.

I fancy myself a pretty good sadist when it comes to generating shame and self-loathing in the tardy. If I spot a repeat offender in the hallway before class, and find that they're not in attendance even after I've given them a comfortable buffer of time, I might push trashcans and desks in front of the door, constructing something of an obstacle course between the doorway and the desk so that they realize they can't sneak into the room unnoticed. In fact, all eyes turn upon them, turning what would otherwise be my lone steely glare into a collective gaze that beams upon them like so many hot spotlights. I don't even pay attention to them, and just continue my teaching unabated.

Other tricks I've tried include: calling on the latecomer to answer a question the second they walk in the door, having students put their book bags on every remaining open seat, and even leaving a note on the board that says "we're outside" while promptly canceling class altogether. Well, okay, I haven't really done all these things. But I've thought about it, and they're all in my bag of tricks if I ever get desperate.  I have, however, threatened to extend class for as many minutes as it took for the last arrival to enter the room.

When such cruel "ambush" tactics don't work, and a number of students somehow manage to get in the habit of showing up more than five minutes late every meeting (sometimes they commit the crime in clusters), I start giving quizzes -- easy ones -- right at the top of the hour, taking roll silently while students fill them out. This makes the impact of lateness on a grade concrete. An alternative strategy is to give an "extra credit code word" to the students who arrive early, and then include a bonus point question on the quiz that asks them, "What's the secret word?"

Of course, being cold, cruel and ceremoniously clever can backfire and if you ever want to emulate Doctor Discipline's techniques, remember that it means you can never be late yourself. I fondly recall being detained in a faculty meeting, and when I arrived late to a class found myself confronted with a giant green recycle bin when I opened the door. Everyone laughed, including me. Like I said, I'm an easygoing professor and all my students appreciate my humor and know that I mean no harm. But it took everything I had that day to not put their papers in the recycle bin at the end of the hour and let them go dumpster diving for their grades instead of handing them their essays when I returned them.

The pathology of tardiness has many origins -- from youthful rebellion to chronic time management dysfunction -- but there's one cause that troubles me above all: the professors who regularly arrive late to their own classes, and thereby establish a paradigm that timely starts don't matter in the classroom.  You can spot these teachers in the faculty hallways, routinely locking their doors at three minutes after the hour or racing to the copy machine in a panic. Or perhaps they're the mellower ones, who always show up 10  minutes after the committee meeting has begun, fresh tea bag floating in a steamy Styrofoam cup.  

In her self-help book, Never Be Late Again, Diana DeLonzor describes the "absent-minded professor" as an icon of the chronically late -- the person who is routinely tardy because they are "easily distracted, forgetful and caught up in their own introspection." It's easy to fool oneself into identifying with this icon of the charmingly-forgetful-yet-productively-musing scholar, but these same people are often quite timely when it comes to getting to the lunch line or happy hour.

Others among us might be what DeLonzor calls the "deadliner" who feeds off the thrill of racing against the clock or the "rebel" who resists the social contract as a way of feeling in control of the situation.  Academic pressures and procrastination habits often result in such approaches to scholarship, true, but how thrilling is greeting the classroom at the finish line, really? And how can we expect students to meet deadlines and tamper their rebellion when we don't practice what we preach? In the end, teachers lead by example, and no matter what their motives, the chronically late instructor enables the chronically late student.

I recall a small faculty debate on my campus e-mail server awhile back about the "official campus policy" regarding faculty arriving late to class. There is no official policy, and there really shouldn't be.  Faculty should just show up on time. If there is a policy that allows for late arrival, faculty will take advantage of  that free time and always be late. But students always want to know: how long must one wait for a professor to arrive before leaving? In the e-mail exchange, one faculty member raised the notion that it depends on how long the class is -- 5 minutes for a one hour class, 10 for an hour-and-a-half-long course, and so forth, exponentially. That would give me plenty of time for dessert before my three-hour night class!  

Another mentioned a campus myth that espoused the policy that teachers should be allotted courtesy time by rank -- so that students would have to wait 15 minutes for a full professor to arrive, but only 5 for an assistant prof. Half my students don't know how to spell my name correctly, let alone my academic rank. Another group suggested that a single policy should be adopted and posted in every classroom so students would know what to do.  We might as well drape a huge banner beneath the campus's road sign that reads, "Where the Faculty Aren't Punctual!" 

Even the college president eventually joined the fray, with what I felt was probably the most pedagogically sound option: to tell students ahead of time that if the teacher is ever late or absent, they need to hold class themselves, and write a report about what they did in class that day for homework.  I like this because it retains the student-centered integrity of the class and puts the responsibility for learning where it existed all along: on the students' shoulders.

But I can guess how those reports might read: "We waited for you."

Have you ever had a student in your class who, out of the blue, stopped showing up to class for a week or two, and then magically returned as if nothing happened? I like to pretend that they're not in absentia, but just enormously late. For in the end, there's no difference between lateness and absence: It's all missed time, and I'm keeping track of it.


Michael Arnzen is an associate professor of English at Seton Hill University. He produces Pedablogue, a "personal inquiry into the scholarship of teaching."


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