A Revision of Outdated Course Policies Is Long Overdue

We need to humanize our course policies and practices and eliminate those that marginalize some students while privileging others.

Professors: Students are under no obligation whatsoever to disclose their reasons for not attending class.

—Anthony C. Ocampo, @anthonyocampo, Twitter, 2020, April 8.

The sociologist Anthony C. Ocampo’s statement is just one of many messages I read on social media this spring and summer that spotlight senseless course policies in institutions of higher education; in this case, an attendance policy requiring students to provide an excuse for missing class. It is probably no coincidence that messages critiquing rigid and inflexible course policies in higher education have increased during the pandemic, but an examination of course policies at colleges and universities is long overdue.

Regarding attendance policies, the notion that seat time equals learning is deeply ingrained in our education system, from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. This assumption has led not only to policies requiring students to provide an excuse for missing class, such as a doctor’s note, but it has also led to policies where points are deducted from students’ overall grade for missing more than a certain number of classes. Punitive attendance policies are implemented without regard to how well a student is doing in class and regardless of a students’ life circumstances. What of a single mother whose child is sick or whose childcare falls through for the day? And what of students who rely on others or on public transportation to get to class? I have had students miss class for these reasons and still do well in the course. Our students are adults with sometimes challenging life circumstances beyond our classes and we should not put them in a position where they have to choose between taking care of themselves and their families or losing points on their grade. We should also never require students to disclose personal information when we ourselves are not required to reciprocate by disclosing our own personal information.

Photograph of people in a classroom.
Image description: Six students in late teens sit at desks in two rows in a portion of a classroom. Classroom walls are bare except for a blank bulletin board. The students are bent forward over their desks, looking at, or writing on, an exam consisting of white sheets of paper.
Caption: Writing exams. Ccarlstead/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Another common course policy penalizes students for turning in late assignments. Penalties range from points being deducted on an assignment all the way to giving zeros for assignments turned in after a deadline. Attendance and late assignment policies have nothing to do with learning. In addition, they penalize certain types of students more than others. And, as already noted, these policies privilege single and childless students. They privilege affluent students that do not have to work to make ends meet, with no other demands on their time apart from studying and attending class. It is becoming more and more evident that they also privilege students whose immune systems are not compromised. Courses will not turn to chaos if we revise or eliminate late assignment policies. As evidence, here is a message posted on Twitter by the anthropologist Baird Campbell in response to a tweet by the professor and writer Lacy M. Johnson:

I had really good luck with adopting a new late work policy which is “send me whatever you have by the deadline and work with me on a reasonable timeline for completion.” I think it has actually resulted in less late work because students know they have a release valve (@BairdCampbell, Twitter, 2020, July 29).

I have also heard of instructors penalizing students for using their cellphones during class time. I have never had such a policy and technology use in my classes has never been a problem. In fact, during one class a few years ago, a student received a text message saying that her mother was having a medical emergency and was being taken by ambulance to a hospital. This student left immediately to be with her mother. If she had not had her phone on and beside her, she might have missed seeing the message until it was too late. Fortunately, her mother recovered. But this incident is one I will never forget and it is why I will never have a course policy penalizing technology use in class.

To get to the root of institutional racism, we need to humanize our course policies and practices and eliminate those that marginalize some students while privileging others.

Course policies around language, such as those that deduct points for deviations from Standard American English (SAE) grammar and usage in written work, are particularly problematic. Scholars and educators whose work focuses on the K–12 level have pushed back against the pervasive notion that it is educators’ responsibility to enforce SAE as the only appropriate English for the classroom (see for example, Flores and Rosa, 2015). Instead, they argue that we need to dismantle policies and practices that, in effect, make classrooms safe places for White, SAE-speaking students to express themselves, but dangerous places for predominantly Black and Brown students who speak other Englishes to express themselves. Inspired by the work of these scholars, my course language policy now states: “In an effort to dismantle the notion that Standard White American English is the only ‘appropriate’ language variety for use in US classrooms, students may draw on the full range of their linguistic repertoires in their written assignments.” It goes without saying that students are welcome to use their full linguistic repertoires in our classroom discussions, as well. (See the educational linguist Nelson Flores’s recent meme posted on Twitter critiquing appropriateness-based language education policies).

I agree with those who argue that the time for decolonizing our syllabi and including a broader range of histories, voices, and experiences in our courses is long overdue. But it is not enough. To get to the root of institutional racism, we need to humanize our course policies and practices and eliminate those that marginalize some students while privileging others. In another recent tweet, Lacy M. Johnson wrote, “working on my fall syllabi and really tempted to replace all course policies with ‘you know what, let’s just all do our best'” (@lacymjohnson, Twitter, 2020, July 29). If we teach from our heart and have faith in our students, we will find that we no longer have need for inequitable and punitive course policies.

Cathy Amanti is a faculty member in Georgia State University’s Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education. A former Dual Language Bilingual Education educator, her work critically examines the relationship between students’ in- and out-of-school experiences.

Patricia D. López ([email protected]) and Cathy Amanti ([email protected]) are contributing editors for the CAE column.

Cite as: Amanti, Cathy. 2020. “A Revision of Outdated Course Policies Is Long Overdue.” Anthropology News website, October 26, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1526

Comments

Dear Anthropologists: I have not required attendance in my classes for many years, but in the syllabus it does say that the student is responsible for anything (lectures, films, class comments) that occurs in class. So, a buddy system is advisable when absences occur. But, I am happy when I see 2/3 of the class turn up but not upset it only 1/3 shows up on occasion. Also, I give my objective and essay exams on line and the policy is open-book/open-notes and no time limit. In this way I see who really works up the correct answers and who, lacking the motivation or time, gets a poor grade on an exam. I then approach a student in poor grade-standing to learn what’s going on. I’ve been told that my stories of the field draws attendance. Ciao! Ron Reminick, Professor Emeritus

I just had a long conversation with friends who are local employers about how college professors are “too nice” with students—that the undergraduate pre-law students and current law students they hire (in their law offices) have no concept of getting to work on time, submitting work on time, writing using standard grammar and spelling, refraining from personal cell phone use during work hours, and so on. I replied that in the education business, especially for first-year students, we usually go with a “leeway for learners” model (and even more so during the pandemic). The career center at my university also tells us that the number one reason that alumni do not retain jobs after their probationary period is failure to get to work on time. I’m curious how you would respond to employers who feel aggrieved that employees should be learning these basic workplace skills in high school and college.

I wholeheartedly agree! Evidence shows that student engagement increases retentiona nd success. How to increase student engagement? By showing kindness and empathy in the form of equitable course design. Just because we, as faculty, understood (mostly) what was expected of us in college does not mean that everyone does. Consider the syllabus – it looks and reads like a punitive contract. Is that welcoming for First-gen students, students with ediucational trauma, or students that already feel marginalized by the system? By not reassessing our policies, syllabi, and course design, we are effectively condoning and promoting a system based on racist and elitist practices.

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