[This has been without a doubt the most challenging and exhausting semester in my 16 years at FSU and 20 years of college teaching. But I’ve also learned a ton, and for this end of semester series I wanted to reflect on a handful of those lessons. Please share some of yours—and any other Fall 2020 reflections and thoughts—for a crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity and support!]
On a key policy change I made this fall, the challenges it presents, and why I’m likely to stick with it nonetheless.
As I briefly mentioned in my kindness/policy of care post earlier in the week, one specific policy change I made for all my Fall 2020 classes was to do away with late paper penalties of any kind. I’ve always been very willing to grant extensions for papers and other work (I tell students on the first day of class for every course and semester that my only defining policy is “keep me posted”), but officially at least have in the past had such late paper penalties, effects on a paper’s grade if it comes in late without such an extension. It seemed to me that that policy was an important way to be fair across the board, to make sure for example that students getting work in on time were not disadvantaged in how they did on that work. But this semester, the last thing I wanted was for my classes to add stress or pressure to students’ lives already far too full of those things, so I did away with late paper penalties, meaning that while our papers still had official “due dates,” students could get those papers in to me at any point and they would be counted as on time (whether they were ungraded and for full credit, as was the case for our first papers and as I discussed in the ungrading post a couple days ago; or were graded as were the final pieces of work in my classes).
Clearly students needed this policy change, as reflected with particular clarity in my two sections of First-Year Writing I—I’d estimate that less than half of those 44 students consistently got papers in by the official due date, and maybe another quarter did so within the subsequent week. But that latter data point also reflects one of the key challenges caused by this policy change: many students not only let papers hang over their heads for more than a week after the due date, but seemed to struggle to keep working on the papers at all; I tried as best I could to reach out individually to keep the conversation going, but some students simply did not complete some of our work, and I have to believe the absence of a firm deadline contributed somewhat to that breakdown (and something similar happened in my upper-level literature courses as well, if at slightly less extreme numbers than in Writing). Moreover, while this is a far less significant challenge, the change also meant that starting in about week 3 of the semester, I received and had to grade at least a few papers on literally every day of the semester; usually grading comes in waves, with some particularly busy times, but this semester was the opposite, a steady, constant drip of incoming papers that needed feedback (especially in a class like Writing I where the papers and work build on each other).
So doing away with late paper penalties seems to have had its unintended downsides, for me and especially for students. If I carry this policy change forward, I’ll have to set some sort of second-deadline for each particular paper, so they don’t simply hang over all of our heads indefinitely or accumulate in too difficult and even counter-productive ways. And indeed, despite those downsides, I do plan to carry the policy change forward—definitely into the Spring 2021 semester (which at FSU will be more or less identical to the Fall, at least as currently planned), but quite possibly into future ones once (I fervently hope) we return to more normal pedagogical modes and situations. At the end of the day, everything I’ve done this semester has been to try to help maximize student work and success while recognizing and accommodating all that’s happening in their lives—and while that might mean different things in future semesters, those fundamental goals won’t change. While soft or suggested deadlines can perhaps help with them, hard or strict or punitive ones no longer seem to me like they do—one striking and likely permanent lesson for me from Fall 2020.
Last lesson tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall 2020 lessons, challenges, reflections you’d share for the weekend post?