Student Evaluations & Lateness

After we turn in our grades — long after, in my case — we get our student evaluations. I wish the students filled them out after the exam: it would more fairly represent what I’m doing. But instead the administration has them fill them in about 2/3 of the way through the semester, just when they are most anxious.

I got mine today. Like every year I get dinged for talking too fast — but it’s genetic. And I do tell the students to stop me if I go too fast. The best ones do.

This year, unusually, I got substantial amounts of hostility for part of my class policies. You see, I require that all male students come to class in a coat and tie, and female students must wear comparable professional attire. Students must address me as “sir” and each other as “my esteemed colleague” or words to that effect. No one — other than me, of course — is allowed to talk for more than one minute. No one is allowed to miss more than one week’s worth of classes without an excuse from the Dean of Student’s Office; miss more than that and it counts as negative class participation and can hurt your grade. Anyone who is late is marked as having half an absence, so more than six latenesses can hurt your grade.

Ok, I’m kidding. Actually, the only parts of the above paragraph that are true are the parts about being late and missing class. And the part about the hostility this policy engendered. Yes, I take attendance, in part because the ABA rules say that by turning in a grade I’m certifying that my students went to class. (And as the Dean of Students will write an excuse for just about anything, the true sanction, for people with a minimum of common sense, is the minor hassle of getting a form filled out and signed.)

I penalize lateness because late people disturb others, disturb me, and likely have unprofessional habits that could use some push back. I used not to penalize latenesses, and students just drifted in in droves during the first 10-15 minutes of class. (Then they complained they couldn’t follow what was going on….) I had ten people out of 60 come in late one day. It was ridiculous.

So while I want to be sympathetic to student concerns, and might even experimentally lower the tariff next year to, say, lateness equals 1/3 of an absence, I just don’t see why expecting people to be on time, and incentivizing them a little, is such a terrible thing.

Am I hopelessly behind the times here?

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17 Responses to Student Evaluations & Lateness

  1. gjs says:

    I’m a third year law student who has seen professors implement similar lateness policies during my time in law school. I remember in my first year there were issues similar to what you describe, with students not only coming in late, but also getting up during class to use the bathroom, check email on one of the public computer terminals, etc. It was, as you can imagine, quite distracting. In response to this, some professors implemented some quick-and-dirty solutions — I remember on class the professor basically told us, “don’t get up unless it’s an emergency.” Of course, that then begs the question of what constituted an emergency, but at the time I didn’t have enough legal training — or confidence — to challenge the the rule. So that was frustrating. But other professors have fared better. One of my professors actually wrote her lateness policy into the course syllabus, which I think was useful (it was nearly identical to the one you use). What was particularly interesting doing that was that it gave students something in writing to refer to if there wound up being a conflict in the future.

    So I guess what I’m driving at is that I don’t think you’re behind the times, and that it’s been my experience that a clear lateness policy that the class follows is actually quite beneficial for everyone in the class.

  2. Robert says:

    I include my attendance and tardiness policy in my syllabus: I don’t track either one, but I will try to make it hard to do well in the class unless they attend regularly and show up on time. Then I follow through by sprinkling key points early in lectures that won’t appear in the readings.

    I also work hard to try to keep my lectures interesting. It’s a two-way street: I want them to attend, I want them to show up on time, so I have to give them a reason why the lectures are better than sitting at home and reading the texts.

  3. No, it irritates students as well. Being one myself, nothing is more distracting than some idiot who thinks they are tough walking in 10 mins late.

  4. arthur says:

    Law schools should teach students that showing up on time is part of the job of being a lawyer. Lawyers who show up late, whether for a court hearing, a real estate closing, or a meeting, are less effective and cost their clients real money. Keep the penalties.

  5. phil ford says:

    I can’t imagine that a judge (or employer) would be very tolerant of lateness either. Better to have the rules in place and waive them at your discretion than crack down on trouble-makers after ‘they’ve gotten the message’ that their bad habits will be tolerated. Lateness is frequently passive-aggressive.

  6. Ereshkigal says:

    I graduated from law school in 2000. Most of my professors had stringent tardiness/absence policies; each professor included her/his policy in the syllabus.

    The toughest policy belonged to a young-ish gentleman who limited unexcused absences to the number of meetings of that class per week (i.e., two absences in a class that met twice per week, four in class that met four times per week, etc.)

    He tolerated no tardiness, and refused admission to class to any student who, without prior arrangement, tried to enter after the class had begun. Those non-admissions counted as absences, of course. (Students could make arrangements for late entry into class for good reasons, such as work or other commitments.)

    Students continue to fill his classes. Most students like the policy, because late arrivals distract students as well as teachers.

  7. Max says:

    The ABA only requires 80% attendance. Requiring students do more is the surest way to earn their resentment before class even begins. Even taking attendance will bother many, as they expect a certain degree of leeway.

    The reason is simple. Law students have lives, they have complications, they have issues, and they will surely resent you if you send the message that your classtime is so irrelevant either to the final grade or the overall educational experience that you have to compel attendance.

    I have no idea how you are as an instructor, though I’d imagine you’d interesting (since you can maintain an interesting blog) and that, since you teach a non-bar subject, that casebooks and hornbooks are of limited relevance to the learning experience in your class. So what are you worried about?

    I’ve missed funerals for attendance requirements. In fact, in two months I’m going to miss my fiance’s birthday for attendance requirements. For that class, I understand, as it is a once-a-week trial performance section, and my absence affects others.

    But if I was missing it for a professor’s whim, one which they probably haven’t bothered to justify beyond “you should be in class,” well, I hope you’d understand my hostility.

    The “real world” argument is garbage, pure and simple. In the real world no one has a handful of regular interval lectures, spaced out randomly across the hours and days, located where they have no other reason to be, and which have no actual, as opposed to artifically imposed, consequences except on educational quality. In the real world I’ve seen judges tear into lawyers for unexcused absences, but more frequently I’ve also seen plenty of clients and judges and other attorneys happily submit to changes due to family/personal issues that would never pass muster before a registrar.

  8. MAX- I think you missed the point. You can plan ahead for certain things (like b-days) and others you just can’t. I don’t think the “real world” argument is “garbage”. It does hold some water (this is from Fed. Judges I have spoken to)

    Prof. Discourse— I say that you write in your syll like others and when the student enters late, you go off like gang-busters like other profs at your school!

  9. whatever says:

    prof. alfieri does the “shaming technique” wherein, when a student enters the room late,
    he interrupts his lecture to tell an anectote about people showing up late to things in general
    and how much it hurt them. it is worth some titters from the back and a blush on the cheeks of
    the poor 1L who has to then slink to their seat.

    of course, the 1 time that prof was late i was able to interrupt the pre-class repartee with a short
    anectode about professors who showed up late, earning a slightly dirty look from the prof in question,
    but it was soooooo worth it.

  10. Max says:

    Certainly, promptness and attendance are mandatory in court presentation except under the most dire of problems.

    But how about this: the judge wants to schedule a conference two months from now. I want to be able to see my fiance for her birthday. I ask the conference not be scheduled that day. The judge complies, as do the attorneys, until we find a day that works, no problem.

    There is simply no “real world” circumstance in which you need to attend a lecture the exact same 2-3 days every week at the exact same time for 4 months. For professors to demand nearly perfect fidelity to such an artificial schedule does not ‘build professionalism,’ it’s plainly arbitrary.

    No one with any real life or responsibilities should be expected to meet a perfect weekly schedule for four months and virtually no one is in the “real world.” Employers have sick (or work from home) days and courts allow for reasonable scheduling conflicts. The only people with such schedules are… professors. But it’s also the only thing they do that requires their physical presence, unlike the hectic life of a law student, particularly those with family or work responsibilities.

  11. Michael says:

    But it’s also the only thing they do that requires their physical presence

    That would be funny if it weren’t so sadly misinformed. I am on leave this term. That means no teaching. Looking at my calendar for the past month reveals exactly two –TWO ! — work days in which I had zero meetings with students, committees, administrators, faculty meetings, job candidates etc. that required me to attend (on time, no less). And there was one additional day that had only one such meeting. Every single other day had two or more.

    The heart of your argument, though, is that when students decide to attend a professional school it is “arbitrary” to expect them to come to class on time. Sorry, make that “plainly arbitrary.” Personally, I don’t see why it’s any more arbitrary than, say, expecting people to come to work on time. Which is what we expect of all the staff here at the law school, and what most people in the working world probably expect of their employees. But perhaps you could expand on this?

    I’d write more but I have a meeting with a student soon.

  12. Max says:

    Sure, I’ll expand (my typical rule is that, if you disagree with a blogger, it’s rude to post more than a reply to their reply, since it either monopolizes their time or allows you to unfairly have the last word).

    The fundamental distinction I see is being somewhere to do something for someone else as opposed to being somewhere for your own benefit.

    I was simply wrong about professor time constraints, but it does have a small grain of truth: you do not have the same regular time constraints (e.g., 9-to-5 everyday) as most employees, though you do have some regular time constraints, like class and faculty meetings.

    But both class and faculty meetings require your presence for the benefit of, respectively, the students in your class and the school as a whole. Who loses if I miss, say, 6 days of your class instead of 3?

    Just me. True, you and other students might lose the benefit of my contributions, but I consider that argument specious, since it’s quite possible to satisfy the minimum standards of Socratic questioning without adding much of anything of value to the class (think of when students are only about to recite the facts and the main issue under questioning; if they don’t contribute beyond that, then they aren’t individually contributing).

    Let me run through it again. I have to be at work because my employer needs me. I have to be in court because the judge, jury, and client need me. You have to be in class and in your office because your students need you.

    Why do I have to be in class? Because I need to learn. I don’t believe in an absolute freedom of attendance, and I can see great arguments for setting some inherently arbitrary limit like the ABA’s 80% requirement.

    What I don’t understand, and what appears arbitrary to me, is why exactly you bump up the ABA’s 80% to your personal 90%? Why do you feel that students should be allowed to personally evaluate the cost/benefit of attending 10% of the class, but not 20%, especially given how they’re the ones paying for the time?

    Like I said before, and as I assume you understand as a professor, fidelity to a regular time at regular intervals is a very bizarre schedule, and most “real world” situations allow for some scheduling freedom. Need to miss a day in two months? Very, very rarely will this not be possible, except in class attendance settings.

  13. Max says:

    Sure, I’ll expand (my typical rule is that, if you disagree with a blogger, it’s rude to post more than a reply to their reply, since it either monopolizes their time or allows you to unfairly have the last word).

    The fundamental distinction I see is being somewhere to do something for someone else as opposed to being somewhere for your own benefit.

    I was simply wrong about professor time constraints, but it does have a small grain of truth: you do not have the same regular time constraints (e.g., 9-to-5 everyday) as most employees, though you do have some regular time constraints, like class and faculty meetings.

    But both class and faculty meetings require your presence for the benefit of, respectively, the students in your class and the school as a whole. Who loses if I miss, say, 6 days of your class instead of 3?

    Just me. True, you and other students might lose the benefit of my contributions, but I consider that argument specious, since it’s quite possible to satisfy the minimum standards of Socratic questioning without adding much of anything of value to the class (think of when students are only about to recite the facts and the main issue under questioning; if they don’t contribute beyond that, then they aren’t individually contributing).

    Let me run through it again. I have to be at work because my employer needs me. I have to be in court because the judge, jury, and client need me. You have to be in class and in your office because your students need you.

    Why do I have to be in class? Because I need to learn. I don’t believe in an absolute freedom of attendance, and I can see great arguments for setting some inherently arbitrary limit like the ABA’s 80% requirement.

    What I don’t understand, and what appears arbitrary to me, is why exactly you bump up the ABA’s 80% to your personal 90%? Why do you feel that students should be allowed to personally evaluate the cost/benefit of attending 10% of the class, but not 20%, especially given how they’re the ones paying for the time?

    Like I said before, and as I assume you understand as a professor, fidelity to a regular time at regular intervals is a very bizarre schedule, and most “real world” situations allow for some scheduling freedom. Need to miss a day in two months? Very, very rarely will this not be possible, except in class attendance settings.

  14. Michael says:

    When I started teaching I did not take attendance. That some people did not show up did not bother me: different people learn in different ways, they are adults, they take their own risks.

    The actual historical reason why I changed to using a daily attendance sheet is that at one point UM had a patch of very low bar pass rates. The word came on down from the Dean’s office that too many of our students were blowing off the BarBri lectures, thinking that they could wing it as they had in law school. And either because they hadn’t taken law school seriously enough and/or because they didn’t take the bar review seriously enough, they were failing the bar. Thus, it was gently suggested to us, it would be a Good Thing if we would impose attendance policies. And I figured it couldn’t hurt. Bar pass scores went up. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, eh?

    The lateness policy on the other hand is my own fault: One day when I had a whole bunch of people drift in during the first 15 minutes, I just got sick and tired of people disrupting classes by coming in late.

    So while I don’t actually agree that an attendance policy is arbitrary (I’d call it reasonable), I do agree that it’s far from inevitably correct when teaching adults. Repeated lack of timeliness, on the other hand, has effects on others and deserves little quarter. (Incidentally, note that my policy doesn’t say ‘no excuses’ after the third absence in a three-times a week class; it says ‘go get a form filled out’.)

  15. DaveL says:

    Lesson recently learned by real-life opposing counsel: It is bad to show up 45 minutes late for trial because of a hearing in another court that you didn’t bother to tell the judge about. It is much, much worse to also show up late to the show-cause hearing at which he decides how much to sanction you.

  16. Cyberbug says:

    Michael – we have consumerism, and then consumerist politics and of course, consumerist education! Imagine your local Supermarket (if US Law Professors are seen in one) or perhaps an establishment like Condi’s favourite haunts – prescribing all those rules….. I jest.

  17. UM Student says:

    I think it is perfectly fine to have a strict attendence policy… especially when the policy isn’t all that strict. The argument that “law students have lives” is ridiculous. For one, 2Ls and 3Ls picks their own schedules, so if they are smart, they shouldn’t be “spaced out randomly across the hours and days.” 1L’s have no other responsibilities except law school, since at most schools they are prohibited from working. If complications arise that are not forseeable, you are still allowed 3 unexcused absences.

    It shouldn’t be that hard for a law student to go to class, the same as it shouldn’t be that hard for an employee to go to work. It is your “job.” The people who complain the most about attendence policies are usually simply too lazy to go to class or have problems with time management.

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