On Canceling Classes

Prof. Bobby Chesney asks if it’s ok to cancel a class for a conference. Will Baude, Yale Law student, channels Felix Frankfurter and says that it would be something akin to a violation of a ‘sacred trust’:

So I think a very strong presumption against sacrificing class even further to one’s other professional ambitions is at the very least an ideal. I would like to hope that is not too much to ask for.

It’s probably close to what I would have said when I was a student there.

Where you stand depends on where you sit. It’s easy to say that stuff when you are at a school which is on the East Coast corridor, and where most people will come to you, and where the school’s name will get faculty invited to things, published, and noticed even they don’t show up. Out here in the provinces, if we want to attract top faculty and have them participate actively at a national and international level, we have to assure them they will not become unpersons for eight months of the year.

We think, perhaps self-servingly, that it’s in the students’ interest to be taught and supervised by people who are involved in new and important things things in an active way. But when it’s a long way to that meeting, it’s not a day trip (and ever more so in these days of uncertain and encumbered air travel). So we have to compromise the ideal or pay an unacceptable price. Note also that most of us teach more hours per year than they do at Yale, so we have fewer days of the week free. Plus if you are lucky enough to be in demand, conferences sometimes book you a year in advance — well before you know your teaching schedule…

I do everything I can to avoid canceling classes, but I would guess I average about one to two days canceled a semester to give a paper at a conference or to participate in state, national, or international law reform activities. Should I have said no to the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court when he asked me to serve on a committee on privacy and court records? Even though, modesty aside, I was probably the legal academic in the state who knew the most about the computer and privacy issues? I’d have loved to avoid that chore, but it seemed like something I ought to do. Even if it meant rescheduling a class or two. Was it just “professional ambition” to accept invitations to give papers at big conferences in my field at Yale or Harvard or Stanford? No doubt in part; but I also learned a lot by going and met some great people, some of whom are still my teachers. Part of that, I hope, filters into the classroom.

I agree that too much of a good thing would be bad; and I think the event has to be pretty important before I’d cancel a class. But if Miami didn’t have a policy that gave me some flexibility, my work would be a lot poorer for it, and so too would some of my teaching.

Makeups are unpopular with students, and rightly so; and what’s acceptable could easily grow into what’s oppressive or unfair. We do have a makeup time in our schedule when no one has classes, which should make it theoretically easier. In practice there’s always someone with an internship or something, so it’s never perfect. But I think the tradeoff is far more complex than Mr. Baude suggests — especially outside New Haven, Cambridge, and at most a handful of other schools. On balance, I think I and my students benefit from the number of things that my colleagues and I do — much of which, given our geography, would not be possible if we had a more rigid rule on rescheduling classes.

I have to add that almost invariably our students are unbelievably gracious about it (at least to my face) when I explain to them what is going on and why I’m rescheduling a class. And I appreciate it.

This entry was posted in Law School. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On Canceling Classes

  1. Snarky, Esq. says:

    Let the record reflect that Will Baude was one of the least attentive students I ever saw at Yale. While he was careful enough never to be called out on it that I saw, he spent most of the time in most class sessions in the front row tabbing rapidly between windows as he read blogs and composed his own posts. Few of us were good, but he was worse than most.

    Sacred trust, anyone?

  2. Jon Weinberg says:

    One thing to add: I don’t think that the conflict is between teaching classes (doing my job) and attending conferences (self-centeredly blowing off my job). Attending conferences (either to present papers, or just to learn stuff that feeds into my teaching or writing) is my job, just as teaching is. Being a member of a scholarly community — including the part of that community that isn’t in Detroit — is a big part of what the university pays me to do.

  3. Lincoln says:

    We think, perhaps self-servingly, that it’s in the students’ interest to be taught and supervised by people who are involved in new and important things things in an active way….

    Particularly in regards to 1st year classes, where the focus is (or should be) on Black Letter Law, how would learning “new and important things” be beneficial to the student? Are you attending a workshop that might help teach you how to better educate your students, or to develop a more effective pedagogical method? Apparently not, so why pretend that students might enjoy some imaginary (and certainly untangible) subsidiary benefit from your globe trotting?

    Note also that most of us teach more hours per year than they do at Yale, so we have fewer days of the week free.

    Professors teach on average 8-10 hours of classes per week. How you must suffer with such a crushing work schedule. :-)

    Should I have said no to the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court when he asked me to serve on a committee on privacy and court records? Even though, modesty aside, I was probably the legal academic in the state who knew the most about the computer and privacy issues?

    Considering that I believe many law professors amount to little more than glorified law school graduates, I would find this statement highly suspect. I also suspect part of the reasons some law professors love to engage in mind games (such as hiding the ball) is so they can hide their own ignorance, lest some students should discover that they may actually know more about the law than their own professors do. It’s too bad the REAL experts don’t have enough time to consult since they are too busy working as actual lawyers, thus leaving that task up to professors who have all the time (and the resources) in the world to promote themselves as self anointed experts in some fast growing area of law.

    But I digress.

    Now, I would suggest that if you’re going to drop a class, don’t schedule a makeup. Instead provide an assignment that could encourage group discussions of a particular fact pattern, and how to best apply the rules to them.

    I must also note the hypocrisy exhibited by some professors, who feel perfectly fine to skip their own classes but rain hell fire on students who might also do the same, even if their are some very good, legitimate reasons for it (like being hospitalized for one.)

  4. Michael says:

    Actually, if there is anywhere where the focus SHOULD NOT be on black letter law, it’s the first year, where learning legal principles and reflexes is the key goal. The better the law school, the truer this; only those schools that dont’ trust their students much — the most like trade schools — abandon this principle in favor of rote learing.

    FWIW, my absence polices give everyone a week’s worth of free cuts, no questions asked. Medical excuses always work for extra. You can find them on line.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.