Saturday, November 21, 2015

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #4: How to (Politely) Drop a Class

About three-quarters of students will wind up dropping at least one class during their college career.  It may be for a variety of reasons from health or family issues, to poor grades/I don’t get this discipline, to I party too much.  Of those who drop, the majority never offer their professor any explanation, for (again) a variety of reasons.  They may hate the professor, they may fear reprisal from the professor, they may be hugely embarrassed about whatever personal issue caused them to drop, or they may just not care enough to explain.

With the exception of large cattle-call classes in enormous lecture halls, professors usually DO notice when a student stops attending.  I’m not addressing those situations.  I’ve taught a few (198 was my largest lecture class, which pales beside some that are 500, 700, and more).  Those feel more like a factory than a class.  It’s as hard for me, the prof, to invest in it as it is for the students.  I’ve had some in those large classes who took time to ask questions, and I got to know them.  But by-in-large, such students are anonymous.

It’s smaller classes that I’m addressing.  These may still be relatively large.  I’ve had classes with as many as 70 students with actual student interaction, although most are under 40.  In these classes I do try to learn student names, and often take attendance.  Ergo, I notice when a student stops attending, and I will often check the roster to see if s/he has formally dropped, or just effectively dropped.  Most of the time, those who drop offer no explanation.  They just disappear.

I wish they wouldn’t. 

I may be able to guess why many drop; often, it owes to a failing grade.  But I don’t always know what caused the failure; it may not be lack of dedication or interest.  And I’ve had students with current Bs or Cs—even (more rarely) an A—just stop coming.  I’m left to guess the reason.

Sometimes “life” does interfere with college.  Students wind up missing class for all sorts of reasons from personal health issues to family emergencies to other personal crises, and they may not be able adequately to catch up.  Even if one has the requisite documented excuse to retake the test, we (as profs) often have to place a terminus ante-quem on make-ups, and if students take them, it’s often evident they didn’t study.  Maybe that’s because they didn’t care, but it could equally be (and sometimes is) that they had no TIME to study.  This results in poor grades, if not outright fails.  If the crisis goes on long enough, the student may choose to withdraw rather than take an F.  Retreat IS sometimes the better part of valor.  (Most) profs do actually understand that.  There’s nothing shameful about it, and I have occasional advised students to consider it. 

This brings up a side issue.  Sometimes students want somehow to make up the time lost, but it may not be feasible.  Not just a class or three, but several weeks of class.  There seems to be a disconnect between “What I can do” with “What I believe life owes me.”  But life isn’t fair.  First lesson to learn.  And when life interferes, what a student thinks is “fair” for him/her is rarely “fair” in comparison to other students who attended the class and did all required work.  As the professor, I have to consider ALL my students, not just one.  So yes, life may throw curve balls; there are no guarantees.  So please don’t whine to a professor that s/he has to find some way for you, the student, to make up substantial time lost if the professor says there’s no reasonable way to do so that’s fair to the other students—who did the full work.

And THAT, in turn, brings me to another point lost on the Entitled Student ™.  Tuition is money paid to sit in the class and learn.  As a prof, it’s my job to teach and I make appointments at need to meet with students to assist with their learning.  This is not “bothering” me.  It’s what you hired me to do.  I tend to write what many students probably think too MUCH on essays exams, because I personally hated it when profs just put a few checks and a couple words, then assigned a grade with little explanation of how to improve.  That’s not teaching.

But students are NOT paying for a passing grade.  A grade is earned, not paid for.  Sometimes the earned grade is an /F/.  But I will always explain WHY, if a student wants to know—and how to improve in the future.  Teachers want to teach, whether they teach kindergarten or college.  We want to help students “get it.”  If you’re failing, hie thee into the prof’s office, plop your butt in a chair, and ask for help.  If the prof can’t be bothered, s/he isn’t a teacher.  But most of us do actually care, as long as the student does.

Okay, that off my chest, let’s return to the occasional need to outright DROP a class.

If a student drops a class after being in it for more than the first 1-3 weeks, consider it polite to send the prof a note to explain why.

Again, I understand that some students are either embarrassed or shy.  For instance, I once had a student who wound up failing (badly) several quizzes and a midterm because she was breaking up with her long-term boyfriend of 3 years.  She didn’t say anything, didn’t say anything, I finally emailed her, and she confessed the whole thing.  She was an emotional mess.  I advised her to withdraw and take some time off.  I did NOT take it personally, but felt very sorry for her loss.  Most professors are not self-involved A-holes.  This is a classic example of where personal Real Life can get in the way of classes.  Even the best student will crumble under severe personal stress.  Dealing with the onset of depression or other mental illness is another such problem that can be “too embarrassing” for a student to tell a prof…but don’t let it be.  Back it up with a note from the counseling center on campus or from your therapist, but be up-front.

I had another student once who lost his father very suddenly, and had to deal with all the legal fall-out.  Usually an excellent A-student, he dropped to Cs.  Fortunately, he knew me and let me know what was going on.  That allowed me to extend him some grace, and even if his grades were more serviceable than good, he wanted to stay in the class rather than drop (for financial reasons).  I helped him figure out how to do that, and cut him a little slack.

So students may not always choose to withdraw, but letting the prof know what’s going on helps.  And in cases where the final grade will be lower than a /C/, dropping may be wise.

So…what if you’re failing because you partied too much and missed some key tests or quizzes?  That’s a different sort of embarrassing.  I’d still advise letting the prof know.  That’s called “owning your mistakes,” and should you need to take the class again later, the fact you stepped up and said, “Hey, my screw-up—I’m not blaming you,” will (usually) earn some tolerance.  You may still be on effective probation, but an admission of personal error combined with better effort the next time around can make a prof respect you.

Even if you screwed up and have no intention of retaking a class with that prof later, still…send a note.  I can’t tell you he number of students who suddenly showed up in my classes a year or so later after dropping one with no explanation.  They always said, “I probably should have told you why, but I was embarrassed and I’ve changed since then….”

Yes.  Tell us why.  AT THE TIME.  Not two years later.  Believe me, I’ll have more respect for you if you admit why you failed than if you just (cowardly) disappear.

But all those are student issues.  What if a student drops a class due to personal issues with the professor?  Should a note be sent then?


Obviously, politeness is a requirement.  Yet a polite note from a student who has a problem with one’s teaching style can be USEful to a professor.  Some won’t care, but some will.  The prof may not change the issue in question, as it really may be a difference of opinion and/or world-view.  But the feedback can still be of use.

That said, if a student winds up “hating” a professor for political, religious, or other similar reasons, a student writing to tell me how I need to “find Jesus,” or how I’m “going to hell,” or how I’m killing democracy with my “liberal” beliefs will probably not receive a positive response.  Also, IME, students who feel that way are not usually reluctant to say so, but seem to find great joy in the condemnation.  This is not the population I’m talking about.

Other issues can give students pause.  If a professor’s teaching style is problematic for a student, that can be useful knowledge.  It may not elicit a change, but it may still be useful knowledge.  Most profs realize their teaching is not “it” for EVERYbody.  Sometimes we can adjust; sometimes we can’t because it would wind up making us into someone we’re not.  But if we don’t get honest feedback from students, we can’t know.

BUT do be aware of how long a prof has been teaching.  For instance, I’ve been teaching 15+ years, so I have a fair idea of reasonable expectations.  A student who approaches to tell me I need to revamp my grading for __ class because s/he is failing and “I was an A student in high school” is not likely to be received well.  An “A-student” in high school who is failing my World Civ class when the average class grade is a C/C- makes little impression.  High school isn’t college, and this is what profs call “whining,” not a legit objection.  So consider 1) how long the prof has been teaching, and 2) how long the prof has been teaching the class in question, before offering substantial critique.

That said, even in classes I’ve been teaching a decade, I’ve had students offer useful suggestions.  Much depends on the HOW.  Additionally, I not infrequently change texts for classes because something new (and possibly better/more accurate) comes along.  But then I want student feedback ON the new text.  I may keep it or get rid of it based on that feedback.  IMO, good profs are always refining their classes, and student feedback can be key in that process.

Ergo, a student who approaches a prof with, “You need to completely revamp everything” probably won’t be received well (even if the prof DOES need to revamp everything).  But a student with specific suggestions from issues with a textbook to the order of lectures to the nature of tests might meet with a more positive reception.

Additionally, if the problem is less a matter of detail than a general “teaching style” issue, profs may be able to point a student to a professor with a style more suited to that student’s learning.  “I may not be the professor for you, but.…”  Often profs get students asking for advice on other profs who teach like them, because that’s flattering.  But it can be of equal use to students who are dropping to ask profs for alternative professors who teach more in ___ style?  And we might be able to help you.  

Yeah, some profs will be insulted, but again, I think many do realize we aren’t All Things to All People.  For instance, I tend to be fairly informal, and I think most students like it.  But I have had students write (anonymously) on evaluations that they did not like my style and wanted somebody more traditionally professorial.  Hey, I have colleagues who are like that, and I could point a student in their direction.