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TA 101: “Ugh, No Fair!” or, Crafting Fair Course Policies

I’m excited to announce two regular features on this blog: TA 101 and TA 911.  These posts are specifically designed to help teaching assistants with classroom management techniques, sample lesson plans, case studies, and whatever else I fancy writing about.  The TA 101 posts will cover basic, helpful information that we often learn in trial-by-fire situations, and TA 911 posts are Ask Abby-esque pieces about problems teaching assistants face.  I hope you’ll find both helpful!

This particular topic definitely falls into the TA 101 category, and it has been weighing heavily on me over the past few weeks. Around these parts, we are knee-deep in midterms, so that means I (and my officemates) have had many a frantic student meeting. Most have been fairly positive, but there have been a handful where students have argued some variant of “That’s not fair!” in response to an assignment grade or course policy.

I’ve had my fair (haha!) share of this type of student meeting over the past few years, and I think they’re the most difficult to handle. How do you quantify what is “fair” to a disgruntled student? No matter what you say, s/he will likely disagree with your position. Beyond that, these students always make me reevaluate my curriculum and course policies.  How do you make sure your classroom policies and grading criteria are, in fact, fair?

Let me start by saying that I am an absolute stickler when it comes to fairness.  As an undergraduate, I never asked for an extension—not because I didn’t occasionally need them, but because I thought that getting extra time was unfair to my fellow classmates.  I disliked courses where I thought policies were unnecessarily strict, but I loathed courses where evaluation and classroom criteria were undefined.  That means that when I design my courses, I tend to be overly specific in the name of fairness.  It usually works, but it can be a little intimidating on the front end.

So how can you tackle this problem?  First thing’s first: design policies that fit the class.  When I design my classes, I try to envision the student that will enroll.  For example, the policies I put in place for a regular World Literature course won’t be the same policies I design for a composition course.  The latter requires much more writing—not to mention revision workshops, portfolio reviews, and the like—so my grading procedures and classroom policies are necessarily different.  Likewise, I’ll have different types of students in each class.  For example, at my institution, World Lit tends to draw in sophomores and juniors whereas composition classes are reserved strictly for freshmen.  Since freshmen tend to need more guidance (and, in my experience, test more boundaries), my policies are more detailed and stricter for composition.  Here’s an example of one of my classroom policy sheets; I’m really nit-picky for freshman level courses.

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You are the keeper of the scales! BEHOLD YOUR POWER.

You should also make sure you make policies you intend to keep.   Here’s what I mean: I used to share an office with a teaching assistant who said he didn’t allow for any extensions on major assignments.  That became a problem later in the semester when his composition students started asking for extra time.  He allowed a few to have a couple more days on the assignment, which worked until the final paper, when everyone wanted “just a few more days.”  Because he’d already broken his policies in regards to two students, he couldn’t rightly refuse the rest when they asked.  Doing so could have resulted in grade appeals, which are messy for everyone involved.  This TA would have done better to have a clause like “extensions are considered on a case-by-case basis and granted at the instructor’s discretion” on his policies sheet.  That language gives him wiggle room to be lenient with students if they need it even as he can reject cases where students are obviously gaming the system.

This goes for lenient policies, too.  Another first year TA allowed students to turn in revised papers for a higher grade throughout the semester.  Unfortunately, she didn’t specify a time table, so she had a pile of revised papers come in on the last day of class that she was obligated to accept.  Poor thing had a few sleepless nights grading student papers and writing her own.  Of course, she could have verbally set a due date in class.  However, even if you tell students in class that there’s a deadline, they can always go back to your policies and argue otherwise.

Things also get really messy when you try to waive policies for some students and not others.  We all get those sob stories that tug at our heartstrings—my car broke down, I’m really stressed out, my dog has diabetes, whatever—and even the strongest among us make allowances for students who are in need.  You have to anticipate at least a handful of these charity cases a semester, so make sure your policies give you wiggle room to deal with them.  Some of my colleagues write in an “extenuating circumstances” clause that lets them allow for late submissions and make-up work for extreme cases.  My personal policy is a bit more complicated.  I allow for late submissions, but I don’t give any make-up work ever no matter what.  That means that when students have personal problems, they either need to provide a) valid documentation or b) get in touch with the Dean of Students for provisional measures.  Again, this is probably unnecessarily complicated, but it allows me to help students who have real problems while staying fair to everyone else.

This leads me to my last point.  Craft policies that are fair to you as well as to your students.  Whether you’re a TA or a tenured professor, you have other obligations besides your students.  Thus, you need to really think about how your policies will affect your own time.  Consider my earlier example about the TA who was swamped by revisions.  Revisions are great, but there’s no harm in putting due dates on those that allow for you to grade them with plenty of time to do your own work.  Another great example would be make-up exams.  If you allow them, consider a stipulation that requires students to schedule the make-up date with you and take the exam within a week of the original date.

One of the ways I’m kind to myself comes with my make-up work policy that I mentioned earlier.  I don’t allow for make-up work, but I do waive the grade with an excused absence.  During my first two semesters as a TA I allowed for make-up work, and I found that it was a huge time suck for me.  In a highly controversial move, I eliminated it entirely, and I’ve never looked back.  Some people don’t allow for late work for the same reason, though I’ve always found that particular stricture difficult to maintain.  This is all to say that you need to make concessions for yourself, too.

The one thing you absolutely cannot do is change your policies in the middle of the semester.  Not only is it a pretty underhanded move, it’s so hard to do and maintain your credibility.  That’s why it’s so important to give your policies sheet lots of thought before you upload them to BlackBoard. So what are your classroom policies?  Are there any you wish you’d had?  What about the ones that didn’t work?  Leave me a comment, and let’s continue this discussion!

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