Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oh, Those Little Trivial Details

Faculty often have a lot of rules they expect students to follow.

Most students look at the long lists and figure, "Rather than read this, I'll use my common sense, and hope for the best."

This is understandable. However, there were reasons for the rules.

A colleague, Jenn, also a teacher, recently had an experience that illustrates this perfectly.

I'll warn you that this is a dizzying (if amusing) story -- pay attention.

In the last week before final exams for one of her classes, a student (whom we'll call Courtney) told Jenn that she didn't think she could make the final exam -- Courtney was pretty sure it was scheduled at the same time as one of her other finals. This shouldn't happen, unless a student has enrolled in two classes that meet at the same time, so Jenn was puzzled. Jenn asked Courtney to doublecheck and to email her the specifics.

Later, Jenn got an email from Courtney, who was using a personal (off-campus) email account, apparently restating that Courtney had a schedule conflict for the final exam. Courtney asked if she could take an Incomplete in the class.

Jenn said it would depend on the reasons for the absence, and asked what the other class was. After the final exam had taken place, and Courtney had missed it, Courtney emailed again, providing Jenn the name of another professor (let's call him Smith) and another class. Sure enough, Smith's class had been scheduled at the same time as Jenn's class -- not just for the final, but for regular class sessions as well.

Had Courtney, like Hermione Granger, somehow been attending two classes at once? Jenn emailed Dr. Smith, who confirmed an interesting fact: Courtney had missed four of his classes, while she had only attended four of Jenn's classes. That seemed to settle it: Courtney appeared to have been concurrently enrolled in two classes at the same time, without permission. Jenn talked to the department chair (let's call him Dr. Jones), who said to stop looking into the matter and simply fail the student. Jenn, following Jones's instructions, emailed Courtney to say she had talked to Dr. Smith, and based on what he'd said, that Courtney couldn't make up the final or have an Incomplete.

Courtney showed up at the department, demanding to speak to "the department chair," saying Jenn had unfairly denied her a chance to make up her work, without giving her a chance. Departments are used to this sort of thing, so they nearly blew it off. However, Courtney thought the department chair was named "Smith," and when she was told that Smith wasn't the department chair, she asked who the heck he was -- an odd question for someone enrolled in his class.

Something was amiss. (Are you with me so far? I know: It's dizzying.)

Here's why it's dizzying: Jenn and the department secretary started looking through files to try to figure out exactly what classes Courtney was in. They discovered there were two Courtneys -- Jenn had been talking to two different girls, each one in a different class. Both Courtneys were using personal email accounts, and signing only with their first names. Both were saying they couldn't make the final exam (though they were talking about different finals). Both spelled their first names exactly the same.

One Courtney had, after talking to Jenn, figured out she was wrong about the schedule conflict, and without saying another word, had shown up and taken her exam with Jenn (in a class that Jenn didn't think they were talking about). The other Courtney had then started emailing Jenn about a different schedule conflict, having nothing to do with Smith's class. Eventually, that Courtney missed her final exam, for reasons we still don't know anything about.

Jenn had no reason to imagine these were two different students taking turns making very similar requests. The freaky coincidences -- including the bizarre fact that one Courtney had missed four of Smith's classes while attending four of Jenn's -- simply hammered in the impression that the two women were one person.

So, what's this have to do with nit-picky faculty rules?

Well, we frequently insist that students email us from their campus email accounts (not personal accounts), that students put their full names (not just first names) on any communication meant for the professor, and that students indicate which class they're enrolled in. Both Courtneys ignored these customs, figuring they were the only Courtney, that Jenn was only teaching one course (the course for that particular Courtney), and that it didn't really matter which email account was being used. But if either one of them had done any of these things, there would have been no confusion.

So how common is this kind of event?

To be frank, this particular story is unique.

However, incidents like it are common: students often use off-campus email accounts and fail to sign with their full names, leading to confusion and bewilderment.

Some, shockingly, sign with no name at all, like so:

Subj: im so confussed

what r we suppose to do for this assignment im cnfused thx
That leaves us wondering who SexxxyHottPrincess6969 is, what class she's in, what assignment she's talking about, and (let's be honest) whether she should really be in college.

So when we say we need these kinds of details, we have reasons, even if they aren't quite as extreme as Jenn's. And every once in a while, other things -- not the same as Jenn's, but just as weird and preventable -- happen that drive the point home.

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