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Be more kind (#1180)

Topics/tags: Rants

Fall was hard. I’m pretty sure that fall was hard for everyone. From what I could tell, people had exhausted their reserves. And, while we were back in person, we were still masked and under other restrictions. Learning in online seven-week terms had been less than optimal, and many students hadn’t mastered the material for upper-level classes.

In the end, our students were more stressed and less resilient than normal. And so the faculty regularly received requests from the administration to be kind to our students or, as I think of it, to be more kind to our students. After all, I would hope that we are already kind to our students.

I did what I could. I cut back on work a bit. I removed penalties for late work, including absurdly late work [1]. I allowed free redos on assignments. I was more generous in grading.

You know what? Removing penalties on late work has the natural consequence. I had a record number of students request incompletes. The extended (and extended extended) deadlines for incompletes may have contributed, but where I normally have no more than one or two incompletes in a semester (and often none), I had seven this semester, as well as one student who finished about 1/3 of the readings and lab writeups in the last two weeks of the semester. But that’s okay, I was being kind.

For those of you who don’t know about them, incompletes at Grinnell provide a short extension for students to complete work. And it is short. All work for incompletes was due on the not-so-kind day of January 3, which meant that students needed to work on their missing work at the height of what is traditionally family time [2]. That’s a huge difference from the amount of time we had to make up incomplete work at Chicago, which was at least a year, and may have been complete it before you graduate [3,4]. Grinnell also permits only one incomplete per semester.

Before a faculty member signs an incomplete form, they should negotiate with the student about what work needs to be made up. In most cases, we’re on the same page, as it were. But there have been points in which students had not realized all the work they were missing. I also write a short statement in support of the incomplete.

Those who know me know that I read forms. And so I know that the form says

The grade for this student will be due within one week after the instructor receives the completed work from the Registrar’s Office.

In case you’ve forgotten, I had seven students take incompletes, most of which involved multiple assignments. It’s winter break, which means I have things scheduled. I had seven students taking incompletes, giving me more than sixteen assignments to grade. Historically, each assignment takes me about thirty minutes to grade. I had signed a form that said that I had a week to do the grading. Got it?

So I was a bit surprised when, on the morning of Tuesday the 4th, I received an email message that said,

Please have a grade entered by end of day tomorrow.

I don’t know about you, but one day seems a bit less than one week to me. So I wrote back to verify that I had one week.

But that’s not what the Registrar’s office thinks.

It appears that the email approving the incomplete included the following note,

We request that you submit a final grade within two business days of the receipt of the work, no later than 1/5/2022.

But I had only glanced at the email, which I’ve seen many times in my career. So I hadn’t noticed the earlier-than-normal deadline. And I wouldn’t have agreed to it, or signed so many incomplete forms, if I’d known about it. I also would have asked how starting on January 4 and having it due no later than 1/5/2022 would be two business days. But, as I said, I didn’t look at the details. Is that on me? No. If they were expecting a one-day turnaround, they should have put it on the form.

I was already booked for other activities on Tuesday the 4th. And so I got to spend Wednesday the fifth grading incompletes; it’s not how I wanted to spend my day. If my kids were still here, I wouldn’t have done the grading. But they are gone.

One day to grade incomplete work? The College has asked us to be more kind to our students. I’d like to see it be more kind to the faculty [5].

I’m not optimistic.


Would I have made different decisions if I’d known about the one-day turnaround? As I said, I ended up with at least sixteen assignments to grade, as well as a few labs and readings. Saying no to the last few incompletes would have made my life easier. Much easier. Perhaps I would have enforced the original incomplete deadline. Probably not. I’m trying to be kind to my students.


I’m a bit more sensitive than normal these days. Maybe the one day is reasonable. But this short deadlines falls on top of a series of things that seem similarly insensitive to the burden they place on faculty members.

Asking us to switch from fourteen-week semesters to seven-week terms, which required significant restructuring of classes? Not kind.

Telling us that we couldn’t use the software we found most appropriate for online teaching? Not kind.

Threatening termination if we did so? Not kind.

Informing us that we could not recommend software unless ITS approved it? Not kind. Also a violation of academic freedom. Fortunately, this misguided statement was quickly retracted.

Taking money from department restricted funds, which have traditionally been intended for things that the base department budget doesn’t cover, and using them to cover the base department budget? Not kind.

Forbidding us from making any statements about student unionization efforts? Not kind. Likely a violation of academic freedom.

Adding paperwork to a variety of core tasks? Not kind. Potentially necessary, at least in some cases, but not kind.

Giving staff and faculty a below-cost-of-living salary increase after one of the most difficult years in memory? And doing so after the endowment had increased significantly? Not kind.

Changing major policies, such as when we can hold MAPs, without advance notice? Not kind [6].

Asking us to take more students in already large classes because we did not properly model enrollment? Not kind.

That’s not to see that the College hasn’t been kind in other ways.

Keeping on employees during the pandemic, while other institutions were firing or furloughing them [7]? Kind. Hugely kind.

Requiring vaccination and masking in a state in which the legislature is opposed to both? Kind.

Providing additional resources for over-enrolled classes? Kind. Of course, that assumes we’re not going to have to pay for those resources out of our restricted funds. We shall see.


I had thought this might be the first in a series of rants. I thought I was done with rants. I tried to be. But the College is surprisingly successful at putting me into rant mode. Nonetheless, I’m going to try to step back from rants. We’ll see how well I do.

[1] I believe some work was ninety or more days late.

[2] I realize that not all students have family they want to spend time with. Other students, particularly international students, may not be able to be with family. Still, the time from the end of finals through January 1 or so is a time that should be away from classes.

[3] I don’t know what they did if the instructor left before you finished your incomplete work.

[4] I heard of one student who attempted to complete eight or so classes worth of incompletes in their last quarter at Chicago.

[5] I’d also like to see the College be more kind to staff, but that’s a separate issue.

[6] For clarity, that comment is about summer 2020, not the new policies.

[7] At least that’s what we were told that the College did.

Version 1.0 of 2022-01-05.