I am giving an exam today

You know what that means, boys and girls? A sudden flood of email from students letting me know they are sick today, or have some other major conflict, and can I please take it on Friday, and gosh I’m sorry. And I get so mad.

Because I want to write back to them and tell them to never ever feel bad for being sick or stressed. I’m not here to make anyone miserable or force them learn stuff while I hold a whip over their head, and if you tell me you’re struggling or have encountered unavoidable problems, my job is to say OK…what can I do to help you get through this? If it just means giving you a few days to overcome, I’ll always say yes. Just do it. Don’t apologize.

Now we are working within a system here, and that system says I have to evaluate you and say something about how well you’ve mastered the material in the course. I also know that I have to incentivize keeping everyone focused and working steadily to keep up with the material, because last-minute cramming is a terrible way to learn, but ultimately all I care about is that you know it all well enough to be competent in the next course in the curriculum, and that you at some point graduate with broad knowledge of biology. That’s my goal! Making you take an exam while sick is not part of that.

Some people do have this idea that I’m supposed to train you in servility and fitting into capitalism with bosses telling you what to do. I’m not a boss. That’s not my vision of the teacher-student relationship. If I’m told I’m doing students no favor for their future in the workplace by cutting them some slack, that isn’t telling me I need to change — it says we need to change the world.

So get better and go do that.


  1. cartomancer says

    Well, okay. Provided none of your students is British. It is an important part of our culture to apologise for everything we do, whether we regret it or not, and it would be culturally insensitive to tell us to stop. We tend to wake up to a cup of tea and an apology from the person who made it, and go to bed apologising for the inevitable wear on the pillows. In our dialect “sorry” is a kind of all-purpose punctuation, and we will apologise just as fulsomely to ourselves if there is nobody else around to appease in an abject, sweaty panic.

    Or Canadian I suppose, because they apologise almost as much as we do.

  2. PaulBC says

    Way back when I attempted to teach a few courses in computer science, I was pretty relaxed about deadlines and had no trouble with the occasional sickness excuse that came my way. I also felt strongly (and still do) that an exam should be viewed as entirely neutral feedback. Hopefully, you put in some effort. Maybe you “got it”, maybe you didn’t. A good exam will tell you that, and cheating is obviously besides the point (the trite “You’re only cheating yourself.” is true.) Also, ideally, you should be able to try again as many times as you like (sadly, not the way things always work). If you are eventually able to master the material, then you know as much as if you did it the first time around (maybe with better retention).

    One obstacle, aside from way transcripts are treated as signs of “merit” is that I found a few students who resented my attitude because they wanted to be rewarded for diligence and not lumped in with slackers. I don’t see a grade as a reward. I see it as a measurement. Anyway, that is not why I don’t teach. I was too lazy to prep properly. Maybe I could do better now, but I have never had any reason to. But I think as long as it’s viewed as a competition, I won’t have a great deal of appetite either way.

  3. PaulBC says

    Some people do have this idea that I’m supposed to train you in servility and fitting into capitalism with bosses telling you what to do. I’m not a boss. That’s not my vision of the teacher-student relationship.

    That is not my vision of the “workplace” either. I have worked at enough different companies to recognize high-pressure, competitive environments that reward checking all the boxes in time for performance reviews, keeping track of what’s “hot” and “impactful” and yes, to an extent pure servility to managers. On the other hand, I’ve worked at places, mostly smaller companies, that are rather joyful in their own way with people who just want to get something done and are a lot more interested in seeing it happen than figuring out how to assign credit. My favorite workplaces have been a lot less cutthroat than academia, where even the research process itself is effectively a race to be first, and you are more likely competing with other grad students for recognition than collaborating with them.

  4. Rich Woods says

    It’s been a long time since I attempted any formal teaching, but when it came to assessments I was happy to go with how the students wanted to work. Some were great at going it all alone, others wanted to work together. All I was interested in was them actually retaining a grasp of the material and an awareness of the underlying principles, good enough to serve them in the rest of their studies or their later career. As a very poor crammer myself, and after gaining industrial experience, I knew there was no sense in insisting that they were able to churn out a handful of mostly-correct answers on a particular day or to deliver a particular project in a narrow way. It’s very rare that later in life any of us are required to work so restrictively. There’s almost always time to consult with colleagues, do some research, or catch up on specific reading. In the vast majority of circumstances discussion, review and collaboration are positively encouraged, so why teach young people to behave otherwise?

  5. vucodlak says

    Way back when I was a wee lad in sixth grade, I once asked my teacher if I could have the day’s homework assignments early. I was going to be spending the entire evening in confirmation class, and I wanted to work on my homework during recess, because I was basically going to have no time to do it otherwise.

    The teacher came over to me, put her arm around me, leaned in so that her face was about 3 inches from mine, and told me (very loudly, so that the whole class could hear her sneering tone) that her daughter stayed up as late as needed to do her homework, and I’d just have to do the same.

    Yeah… my parents would have beaten me for even asking to stay up past my bedtime, regardless of the reason. I knew; I tried it back in fourth grade. Not that I told the teacher that- she’d have enjoyed it far too much.

    I got some of the work done by getting up early, and some I got done in recess, and some I managed to sneak in when I was supposed to be working on something else. Anything I didn’t get done I got reamed out for in front of the whole class.

    So I completely understand the groveling tone of sending emails to teachers/professors. I sent a few of those myself in college. It’s rather amazing that I even managed to graduate high school, as I got to where I just plain didn’t do the work if I didn’t understand it. I sure as fuck wasn’t going to ask for help.

  6. vucodlak says

    Got in a hurry and didn’t really connect the dots in my comment at #5: my point was that groveling would sometimes work with teachers/professors like my sixth grade teacher, when nothing else would. Sometimes it amuses them, and that’s about the only hope you’ve got of getting any kind of reprieve or leeway.

    Once you’ve had enough experiences with teachers/professors like that (and most students who have problems with learning have), it becomes habit to treat every teacher with that same fawning deference, because even the seemingly nice ones can turn on you the moment they sense your weakness. Students with learning problems who can’t or won’t learn to grovel seldom graduate high school.

    Groveling is also a survival skill you learn early on when your parents are quick with their fists. It’s the same basic principle in either case; submit, and protect your vulnerable areas best you can. Not that it always saves you but, when you’re powerless, you don’t have a lot of options.

  7. PaulBC says

    I did have a procedural problem with late exam takers, which is that if they were going to cheat, they had an opportunity to talk to other students about the questions. In practice it didn’t bother me a whole lot. I only remember one case way back in which a student either had mono or her boyfriend had tried to commit suicide (I thought I had a good episodic memory, but this is around 30 years ago, so maybe there were two cases). The point being that I mostly believed the stories and didn’t really care too much either way. Trite but true: “You’re only cheating yourself.”