At the University of Michigan, as at perhaps all institutions, individual instructors are given broad leeway to manage their classrooms in ways they deem appropriate. Course syllabi and instructor statements provide an opportunity for instructors to establish clear rules and norms of each classroom. And yet, despite best efforts and intentions, conflict can arise especially when instructor and student expectations clash. Consider just two of many areas where conflict may occur:
Religious Holidays and Academic Conflicts
Situations may arise when a student's religious obligations conflict with academic requirements. Admirably, the Provost's Office publishes and promotes an annual calendar of religious holidays and a statement on managing potential conflicts. The statement emphasizes the student obligation of providing advance notice of potential conflict, and instructor responsibility to help avoid negative academic consequences when conflict arises.
But as is often the case, the devil is in the details, or the interpretation. For example, a student and an instructor may have vastly different ideas of what constitutes "negative academic consequences." And while the statement allows for make-ups for missed work, it also contains the caveat that make-up work is not required if "it can be demonstrated that a make-up opportunity would interfere unreasonably with the delivery of the course." Here again reasonable people may reasonably disagree about what constitutes interference with the course.
Attendance and Sick Policies
We expect instructors to have policies about absences from class, including those involving illness. Instructors have a right to set these expectations, including penalties for students who do not meet attendance guidelines. At the same time, unforeseen circumstances can arise for students. Conflict can develop as student and instructor have differing understandings of what is reasonable.
One important question to ask is what academic units and instructors can reasonably do to help limit conflict around absence policies.
Consistency. While still acknowledging the autonomy of individual instructors to set policy for their classes, units (schools, colleges or departments) may see some value in having conversations about consistent and reasonable policies related to absences. In addition to illness, students may also have concerns about absence due to athletic involvement, job interviews, and other issues.
Clarity. Clear and consistent policies often form the foundation for lessening the chance of conflict in any situation. Course syllabi that are clear about absence policies can help students make informed decisions, and reduce the likelihood of conflict.
Syllabus Review. Increasingly, course syllabi cover a wide range of topics related to student expectations, including absences. A syllabus may also address issues such as requests for accommodations, grading rubrics and more. Departments, especially larger ones with instructors ranging from GSI's to full professors, may benefit from occasional review of syllabi to identify best practices and areas of concern.
Such a review happened in an LS&A department this past year in part in response to conversations with the Ombuds Office, with an eye toward honoring both faculty autonomy and student concerns. As the chair noted, "[W]e worked with the ombudsperson to resolve a complex student-teacher issue in a thoughtful way that managed, miraculously, to satisfy all parties."
Classrooms are complex environments. While it may be unreasonable to expect that no conflict will emerge, I would like to think that students and instructors alike can take proactive steps to limit the areas of gray.
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