Thursday, April 17, 2014

Big Thirsty: The conference (re)shuffle

I've found a way to schedule one-on-one conferences with my students that more or less works (at least as well as anything else does): they sign up for a conference; the draft is due the night before (or at least early the morning of) the conference; we talk about the paper for 20-30 minutes, and then I take 15 minutes on my own to summarize our conversation and assign a preliminary grade if the draft is complete, and to post the results back to the LMS. It's time-consuming and exhausting, but it seems to be more efficient than my pre-reading the drafts without the student present, and I do a better job of actually keeping up (the perennial problem, at least for me, with a 4/4, usually all-writing-intensive, load). I've been using this approach for a year or two now, and am happy with it.

But (you knew that was coming), this semester, about half of the students who had conferences scheduled on the earlier days have emailed, often quite close to the conference time, to ask whether they can reschedule (or, in some cases, to simply announce that they need to reschedule), even though it's clear from the posted schedule that there are no more open slots. So far, I've been accommodating them as best I can, but I'm going to have to stop soon, since there really isn't any more time available (at least not if I'm going to eat and sleep and observe Holy Week and pay attention to the one non-comp class I have this semester). I'm not quite sure what to say. I could start scheduling shorter make-up conferences, but those are going to run over, and probably lead to my writing more comments without the student there (thus getting back to the old pattern of always having drafts to comment hanging over my head). I can say what I said when I handed out the conference schedule: there really isn't room to reschedule, so just bring whatever you have, even if it's only an outline (that was due 2-3 weeks ago, and already received some feedback). But that doesn't work for the students who simply announce they aren't coming, but/and expect to be accommodated later. And, of course, evaluations are coming up, and my contract is up for renewal (again), and there was already one class last semester that wasn't too happy (for some reasons with which I agree, and can address next time 'round, and some which were beyond my control. The weather this semester, which was quite disruptive, and may partially explain the especially high reschedule-request rate, was also, of course, beyond my control).

So, any advice, especially from those who teach classes that incorporate one-on-one conferences on a big project at the end of the term? What do you do when students ask to reschedule? Are you tough? Accommodating? Somewhere in between? Do you make distinctions between the kid who didn't consult the travel plans her parents had made for Easter before signing up and the one who needs to accompany his parents to what I suspect is a truly crucial immigration hearing

-- Contingent Cassandra


  1. If I could I would give them the teaching evaluations right away and, afterwards, tell the delinquent students that it is ok, it doesn't matter if they missed the review session, you'll calculate their grade based in the final version of the paper. Which they will do on their own, because they've missed the one opportunity they had to get feedback.
    Yet, I am tenured.

    1. Sometimes, no, all the time, I'm grateful that I teach science. But if I did have to do student conferences, I'd adopt the French Professeur's approach of lobbing the responsibility right back to the students.

      But I also would make an exception for for the student with the immigration hearing. In my syllabus, there are three criteria for makeup exams: it's an emergency out of the student's control, the student provides verification, and the student contacts me before the exam. I also say that vacation travel is not an emergency and that all makeup midterm exams are 100% essay and scheduled during finals. That weeds out the malingering, disorganized or prevaricating unprepared and allows a second chance for those with real crises.

  2. I'll start by asking the question that always helps me to figure out what or why I'm doing something: What is the purpose of the conference and what is your role in it? If it's to fix the paper FOR them, like an editor would, pointing out each error and how to fix everything, then certainly, spending all of that time seems warranted. If it's to help them to learn how to spot their own errors and transfer that knowledge on to the next writing assignment, then they're learning how to rely on the professor to fix things and to then hold the professor responsible for their writing!

    I do different KINDS of conferencing. For example, I do pre-conferences for their writing to preview their writing ( done in class quickly). This cuts down on a lot of mis-written topics and allows them to figure out how best to shape their writing. This way, I can help with crafting thesis statements or guide them to focus more clearly. Sometimes I do a in-process check in class where students bring something in process and get peer feedback or MY feedback in a quick consultation to check things like topic sentences and whether paragraphs fulfill what topic sentences claim they will do. This also cuts down on their needing to meet me outside of class and is something peers actually can help with.

    Then when it's time for their drafts, I schedule 15-20 minute sessions. I do not read ahead of time. Doing so shifts the focus to me as responsible for their work, and that's not the message I want to convey. I let them know ahead of time that I am there for them to consult me on what they most need help with.

    If they miss a conference, they lose their chance to consult with me and can now use the resources of the Writing Lab. I do not reschedule missed conferences unless there is a clear reason that warrants doing so.

    When students come, I ask them what they need help with, and that's what we focus on. I glance through the rest of their paper to guide in case I notice they're way off base or have missed something IMPORTANT, but I shift the focus of ownership onto the student to then tell me what it is they need from me, rather than for me to take ownership of their product. I also don't talk about MYSELF as the grader of the product. I talk about "their reader" and what "their reader" might expect.

    On scheduling: we use the LMS for this and I restrict them to only signing up for one slot. If they miss their slot with me, they may not reschedule. If they haven't come to see me yet, and there are still slots open, they may reschedule. However, I don't create new slots if everyone signs up on the last two days and no one signs up for the first day and 8 people have not signed up yet. That's their problem (i.e. I don't hold class during those days and count the conference as a class day, so they could have signed up during class time).If someone misses a slot and asks to reschedule, I just direct them to the Writing Lab. Mostly, it's to teach accountability and to teach them how to fix their own problems when they create those problems. So far, no big dust-ups as a result of this policy.

    1. My approach is very similar (students are expected to come in with a sense of what they think most needs attention, specific questions, etc., etc.; I focus there first, as well as bringing up any other major issues I see in a quick, usually somewhat disconnected reading: usually I'm jumping around from intro to conclusion to beginnings of major body sections to check that everything fits together as it should. And yes, the emphasis is on what readers approaching the particular genre in which they're writing will expect, and how well they're fulfilling those expectations).

      Since I sent this to Ben earlier this week, I've been replying more often with "I'm sorry; I can't reschedule; just bring what you have and we'll talk about it," and that seems to be working. I wish our LMS had a "schedule conference" function; if it does, I haven't found it (but a paper signup with virtual followup still works reasonably well for classes with a face to face component; for my online class, I'm fielding a lot of scheduling emails).

  3. I have morphed into a hardass over the years, and it sounds like the Contemplatice Cynic and I have a lot in common.

    Skip the conference? Waste my time by coming unprepared? No help for you, and you lose points, and also you can be sure I'll be paying particular attention to your citations and their accuracy.

    I cancel three days of classes (it's the only way to schedule 46 15-minute blocks) and I expect them to come prepared. Most do. The ones that don't are the ones who are aren't going to pass at this point anyway, and I don't waste my time worrying about them anymore.