TITLE: When Having No Class Is Okay
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: April 07, 2008 8:41 PM
wrote entries on how often a prof can miss a class during
the semester. This is an issue for any instructor who has
a professional life. Between conferences to attend and
professional service duties, there will always be a conflict
I have a standing solution for myself, developed through many
years of teaching, going to conferences, reviewing for NSF,
and serving on program committees. I teach a Tuesday/Thursday
schedule in a fifteen-week semester, so a full set of class
meetings is thirty. Every semester, I just plan for twenty-eight.
In the fall, I have standing plans to attend OOPSLA and, until
a couple of years ago, PLoP. In the spring come SIGCSE, ChiliPLoP,
or both. I can usually cover 28 sessions both semesters with
a little calendar help. Until the 2007-2008, we always had
two days during Thanksgiving week, which gave my courses a 29th
meeting day. The spring has Spring Break. When my conference
schedule falls just wrong and leaves me a day short, I will ask
someone to guest lecture.
My students don't seem to mind. I usually leave them with a
good project to work on while I'm gone, sometimes larger than
the usual project given that they have more time to spend on it.
In the end, what students learn is less about what I do in class
than about what they do with the course material, and a good-sized
project is usually well worth the time alloted. When I get back,
we can debrief the project and, when appropriate, discuss what
I learned while I was away. Later, I can fold what I learned
into future courses, which makes the two class days missed an
investment in the experience I can offer.
This semester I faced an unusual choice. Instead of one 15-week
course, I am teaching
three 5-week courses.
My away time, for
all fell during one of the 5-week sessions. 28 out of 30 seems
reasonable, but 8 out of 10 did not. So I arranged to meet my
students for a couple of "make-up sessions". We held one the
day before I left for Portland. After we had completed sessions
8 and 9 after break, we decided that 9 out of 10 had been enough,
and we called it a wrap. I was willing to do a tenth session if
students were interested, but they seemed ready to move on, so
The choices we face at primarily undergraduate "teaching university"
are probably different from those faced at bigger, research
school. First, I suspect that some if not all of Lance's and
Michael's teaching is done in graduate classes. Grad students
are a different audience, one perhaps better able to use time
away from class productively while still learning new material.
Second, at the bigger schools, teaching a class for undergrads
often means having one or more graduate TAs to help. These
folks are often more than capable of pinch-hitting for an extra
absence or two during the semester, with no apparent loss in
quality to the students. (If you believe some of the stereotypes
about research-oriented faculty, then you might think that the
students could be better off with a TA filling in. But I think
that stereotype is overblown and often just wrong.)
Another option available to us these days is videocasting. One
of my colleagues who travels a lot in-semester sometimes records
a lecture for his students in a classroom that supports showing
the professor and the projected image in the video. This takes
time, if only because there is a tendency for an instructor to
want not to leave blemishes in a videocast recorded for
posterity -- even little glitches that are normal in any in-person
presentation. I've not tried this yet, but I might one day soon
when the conditions are right. Done well, this could be better
than even a well-prepared set of lecture notes and questions.